Genius Products // 1989 // 373 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // August 5th, 2008
Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit
I was too young to catch Lonesome Dove during its initial run, but a friend of mine was raised on a battered VHS copy (probably recorded during that first broadcast), and he always spoke of the show in reverent tones. I'm always up for a good Western, but lackluster home video releases (including that beat-up VHS copy my friend had) kept me from seeing Lonesome Dove until now. I can say with no reservations that it was worth the wait. Lonesome Dove: 2-Disc Collector's Edition is the kind of release fans have been waiting for.
Told in four 90-minute parts, Lonesome Dove is the story of two former Texas Rangers, Augustus McCrea (Robert Duvall, The Godfather) and Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones, No Country for Old Men). When the story opens, the two are in the tiny Texas town of Lonesome Dove, tending cattle and horses on their ranch. When former colleague and known rascal Jake Spoon (Robert Urich, Spenser: For Hire) turns up with tales of the opportunities for cattlemen in the Montana Territory, Call gets it in his head to make a drive up there. Humoring his friend, McCrea agrees to the journey, and they set about stealing horses and cattle from Mexican bandits to begin their journey. Along the twenty-five hundred mile journey, they'll meet up with everyone from a displaced sheriff (Chris Cooper, American Beauty) to McCrea's old flame Clara (Anjelica Huston, The Addams Family). Although this is a start, no summary could do justice to this epic of the American West.
Truth be told, if I'd caught the first installment of Lonesome Dove on television, I probably wouldn't have kept watching. We're thrown into the story with very little context. The sparse dialogue between Gus and Woodrow does enough to establish their characters, but keeps their histories pretty opaque. Plus, the show's called Lonesome Dove, and it seems like the first thing they do is leave the place, which is a bit confusing. However, once the second episode started, the show finally clicked. A little more of the characters' history was established, the plot began to move forward, and I was hooked. By the time the final credits rolled, I was a satisfied viewer.
The story of Lonesome Dove sounds so simple, and that's one of its strengths. It's the story of a cattle drive and the people who are on it, but the way their stories interweave is impressive. Sure, it sometimes strains the bounds of credibility that certain characters would ever meet more than once, but it makes for a very satisfying emotional logic. Because of the (relatively) sparse story, characters are of paramount importance. In this case, Lonesome Dove was lucky to have Larry McMurtry's source novel. In Gus and Woodrow, McMurtry created two opposing but complimentary characters who seem real and lived in, like you've known them all your life. The supporting characters are equally well-drawn, from Deets with his Union cap to the fortune-telling cook.
But these characters (no matter how compelling) would be useless without fine actors playing them. Again, Lonesome Dove excels in this department. Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall are both at the height of their powers here. Duvall is more charming than I imagined he could be, and Jones' usual tight-faced acting is a perfect match for Woodrow Call. But these fine actors are matched with a supporting cast that's near perfect. Angelica Huston is far more tender than I would have thought her capable of, Danny Glover balances his role as the African American in the company with aplomb, and Diane Lane is the perfect mix of fire and lace as the former whore Lorena. The rest of the cast is just as good. My only initial misgiving was Robert Urich, who seemed to look the part but not act it well. However, when Jake Spoon meets his fate, my misgivings were put to rest.
I should also note that Lonesome Dove is one of the most progressive Westerns in its gender politics. We are given a number of strong, sexual female characters who are (generally) in control of their lives and destinies. Not only that, but we see them at different stages of life, from the young Janey to the elder Clara. While other Westerns typically cast women as whores or thankless domestics, Lonesome Dove breaks the mold by offering a number of dynamic, compelling female characters.
Fans of the series have had to put up with a substandard DVD with a full-frame transfer for a number of years now. With this Collector's Edition release, that changes. Here, we have all six hours of Lonesome Dove spread across two discs in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Considering the show is twenty years old now, it looks pretty good. Some of the dark scenes are murky, the special effects look pretty primitive, and colors are a little washed out. However, this is probably the best the show has ever looked and fans are sure to be pleased. I wish that I had such positive things to say about the new Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. The audio elements sound fine, with no distortion or hiss, but the balance is way off. I was constantly riding gaining to balance the overly loud effects with the quiet dialogue. Since this is a Western, some kind of commotion happens every few minutes, from hoofbeats to gunshots; when the dialogue was audible, these sounds became deafening. The total lack of subtitles didn't make things easier, sadly.
For this edition we also get a generous smattering of extras. First up is a documentary that looks at the production. It's 50 minutes on how Lonesome Dove came to be; even though it's a bit clip heavy, fans will find something interesting in it. The other main extras are interviews with those responsible for the picture. There are the initial, on-set interviews with the cast as they talk in the usual EPK style about their character and the production. We also get newer interviews with the director, Simon Wincer, and Larry McMurtry; both are engaging as they discuss the adaptation of McMurtry's book. Finally, we get some sketches and concept drawings. Not a bad haul for a twenty-year-old television miniseries.
Lonesome Dove is unafraid to make big gestures and be a little obvious. So, when a character says he's really afraid of water, you can bet he'll meet his fate in the river. Most of the deaths in the show are telegraphed in a similar manner, and those looking for surprising plot twists should look elsewhere.
Ultimately, what makes Lonesome Dove worth watching is its ability to present a host of interesting, perhaps uniquely American, characters. Not only do we get to see them, but the show wraps us up in their fates, allowing us a privileged peek into their lives. These characters and their story are likely to stick with the viewer long after the credits roll. Now, newer generations can grow up watching Lonesome Dove thanks to the superior video of this Collector's Edition DVD.
Lonesome Dove is acquitted of all charges. Let's get these boys off to Montana!
Review content copyright © 2008 Gordon Sullivan; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Genius Products
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 373 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* "The Making of an Epic"
* Original On-Set Interviews with the Cast
* New Interview with Director Simon Wincer
* "Blueprints of a Masterpiece" Original Sketches and Concept Drawings
* Lonesome Dove Montage
* Interview with Larry McMurtry
* Original DVD Verdict Review