Judge Ben Saylor wonders how much more effective the Texas Rangers of Comanche Moon would be if Cordell Walker was riding with them.
Captain Inish Scull: "Bible and sword!"
On Jan. 13, 15, and 16, CBS aired the mini-series Comanche Moon. Based on a novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry, the book is the second installment in the Lonesome Dove saga. Mini-series have been made from each of the four books in the series, but none is as popular and beloved as the one adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, which aired in 1989 and starred Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Robert Urich, Danny Glover, and Diane Lane.
For Comanche Moon, McMurtry adapts his own novel with frequent writing partner Diana Ossana, and Lonesome Dove helmer Simon Wincer returns to the director's chair. But while Comanche Moon has its good qualities, it has the misfortune of following in the footsteps of one of the great mini-series of all time in Lonesome Dove.
Facts of the Case
In pre-Civil War Texas, a group of Rangers led by flamboyant Yankee Inish Scull (Val Kilmer, Spartan) do their best to police the frontier. But when Scull dashes off to Mexico to retrieve his stolen horse, he turns the Ranger troop over to Gus McCrae (Steve Zahn, Sahara) and Woodrow Call (Karl Urban, The Bourne Supremacy). Together, McCrae and Call face deadly foes such as the feared Comanche leader Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi, Heat) and renegade warrior Blue Duck (Adam Beach, Flags of our Fathers). In addition, the two men deal with personal strife, as Gus presses his sweetheart Clara (Linda Cardellini, E.R.) to marry him, and the more emotionally distant Call keeps Maggie (Elizabeth Banks, Definitely, Maybe) at arm's length.
It's generally not a good idea to make a prequel of a beloved movie/book/mini-series; no matter how good the new work may be, more often than not, it will not hold up to comparison with its predecessor(s). Not only was Comanche Moon made after Lonesome Dove, but its source material isn't as strong either.
Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (who adapted E. Annie Proulx's short story "Brokeback Mountain") have faithfully adapted McMurtry's Comanche Moon for the most part. Unfortunately, while the narrative of Comanche Moon is an epic, sprawling one just as Lonesome Dove is, unlike its predecessor, Comanche Moon suffers from an unwieldy and meandering storyline. In Lonesome Dove (both the book and the mini-series), McMurtry's subplots all manage to tie in to the larger event of the cattle drive. The drive serves as the story's sun, around which all the subplots revolve. There is no such event in Comanche Moon, and as a consequence, many of the subplots feel trivial and superfluous. This isn't as much of a problem in the novel due to the richness of McMurtry's writing (particularly his work with character). But condensing an 838-page novel into a 284-minute mini-series means that careful trimming is needed to preserve the narrative. Unfortunately, many of the Comanche Moon mini-series' subplots are so severely truncated that they feel like sketches. The Comanche characters get the brunt of this treatment; Buffalo Hump, a prominent figure in the novel, has very few scenes in the mini-series. The same goes for the horse thief Kicking Wolf (Jonathan Joss), who has maybe two scenes in the mini-series but a lot more to do in the novel. This also happens with Blue Duck, who is in the novel more and is a significant side character in Lonesome Dove but is a bit player in Comanche Moon the mini-series.
No character, however, feels as misplaced as Inish Scull. His oddball Yankee captain was one of the more interesting characters in McMurtry's book, but here, McMurtry, Ossana, and director Wincer don't seem to know what to do with him. We don't get many scenes of him before he runs afoul of the bandit Ahumado (Sal Lopez, looking like a squinty, underfed Esai Morales), and in part three he has only a few minutes of screen time, with clothes and hair that made me wonder if Mark Twain had been written into the story. The learned, extremely eccentric Scull is too large a character to be used as little as he is in Comanche Moon. Gus and Woodrow are meant to be the main characters, and since the filmmakers don't spend enough time developing Scull, all he does is take away time from the two protagonists.
That being said, parts one and two move along at a decent pace, with plenty of dialogue scenes punctuated by occasional, poorly shot action sequences (the scene where Scull is captured springs to mind). But a major misstep occurs in part three, which flashes forward seven years to the end of the Civil War. This seemed strange in the novel and it seems strange in the mini-series. It doesn't help that the story of part three is the least interesting in both the book and the mini-series; it shouldn't take an hour and a half to tie up loose ends. The most important events of part three could have been grafted onto part two (with some readjustment in the length of part one) without significantly harming the story.
When it comes to technical credits, Comanche Moon isn't much to write home about. The costumes look authentic enough, but Alan Caso's bland cinematography is a betrayal of the genre. Oh, there are some nice landscape shots here and there (and the last shot of part three is excellent), but overall, in a genre where good cinematography is a key ingredient, Comanche Moon falls flat. Wincer doesn't help matters with his boring shot compositions and terrible staging of action sequences (like the one mentioned earlier), although the Comanche raid at the beginning of part two is done well.
The acting in Comanche Moon is very much a mixed bag. Top-billed Val Kilmer was a wise choice for Scull, as the actor has always seemed a bit eccentric to me. He manages to avoid going over the top, even when his character is (mild spoiler) put in a pit with snakes by Ahumado (end spoiler).
Linda Cardellini and Elizabeth Banks are both very good as their respective characters. Cardellini gives Clara the assertiveness and passion that Anjelica Huston brought to the role in Lonesome Dove. She can more than hold her own with the rascally Gus, but she's also not afraid to show her vulnerability. Clara's role was beefed up considerably for the mini-series, which ended up being a good decision given Cardellini's handling of the role. As Maggie, the town prostitute, Banks invests the character with sweetness and longing as she vainly pines after Woodrow. It's hard to believe anyone would feel for someone as emotionally closed-off as Woodrow, but Banks pulls it off. Both women get extra points considering that many of their scenes are rather silly, such as a conversation when Clara refers to the baby Maggie is pregnant with as her "precious cargo."
Rachel Griffiths (Six Feet Under), however, as Scull's lusty bride, is ridiculous, although that's pretty much how the character is written. Inez was the least interesting character in the book, and so she is in the mini-series, serving virtually no purpose except to inject awkward doses of bawdy humor into the narrative.
In much smaller roles, Ryan Merriman (Final Destination 3) plays the generally good natured but lazy Ranger Jake Spoon, who was played by the late Robert Urich in Lonesome Dove, while Keith Robinson (Dreamgirls) plays Deets, a multi-talented colleague of Woodrow and Gus' who was played by Danny Glover in Lonesome Dove.
As for the two leads, Steve Zahn acquits himself the best by far. True, he doesn't look a whole lot like Robert Duvall, but he has the mannerisms (the hand gestures, the head bobbing) down pat. Zahn must have studied Duvall's performance, and his turn relies on none of the actor's usual comic touches. I sometimes half-forgot that I was watching Steve Zahn as I watched Gus go about his business. It helps that McMurtry and Ossana's dialogue for him matches the way Gus speaks in Lonesome Dove.
Karl Urban, however, struggles in his role. Woodrow Call seems like it would be the tougher character of the two to play, as he is more serious and reserved. But Tommy Lee Jones managed to take the laconic Woodrow and turn him into one of the more memorable Western characters. Urban just broods and looks morose the entire time, and much of his delivery is flat. Facially, the actor can be expressive when he wants to be (He's especially effective when Maggie yells at him in part three), but too often he is impassive. Urban's Woodrow is just a stick in the mud, whereas Jones' Woodrow was a compelling and charismatic stick in the mud.
I really shouldn't be too hard on either Zahn or Urban, however, as no two actors could hold a candle to the chemistry Jones and Duvall had. The two worked wonderfully together in Lonesome Dove; it's believable from the get-go that these two very different people have been best friends for a long time. Try as they might, Zahn and Urban don't have that bond.
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's DVD of Comanche Moon is spread out over two discs, with parts one and two on disc one and part three and the extras on disc two. Image and sound are what one would expect for a production that was broadcast on television a little over a month ago. As for extras, we get three short featurettes: "Behind the Scenes of Comanche Moon" is self-explanatory; "Riding Into the Sunset—Cowboy & Riding Training" shows Zahn and Urban getting instruction on how to ride; and the most interesting one, "A Look at the Comanche Heritage," takes a too-brief look at how the crew strove for accuracy in depicting the Comanche in the film in terms of costuming and language. There are also previews for Across the Universe, Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains and a deluxe edition DVD of Silverado, as well as a preview montage of Westerns under the rather loose moniker "Classic Westerns" (I wouldn't call The Missing or Once Upon a Time in Mexico classic Westerns.) A sticker on the package said this version of the mini-series is extended, but since I didn't see Comanche Moon when it aired, I have no idea what has been added.
Even if you take the fact that this is a Lonesome Dove prequel out of the equation and try to evaluate Comanche Moon on its own terms, it's hard to escape the conclusion that this production is a mediocre, uneven effort. Certainly, there are aspects of this production to enjoy, but overall, Comanche Moon is another example of how lightning doesn't strike in the same place twice.
Guilty of failing to live up to its heritage.
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• "Behind the Scenes of Comanche Moon"
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