Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Return of the Thinking Man's Western

"It's not dying I'm talking about, it's living."

Gus McCrae (Robert Duvall)

I remember vividly when "Lonesome Dove" made its first appearance on American television 25 years ago tonight.

I was a graduate journalism student at the University of North Texas working at the local newspaper to help with my expenses. On Saturday night, Feb. 4, there was plenty of excitement around the paste–up board for the front page of the entertainment section in the next morning's paper. The entire front page was devoted to the scheduled broadcast of the first installment of "Lonesome Dove" that night.

Believe me, in those days it was rare to see the front page of any section of that paper devoted to a single topic. It was also rare for the entertainment section to require any work on Saturday night — usually, that sort of thing was done during the week. But it reflected the general enthusiasm for the subject — an enthusiasm I had not anticipated. I knew Larry McMurtry's novel had been very successful a few years earlier and had won the Pulitzer Prize, but I had not read it yet so I didn't understand what was happening.

What was happening? Well, I guess the best way to describe it would be that the book was the barely perceptible start of a cultural seismic shift and the miniseries was its inevitable result, a transition to a renaissance for the western enjoyed on TV and the big screen.

(It also led to a revival of the TV miniseries, but the western genre really is the focus of my attention today. Still, a pretty good argument can be made that the boost for the miniseries has been the longer lasting of the two.)

If I had read the book before the miniseries, I'm sure I would have recognized the phenomenon. It was the same thing that happened when "Jaws" was a bestseller — everywhere you looked, people were carrying copies under their arms, in their backpacks and purses. They could be seen reading the book at bus stops, in waiting rooms, everywhere.

Then, when the movie came out, there were lines at theaters everywhere for weeks.

My mother read "Lonesome Dove" before the TV miniseries, and I found myself asking her questions after each installment. Did it happen that way in the book? I asked her repeatedly. Or did the screenwriters make that up?

Mom insisted the series was true to the novel. I remember that she was particularly impressed with the scene in which Jake (Robert Urich) was hanged by his old buddies for being a horse thief.

(I was inspired to read the book by what Mom told me, and I had to admit that the miniseries was, indeed, true to the story.)

I guess Jake wasn't really a horse thief, but he was a shiftless and unreliable sort, and he fell in with horse thieves — for protection, he insisted, when he was trying to get through Indian country. The code of the West held, however, that any man who would steal a horse was no better than a murderer because people needed their horses to do things and get around — and most likely would die if their horses were taken from them.

In the story, the men with whom Jake was riding had killed the owners of the horses and then taken them — so, technically, they were both killers and horse thieves. But that was neither significant nor a mitigating factor. Jake's buddies (Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover) didn't want to hang him. It was a real crisis for everyone, and the book made that clear.

Such moral dilemmas are the trademarks of extraordinary westerns. I know some people who only want to see gunfights when they watch westerns, but the truly great westerns are the ones that are more than mere 19th–century turf wars.

They are thinking man's movies — like "High Noon" and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" — and "Lonesome Dove" deserves credit for reviving the popularity of the western genre. Of course, you've got to take the bad with the good. For every "Unforgiven" that came along in the wake of "Lonesome Dove," a purely shoot–'em–up flick or two would pop up.

I like a good western that makes me think, and, while I celebrated the revival of the genre, I lamented the fact that quantity often trumped quality.

In the coming years, movies like "Dances With Wolves" and "Unforgiven" achieved considerable followings. It can be argued that "Back to the Future III," which was set in the Old West, and the "City Slickers" movies were beneficiaries as well.

Westerns haven't been as prominent in the last decade or so. But if there were more TV westerns like "Lonesome Dove," maybe there would be more westerns in the theaters. Maybe it is time for a renewal of the genre.

I really thought we would see a longer revival period than we saw 25 years ago.

In those days, as I have said, I was kind of busy — working on my master's degree and working full time at the local newspaper. I didn't watch TV much — well, except for the occasional sports event, maybe a movie now and then. Maybe there was talk at the time of how "Lonesome Dove" originally had been developed in 1972 as a feature film idea with Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne and Henry Fonda imagined in the roles that eventually were played by Duvall, Jones and Urich, respectively. The original project never materialized. I don't know the reason. Probably contractual issues.

If there was such talk at the time, I didn't hear it. I heard it after the fact — and rather piecemeal at that.

And I couldn't help wondering how the same story would have worked with Stewart, Wayne and Fonda cast in those roles. To be honest, I simply don't know.

I never heard who was considered for the roles that were played by Anjelica Huston and Diane Lane.

Huston, of course, was the one who got away as far as Duvall's character was concerned, and Lane was the one who started out attaching herself to Urich's character but then gravitated to Duvall when Urich abandoned her on the trail.

It's hard for me to imagine those legends — Stewart, Wayne and Fonda — playing the three male leads instead of the ones who did. I guess that's a clear indication of how well the ones who appeared in "Lonesome Dove" played their parts.