Horsemen, Pass By

Bill Wittliff’s Lonesome Dove photos take you back not just to a magic-hour river crossing but to someplace deeper: to a vanished time that is both wholly concocted and wholly real.

October 2007By Comments

When Lonesome Dove was published, in 1985, western movies were in one of their periodic eclipses. A decade or so of preachy revisionist movies like Doc and Soldier Blue had drained away their mythic vitality, and whatever spark of interest was left had been snuffed out by the debacle of Heaven’s Gate. I remember being surprised when Kurt Luedtke, who was about to win an Academy Award for his screenplay for Out of Africa, told me that the project he most wanted to do next was an adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s 843-page novel. I had loved the book but couldn’t quite believe in the possibility of a big studio western in a period dominated by edgy urban dramas and gross-out college comedies. Besides, even a novice screenwriter like me understood that there was way too much story in Lonesome Dove to render into a feature movie of even blockbuster length.

When, in the end, my friend Bill Wittliff was hired to produce and adapt the book as a miniseries, I still had my doubts. A television screen seemed like a perversely small frame for a story of such unparalleled openness. And if I had known then what I know now—after almost twenty years of writing movies and miniseries for television—I would have despaired. The budget restrictions of television, the squeamishness of network executives and sponsors about depicting violence or unwholesome situations, their desperate fear that viewers will change the channel at every commercial break unless some hokey cliff-hanger scene precedes it, the reluctance of major movie stars to be caught slumming on the small screen, the unceasing reliance on topical “triumph of the human spirit” stories—all these factors argued against the adaptation of a mammoth trail-drive novel.

There were some iconoclasts, like Robert Halmi Sr. and Suzanne De Passe, behind the production, but I strongly suspect that if the assignment to adapt Lonesome Dove had gone to any other writer, someone with less clout or less tenacity—someone, for instance, like me—the result would have been a marginally enjoyable but mostly forgettable movie. I would surely have argued for shrinking the story down, for taking out the whole subplot about July Johnson searching for his runaway wife, for excising any number of subsidiary characters who had no clear strategic purpose when it came to strengthening and clarifying the central story line. I would have patted myself on the back for having cast a cold eye on a beloved book and having wrestled an unruly narrative to the ground.

I did not understand how wrong I would have been until I went down to Del Rio to visit the production and Bill handed me a copy of his final script. It was long, immensely long for a screenplay: almost four hundred pages. I stayed up most of the night reading it in my motel room and was amazed to see that everything was in it. None of the subplots or significant characters or winding narrative trails of the book had been cut out. It was a bracing thing to read, because clearly the assumption behind it was that Lonesome Dove was a great book, that CBS and Motown Productions and RHI Entertainment and all the other financing entities involved should feel privileged to adapt it, and that it had to be translated with all its ragged grandeur and idiosyncrasies intact or it would not be worth doing.

When I saw the set the next day, I was even more encouraged. Cary White, the production designer, had built the town of Lonesome Dove on a high bank above the Rio Grande, and the place looked as if it had been sitting there, moldering in the Texas weather, for many hard decades. I’ve learned over the years that I’m easily beguiled by movie sets, tricked by the magic and rigor of the set and costume design and the earnest industry going on all around me into thinking that whatever picture is being filmed is going to be authentic and unforgettable—a judgment that is rarely ratified on the screen. In the case of Lonesome Dove, however, my first impression ended up ringing triumphantly true.

Robert Duvall had originally been approached to play Woodrow Call, a role that his portrayals of unrevealing men in movies like The Great Santini and Tender Mercies argued for. But he told Bill he wanted to play “the other guy,” and now here he was, walking down the streets of Lonesome Dove, not just credible as Gus McCrae but instantly definitive, forever erasing from my mind the thought of what the character would have been like if James Stewart or Paul Newman or any of the other actors who had been mentioned at one time or another had ended up playing him. Filming had barely begun, and Duvall already seemed to have the verdict of history behind him, an aura that declared that the casting of Gus could not have worked out any other way.

Tommy Lee Jones as Woodrow Call was more of an adjustment. I wasn’t sure I liked his hat or his Kenny Rogers—esque beard, and when he delivered his lines, there seemed to me more bounce in his voice than one would have heard emanating from the taciturn Woodrow Call. The shrewdness and confidence behind his performance took a while to appreciate. Gus is the unforgettable, irresistible presence at the heart of Lonesome Dove, but the story, in its deepest current, belongs to Call. It’s Call who is summoned to face the hardest truths about himself, to lose the friend who has challenged and defined him all his life, and to be left alive to confront a hollow future. Call is a puzzled and morose witness to his own fate, but Jones seemed to have recognized that this would have been a deadly note to sustain for more than six hours. Perhaps for that reason there’s a fascinating variability in the pitch of his performance, a humor and spryness that make Call’s emotional imprisonment all the sadder.

Toward evening of my first day on the set, I walked down a cutbank with Bill, and we stood watching as Simon Wincer, the director, filmed a scene in which Gus and Call and a few other horsemen cross the river into Mexico to steal horses. The scene was attended by the usual artifice and clutter of a movie set—endless takes, looming camera cranes, assistant directors barking into walkie-talkies, set dressers and prop masters and hair and makeup artists and wranglers rushing in to reassess their work at every opportunity.

While the cameras were rolling, however, a stillness settled over this nameless stretch of the Rio Grande. It was magic hour, the movie term for the slow fade of day during which the light is richest. Everything always looks good at magic hour, but something else was going on here, and while it was happening, Bill and I just looked at each other with astonished grins. We could hear the horses splashing through the water fifty yards away, we could hear the creaking of the high-backed saddles and the slap of a fish as it leaped in and out of the water. The cameras, booms, and reflectors were still there, the crew was still lining the bank, but we had ceased to notice these things. We were simply watching the horsemen cross the river, and we were smiling at each other because we were witnessing the same apparition. All of a sudden, it was real. Lonesome Dove had come alive.

Bill had his Nikon with him and was taking pictures, as he always did, but I was too focused on the suspended moment in front of us to remark upon his camera work. I had no idea at that point what kinds of pictures he was taking. He was shooting with an ordinary single-lens reflex camera on black and white Tri-X film. There was already an official unit photographer to take publicity stills on the set, and I just assumed that Bill, as the writer and executive producer of the movie, was making a private photographic record.

In fact, he was making art. One of the exposures he took that day ended up as the photograph titled “Crossing the Rio Grande,” which is one of the signature images of this book. It is printed, like the other photographs, in archaic sepia tones, and every time I look at it—which is every day, since a print of it hangs on my office wall—it sets off a little mind shiver, not just calling me back to that magic-hour river crossing but to someplace deeper and harder to reach, to a vanished time that is both wholly concocted and wholly real.

These are not just pictures from Lonesome Dove; they are documentary images of something that seems to have really happened. The movie of Lonesome Dove exists on one plane, these photographs exist on another. They record an enterprise that is, like all movies, an elaborate attempt to trick us into believing that something is true when it is demonstrably not. But at the same time, they seem to be turning up an unexpected layer of authenticity. Fictional movies require a suspension of disbelief; photographs typically do not. What’s fascinating to me about Bill’s Lonesome Dove pictures is the way they blend the make-believe of movies with the trustworthiness of photography. Look at the picture titled “Call With Herd,” in which Tommy Lee Jones is sitting on a spotted gray mare, watching cattle as they are driven past. There is a certain cinematic vitality to it, but if you encountered it in a book of nineteenth-century photography, there would be precious little to give it away. This photograph is not advertising a movie, it’s not forcing a point; it’s just recording a passing pastoral moment on the Western frontier. The fact that the moment is manufactured, that Jones is not some aging trail driver but a then-41-year-old actor whose wrinkles are made of latex and whose stove-up posture has been thought out and rehearsed, whose pistol is under the vigilant watch of the production’s armorer and whose horse is only one of five horses playing the same animal—none of this undermines in the slightest the presence and force of the image. There is a frank and vibrant paradox in all of these photographs: The artifice itself is what makes them so credible. They all seem to have been taken in the same frame of mind that Bill was in when we were standing on the riverbank that day and he could not hide his delight at how wondrously real everything had suddenly become.

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