The Making of Lonesome Dove

The basic rule on the set is to be faithful to Larry McMurtry’s revered novel.

There sat the town of Lonesome Dove: a dozen grim buildings made of adobe and faded lumber, a single desolate street teeming with dust devils and undercut with dry washes, a vulture coasting above the twilit Rio Grande. The town was perched on a high cutbank above the river, affording it a panoramic view of the mesquite flats on the Mexican side. In the evening stillness I could hear cattle lowing and red-winged blackbirds rustling in the canebrakes, and the percussive sound of a bass launching itself out of the water.

A group of horsemen came riding from one end of the street toward the deep wash that led down to the river. They were seated on antique high-backed saddles and armed with horse pistols and Henry repeating rifles and Green River skinning knives. The horses looked as lanky and weathered as the men who rode them, and the spectacle of them wading into the tranquil river in the charged evening light was so exhilarating that for a moment it was possible to disregard the crowd of camera operators, grips, sound men, lighting technicians, script supervisors, and wranglers that testified to the somewhat dispiriting fact that it was all just a movie.

The riders were halfway across the river when the director yelled “Cut!” Escorted by a half-dozen watchful wranglers, the actors turned their horses around to the American side and led them back up the bank to the starting position for another take. The pounding of hooves against the soft earth produced a deep, satisfying rumble, and though the actors chatted and joked among themselves as they spurred their horses up the street the illusion of authenticity would not go away—any reader of Larry McMurtry’s vast novel could have stood in this dusty make-believe town southeast of Del Rio and checked off the cast of characters as they rode past.

There was Woodrow F. Call, the emotionally withheld former Texas Ranger whose iron will sets into motion the star-crossed trail drive that is the heart of the story. As Call, Tommy Lee Jones wore a black round-top hat and a white beard that put me in mind—not inappropriately—of Captain Ahab. Behind him rode Robert Duvall as the loquacious and magnificent Augustus McCrae. Then came Robert Urich as Jake Spoon, Danny Glover as Joshua Deets, D.B. Sweeney as Dish Boggett, Tim Scott as Pea Eye, Ricky Schroder as Newt…all of them splendidly grungy in their chaps caked with fuller’s earth (to provide the illusion of even more trail dust than they had actually accumulated), in their faded bandannas and their sweat-stained hats with artfully frayed and moth-eaten brims.

“Don’t they look great?” Bill Wittliff, Lonesome Dove ‘s screenwriter and executive producers, asked as we stood there eating dust. “Don’t they look just wonderful?” The mood on the set was high at this hour, with the day’s work almost done and the light growing more gorgeous by the minute.

“Getting some good stuff, Bill!” Robert Duvall declared to Wittliff as he moseyed over after the final take. Duvall was startlingly Gus. I had seen him a few nights earlier in Colors, and the memory of him as a middle-aged Los Angeles police officer was still strong enough for me to marvel at the swiftness of the transition. It seemed that in a matter of only days he had realigned his body, changed from a bulky cop with a low center of gravity to a rangy, hollow-cheeked cowman with decidedly bowed legs. He was full of an actor’s enthusiasms tonight, praising the cinematographer, discussing the pacing of an upcoming scene, describing a passage in a book he’d read about how a group of Texas Rangers, ambushed during a river crossing, broke down and cried like babies at the death of their leader.

Duvall had a wonderful role to play. In the course of this movie Gus McCrae would rescue Lorena Wood (Diane Lane) from the appallingly villainous Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest), slam a surly bartender’s head onto the bar of a saloon, engage in two desperate Indian battles, and die a heartbreaking and unforgettable death in Miles City, Montana. These events seemed written already into Duvall’s face, into his whole aspect; you could see the claim the character of Gus had not only on the actor’s attention but in some magical way upon his being. Tonight, however, he was ebullient. Standing there bowlegged, his thumbs hooked in his gunbelt, Duvall lifted himself off the ground in an irrepressible hop.

It was an article of faith on the set of Lonesome Dove that this would not be an ordinary movie. Logistics alone moved it out of that category: an eight-hour television miniseries (to air next fall) with a budge of almost $20 million, a big-name cast, and a devastating sixteen-week shooting schedule involving dozens of sets, massive location shifts, 89 speaking parts, and up to 1,400 head of stampeding cattle. Though it was destined for the small screen, the film’s scale was vast, a throwback to those bygone days when cinematic behemoths like Giant and The Alamo still grazed in the pastures of Texas myth.

But Lonesome Dove was special not just for its scale but for its source material. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer prize-winning novel is an epic compendium of Texas history, folklore, and cherished bits of cultural identity. Though the novel borrows elegantly from a variety of sources —trail drive memoirs, the works of J. Frank Dobie, the historical friendship of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, even old movies—its own singular vision is never in question. Overlong, slow-to-start, Lonesome Dove is nonetheless an irresistible book, a ragged classic fueled by McMurtry’s passionate regard for his outsized characters and by his poignant reckoning of their limitations. In the space of three years, it has become the sacred text of Texas literature, and the filmmakers were aware that there were a lot of readers who did not want to see it screwed up.

The role of guardian angel was being played by Bill Wittliff.

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