A Tale Of Two Endings

Though the television adaptation of Lonesome Dove hewed closely to the novel’s spirit, it struck a very different note in its final moments. Below, an annotation of the last pages of the book and the script reveals how and why Bill Wittliff strayed from Larry McMurtry’s design.

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Gus and Call’s friendship may be at the heart of Lonesome Dove, but the book’s ending points in another direction. When Call returns to Lonesome Dove after burying Gus, he encounters the town’s barber, Dillard Brawley. “What happened to the saloon?” Call asks, having noticed that the local watering hole has disappeared. Dillard explains that the establishment’s owner, Xavier Wanz, locked himself in Lorena’s vacant room and burned the building to the ground after she left town. “The woman,” Dillard whispers, in the book’s very last words. “They say he missed that whore.” It’s an odd conclusion to an epic work of fiction; after 842 pages largely consumed with manly valor, the pathetic Wanz’s frustrated yearning for domesticity reads like a punch line.

But this disconnect reflects the conflict at the book’s heart. In Lonesome Dove, McMurtry originally set out to demythologize the West—to, among other things, demonstrate that the reticence that was central to the cowboy ethos came at a cost. These men were, quite often, afraid of the tender feelings women evoked in them. The vulnerability that drives Wanz to kill himself is the very thing that prompts Call to flee from the embrace of Maggie Tilton, the only woman he ever loved.

But one senses that as McMurtry wrote the book, the admiration and affection he also felt for cowboys began to eclipse his critical impulse. Which is why so many readers take Lonesome Dove for a celebration of frontier Texas. McMurtry’s decision to end the story on a deflating note seems like the last gasp of his original intent, an elbow thrown at the reader for failing to understand the book he’s reading—or perhaps at himself for failing to write the book he’d set out to.

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They say he missed that whore” may have been a fine ending for the novel, but it was too subtle for network television. In the miniseries, Wanz had been reduced to little more than a handful of cameos during the first night’s installment—few viewers would have remembered him by night four. “That was the only thing I really worried about the whole time I was doing the screenplay,” Wittliff says. “God, how am I going to end this?” Eventually Wittliff turned to a quote that appears five pages earlier in the book, when Call is buttonholed by a young newspaperman who refers to him as “a man of vision.” “Yes, a hell of a vision,” Call says, and then rides off. It’s a brief moment that draws no particular attention to itself, but Wittliff spotted its dramatic potential. On page 838 of his annotated copy of Lonesome Dove , he underlines the passage and writes in the margin, “use at very end.” Five pages later, in the white space beneath Dillard’s whispered secret, he reaffirms this idea: “End with ‘A man of vision … yes a hell of a vision—’ ”

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The phrase “hell of a vision” doesn’t originate with McMurtry. It appears on the final page of J. Frank Dobie’s 1964 book, Cow People, and is attributed to Charles Goodnight, the legendary Ranger and rancher who is an inspiration for Call’s character. When someone calls Goodnight a man of vision, he replies, “Yes, a hell of a vision,” and later tells Dobie, “My life has been mostly a failure.” In an interview with TEXAS MONTHLY for this issue’s oral history, McMurtry suggested what may have prompted Goodnight’s despair: “He had seen terrible things. He saw farms where settlers had been tortured and killed, scalped, et cetera. He saw the end of the Comanche and Kiowa way of life. And Call sees terrible things on his trip. The Indian boy is killed. The hanging of their friend Jake. The death of Gus. It was a hard place, the nineteenth-century West.” McMurtry was so taken with the “hell of a vision” line that he used it as an epigraph to “Take My Saddle From the Wall: A Valediction,” the final essay in his 1968 collection, In a Narrow Grave (published, not incidentally, by Wittliff’s Encino Press). A meditation on the legacy of the ranchers he was descended from, “Take My Saddle From the Wall” reads like a road map to Lonesome Dove ’s thematic intentions. In it, McMurtry refers to “my ambivalence in regard to Texas—and a very deep ambivalence it is, as deep as the bone. Such ambivalence is not helpful in a [book of essays], but it can be the very blood of a novel ” (emphasis added). A few pages later, McMurtry all but predicts how, nearly two decades later, he would attempt to demythologize the West and end up refreshing the myth instead: “If the cowboy is a tragic figure, he is certainly one who will not accept the tragic view. Instead, he helps his delineators wring pathos out of tragedy by ameliorating his own loss into the heroic myth of the horseman.”

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The montage of images we see at the end of the miniseries draws on the suggestions made on the last pages of Wittliff’s August 15, 1987, draft of the script, but doesn’t include all of them. We don’t, for instance, see Clara “stinging Call with her words.” What’s left is cinematically effective but far from McMurtry’s intent. Where the book suggested we regard Call as a pitiful figure, in the miniseries the flashbacks—many of them images of his friends who have died violent, gruesome deaths—make him seem toweringly tragic, like a general who has returned, scarred and wiser, from a terrible war. How did McMurtry feel about the change? “I’ve never talked to him about that,” says Wittliff. 

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