True West

It’s our Gone with the Wind—a hugely popular adventure tale, a fierce depiction of frontier life, and an enduring portrait of a complicated friendship. When Lonesome Dove was published in 1985, it transformed Larry McMurtry’s career overnight and revived the fortunes of the western itself. A quarter century later, we go behind the scenes for a look at the book—and the beloved miniseries—that forever changed the image of Texas.
A never-before-seen photograph of Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones) and Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) tracking horse thieves in what is supposed to be Montana (actually it’s New Mexico).
Courtesy of the Wittliff Collections

Contemplating the sweep and sprawl of Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove from the vantage of 25 years, it’s easy to forget that the story is fairly simple. Sometime in the late nineteenth century, two graying, retired Texas Ranger captains, Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, embark on a final adventure, their unlikely goal to push two thousand head of cattle north from the Rio Grande and become the first cattlemen in the Montana territory.

But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would describe Lonesome Dove so modestly. It is the great hero myth of Texas, the state’s favorite depiction of itself and the world’s favorite depiction of Texas. Since its publication, on June 13, 1985, more than 2.5 million copies have been printed in the United States; the 1989 miniseries, which is the way most fans first came to the story, is the best-selling western DVD of all time. But the better measure of Lonesome Dove’s import is anecdotal. If you know a Texan named Gus under the age of twenty, odds are he was named after McCrae. I know two such kids—and one is a girl.

To some, Lonesome Dove is a novel, the achievement that turned McMurtry—an author of moderately read books that had been made into great movies—into one of the most popular and respected writers of the twentieth century. To others, it’s Austin screenwriter Bill Wittliff’s miniseries, the finest western film ever produced. Some would describe it as an epic journey of distinctly American ambition; others consider it a universal depiction of loyalty between friends. One fan will say the story belongs to the endlessly charming Gus, that everything you need to know about living and loving

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