American Icons In Film: A Look at Lonesome Dove

Carson Ruud

ENG 308

April 25th, 2015

American Icons In Film: A Look at Lonesome Dove

It seems to me in American film that the hero, the icon, is appearing less and less every passing year. In the 1940’s through the late 1970’s we had John Wayne. The rough and tough cowboy who stood for black and white justice and had a moral compass truer than anybody else. But of course this wasn’t the man himself; these men were Rooster Cogburn, Hondo Lane, GW Mclintock, Sergeant Stryker, and Wil Anderson to name a few. And if you are any fan of the American west, these have become house hold names just as much as Betty Crocker and Palmolive Dish Soap.

But as the 70’s wore on and turned into the 80’s, the American cowboy slowly seemed to vanish little by little. Meanwhile in the literature world, an irreverent western novel by Larry McMurtry was being published in 1986. Originally written for a 1970’s screen play titled, Streets of Laredo, McMurtry’s novel re-titled Lonesome Dove was quickly making headway as a New York Times best seller and future Pulitzer Prize winner. As a fun fact, oddly enough, Streets of Laredo was cast with John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda. John Wayne turned down his role and James Stewart followed behind forcing the abandonment of the film.

As the popularity of Lonesome Dove grew, so did Hollywood’s curiosity of the award-winning novel. In 1989 the novel hit television screens as a four part miniseries starring Robert Duvall as retired Texas Ranger Captain Augustus McCreae and Tommy Lee Jones as retired Texas Ranger Captain Woodrow F. Call. This film adaptation is what American viewers have come to know the story as and will forever live in minds as such.

Captivating, heartwarming, tense, dramatic, lighthearted, inspiring. I could go on but the list really is endless to how many viewers including myself could describe the incredible narrative that happens within the confines of this four part series. Unlike many westerns of the 70’s and 80’s, this one is presented in a series of episodes which makes this film unique in that aspect in and of itself. But the narrative of this western tale is not like the ones we are used to seeing in popular western film; surly not one that we have ever seen American icons such as John Wayne star in. Which may be why he chose to turn down the role of Woodrow F. Call in the first place.

This story is more of a tragedy really; a modified Shakespearean tragedy that features two ageing Texas Rangers in their quest to see the last glimpse of the Montana frontier before “bankers and lawyers buy it all up” as Woodrow puts it. But what really puts this film series in the tragedy category is the foil relationship the two star characters have with one another in addition to the goals and philosophy each one has in life.

Gus McCreae is the smooth talking one of the duo. Fun loving, Gus loves his whiskey and a “satisfying game of cards” to go with it, as Gus puts it. Gus is anything but the gruff Texas cattleman icon we are so used to seeing in the movies. He is regarded by Woodrow as lazy and too much of a thinker. Which is probably true. Gus seems to do anything to slip out of a full day’s work if it means he can have fun somewhere else whatever that may be. In all regards, Gus is an adventurer. He can’t stand to be tied down in one spot for very long which is why he agrees in the first place to go on the epic cattle drive with Woodrow to start a ranch in Montana. In spite of all of Gus’s Laziness, he is regarded by Woodrow and his crew as the better if not the best horseman of the ranch hands and Woodrow, although he seldom puts his skills to use. Gus also prides himself on his eyesight, being able to shoot at distances few can even see at.

But what really sets Gus McCreae aside from Woodrow or any western hero is his philosophy on life and the way he chooses to live it. By all accounts, Gus lives for the here and the now. No regards for futures, relationships or work of any substantial kind. Which is abundantly evident in the film. Gus had been a Ranger his whole adult life, spending his time chasing and shooting bandits and living out of a pair of saddle bags, literally. When he wasn’t busy chasing outlaws on the range he spent his time frequenting the saloons and chasing after his crush, Clara. Although, as with any adrenaline junky adventurer, not even love could keep Gus around in his younger days.

Woodrow Call on the other hand, is the polar opposite of Gus. Tough, guff, and stern, crossing Call could be one of the biggest mistakes of your life. Call is much more of a loner than Gus. He prefers to stick to himself and be much more methodical in the way he does things than the whimsical Gus McCreae. Call seems to have always lived in the shadow of Gus and his talents with ladies or just being free spirited in general. In one scene of the first episode Call says to Gus, “If you’re so smart why don’t you think the roof back up on that barn instead of sitting in the shade all day sipping on whiskey.” Call has always prided himself on his work ethic and of being the last man to quit a day’s work. While Gus on the other hand, had no shame in letting others work while he would find an excuse to go to town for some reason.

Yet in their own way, both men share a unique bond in there morals. Both men possess a clear compass of right and wrong. This dynamic is what I loved about the series most. I am very much black and white when it comes to morals and beliefs, and this series does an outstanding job of playing on the dynamic of ideals versus reality. Time and time again in the film  Gus and Call reference their pride and overall morals as the guiding principle they follow. Now, whether having pride as a leading moral is a good or bad thing, I’ll let you decide. But for me as a viewer, I could identify with  every bit of advice Gus and Call gave to someone during the film.

One of my favorite Lonesome Dove quotes of all time comes from a scene where Gus and a gal by the name of Lorena Wood are talking on a river bank. Lorie, as she is known by, found herself on the cattle drive to Montana after promises by a former ranger and friend of both Gus and Call: Jake Spoon, convince Lorie to come and they will go to San Francisco which has been Lorie’s dream. It turns out that an abusive Jake leaves her on the trail by herself while he goes into a town to play cards for couple of days. Gus comes by the camp one day to check up on her and Jake and finds Lorie depressed about the situation and the fact that she won’t be making it to San Francisco after all.

In turn, Gus says to Lorie, “Life in San Francisco is still just life. Now if you want only one thing out of life too much, it’s bound to be a disappointment. So, the only healthy way to live life, I see it, is to enjoy all the little everyday things, like a sip of whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, or a glass of buttermilk, or say a feisty gentleman like myself.” I love this quote and scene so much because it exemplifies almost every quality Gus has and I would hope to have some day. Gus is both comforting but truthful. He is able to reassure Lorie while showing her reality in a gentle way; very tactful so to speak.

To me, Gus and Call possess every piece of moral fiber and ethic I could ever hope to have. Gus is witty and light lighthearted, but has a resolve for justice like no one else. I think the charecter of Gus McCreae embodies every bit of the old saying, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  And although he is known to stretch the truth a bit for amusement of others, Gus is as honest as the day is long.

In my own charecter I have always tried to stay to that black and white code of justice; there is good and there is bad and not much in between. I strive for integrity, a good work ethic, happy to have the opportunity to have a job, and the ability to stay humble no matter the circumstances. Now granted, I will admit I’m no saint and have strayed from my own ideals from time to time, but I suppose that’s why we call them ideals; it’s the ideal scenario that we may never quite achieve.

That is my only guess as to why I love Lonesome Dove so much. This film takes me back to the days where men were men and justice was dealt at the end of a rope. Where there was some kind of guiding morals and sense of duty to god, country and family. I love this film because I think Gus and Call embody every characteristic I could ever hope to achieve. Regardless if you are a fan of westerns, the actors, or anything else; if you are morally conservative – or even not – I think anybody can learn something about themselves, who they are, and who they want to be by watching Lonesome Dove.

Works Referenced

McMurtry, Larry. Lonesome Dove: A Novel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985. Print.

Lonesome Dove. Perf. Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones. CBS, Motown Productions, 1989.         Film.

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