Lonesome Dove: An American Epic

This summer I made it a goal to watch Lonesome Dove.

(For those of you tuning in twenty years late, Lonesome Dove is an epic miniseries stretching from South Texas and western Arkansas up into the wilds of Montana. Its all-star cast includes Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones, Danny Glover, Diane Lane, Anjelica Huston, and a half-dozen others more familiar for their faces than their names. Steve Buscemi of the crazy eyes is among them. This western, from an era when the western was thought to be dead, raked in the Emmys and Golden Globes. Back when Netflix still had that awesome “Local Favorites” feature, this was still number one in East Texas. If you haven’t seen it, you may want to take a six and a half hour break and come back when your situation has changed.)

Ahem. Back to “le point,” as the French have been known to not say. It was really good, the sort of thing that makes you feel and, if you’re a thinker, really makes you think. I’m reading the Iliad for class right now, and some of our discussions highlighted issues in Lonesome Dove. So while I’m not going to sit here and explain the intricacies of the worldview of that movie, which is beyond me anyways, I will point towards some interesting rabbit trails.

***spoiler alerts from here on out***

The main thread of the show is Captain Augustus “Gus” McCrae’s relationship with his buddy, Captain Woodrow F. Call. And, fittingly for a Texas story, the themes this thread brings out mostly have to do with pride. Gus is a playboy, decked out in his finery, smooth with words, pseudo-educated, quite the gambler, and a real chick magnet for someone his age. Call is a taciturn man, but stubborn as a mule when he wants something, such as a ranch in the unsettled wilds of Montana. He refuses to display any sort of emotion. As Gus says, he doesn’t want to admit he’s human like the rest of us. They’ve been friends since their younger days as rangers when they cleaned the Comanches out of South Texas. (I won’t quibble with that geographical oddity, we’ll just assume they have a good explanation I haven’t thought of).

As we watch their story develop, several interesting things happen. Gus dies of gangrene, refusing to let the doctor amputate his remaining leg. In a poignant moment, one of Call’s rare displays of emotion, at Gus’s bedside he cries out, “Damn your vanity!” Before he is left alone in this world, his friend makes him swear to take his body all the way back across the plains to a little grove where Gus was once happy with a woman. (Nobody ends up with their woman, and the women are all disappointed).

Call is no less prideful. He’s got walls a mile high and thicker than Chesterton’s gut. He won’t admit to loving any woman, especially the one who bore his child. And despite loving the boy in question, he can’t bring himself to say he’s the kid’s father. He ends up leaving his dream behind to take Gus’s body home, and we never do learn whether he returns to Montana.

Despite the destructiveness of pride in our heroes, and they are heroes, this universe is not entirely bleak. Every character is one we can love or hate with a passion, and every event is charged with the sort of emotion only a cowboy can take and not burst into laughter or tears.

And, interestingly, justice does prevail. Life’s not easy for the heroes, but no villain escapes this world alive. From the notorious outlaw Blue Duck to men who simply rode with the wrong crowd, sin ends in death. Tragedy may rule in Lonesome Dove, but so does justice.

Two more themes to note. Injuns. More than dispossessed natives or cruel barbarians, in Lonesome Dove Indians symbolize all the freedom, untamed wildness, and limitless expanse of the world before men like Gus and Call came to make it safe for soft city folk. In several places both men lament the passing away of that old world, the passing they helped to usher in. They don’t regret killing men that needed killing, and there were many, but they do regret the world it resulted in—a world without free land, and a world without buffalo.

Let me tack on that there is a (rather limited, but existent) amount of complexity with regards to said Native Americans. Blue Duck, the vile half-breed, is set in stark contrast to a poor, wandering band of Montanans who fear the encroaching white men. Still, we are left knowing that it is inevitable that both sides will eventually vanish.

Last rabbit trail I want to point to: womens. The women in this movie are treated, particularly by Gus, with a mixture of gallantry and carelessness. There is no doubt many of cowboys are just “looking for a poke,” but repeatedly we see that this cannot be separated from an emotional attachment. Men, of course, can ride off when they get scared, in a way that the women frequently won’t, but they don’t remain untouched by their decisions. And, outside of their friendship, nothing Gus and Call experience in this world is more important to them than specific women they once loved. The story ends in men that died sad but free, and women who are tough but lonely. And, strangely, few hold real grudges.

From start to stop, Lonesome Dove is an American epic. It explores many of the same themes of the Iliad, but in a context we are familiar with as a nation. Sadly, like the Iliad, we are left in an unredeemed world. This is a tragedy in which the only positive victories are those of justice to the lawless and simply having lived. Call is left alone and hopeless, his friend gone, his lover long gone, his son far away in Montana, and the town he began the story in left a dried-out husk of what it used to be. We are left asking the same question the Iliad begs—what can be done? Who can turn the hearts of the fathers to their sons, and husbands to their wives, and redeem a land grown corrupt? But that is a question for another day.


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