Started out as a movie script in 1971 meant to be directed by Bogdanovich and star Liberty Valance partners John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart instead, we get Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall hardly a step down who are as good and entertaining as they’ve ever been

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t’s pure, and strange, coincidence that my first two posts are on Westerns. Strange because, despite now having seen a number of Westerns I love (mostly from Leone), I still don’t quite consider myself a fan of the genre in general. I’m reviewing (rewatching) this one simply because it’s soon leaving Netflix streaming, and it’s been more than a decade since I saw it for the first and, until now, only time. And more so than The Big Country, I remember loving this one, and I was old enough when I saw it to believe my memory a little more reliable.

Corralling a herd of acting talent that should make the thing collapse under its own weight, we are, instead, blessed by some of the best performances these skilled thespian hands have ever offered. Much of that is owing to the rich material galloping through the 1985 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that — surprise, surprise — actually started out as a movie script in 1971 meant to be directed by Bogdanovich and star Liberty Valance partners John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart.

Instead, we get Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall — hardly a step down — who are as good and entertaining as they’ve ever been. Joining them is a surprisingly well-suited Ricky Schroder (Silver Spoons), Anjelica Huston, Diane Lane (Rumble Fish, The Cotton Club), Danny Glover, Chris Cooper (an actor I usually find a touch overcooked, is here superb), Frederic Forrest, William Sanderson (Deadwood, Blade Runner), and Steve Buscemi, to name most of my favorites. And pretty much everyone else along for the ride keeps up quite nicely. Like the best performances we can think of, it’s hard to imagine anyone else as the two leads. Even if I admit that it would have been a worthy effort with Wayne and Stewart, I’m secretly glad it was abandoned, ultimately giving us Jones and Duvall.

But surely, along with the cast’s considerable skill, the touch of director Wincer at the reins, as light and sure as a seasoned cowhand, is so deft as to be unnoticeable. The herd seems to drive itself. (Dusting up a Best Director Emmy for Wincer in the process.) Like the pseudo-aphorism about film scores that I despise, this seems to be a case where going unnoticed means its doing its job very well. What’s to do, with a script and cast of this quality, except not get in the way? On top of that, the producers bring on composer Basil Poledouris (The Blue Lagoon, Conan the Barbarian, The Hunt for Red October) to musically spur on the narrative. While not John-Williams breathtaking, it still has some nice moments, and, at worst, goes unnoticed because it, like the film’s director, is blending in with the scenery.

Similarly, photographer Douglas Milsome’s lighting and camera work only occasionally shows off. Mostly, he’s there to not spook the cattle and let the location speak for itself. Like the music, though we might pine for a Williams or Bernstein flair, Poledouris and Milsome give us eminent utility with only occasional flash. Sparsity of flash should not be mistaken for lack of skill or mastery here.

The script, besides its richness of themes, is equally reserved in its tactics. Lonesome Dove does a neat trick where its two main characters are nearly-legendary lawmen that never really get in a situation where their skill is gratuitously on display. Like great lawmen, the film never seems to brag of this advantage. When we do see it, it seems more necessary, organic, than a stop-and-watch sideshow. The story is more concerned about their character, their deep and serious flaws, as well as their exceptionally admirable strains of judicious loyalty, kindness, bravery — the best qualities we pine for, if not so wisely to cultivate in ourselves, then to at least have friends that have done and do so.

For Western fans, this is a see-before-you-die mini-series (comprising four movie-length parts/episodes). Tough to decide between this and The Magnificent Seven as my favorite American Western. (Side note: Elmer Bernstein’s score is easily my favorite of the two, and is very noticeable/recognizable, but, as noted above, Poledouris need not hang his head.) As much alike as they are — a beautiful mix of humor and what I’ll call “strong values” drama, with a packed cast doing great work — it almost seems like apples and oranges. Lonesome Dove — as the title might suggest — is the more bittersweet of the two, though TMS certainly has that attractive element.

What separates them both from the herd is the exultation of the finest ideals in how we deal with other people, which comes down to the struggle of taming that wildest of broncos, ourselves. It’s far from easy. It’s dirty, it’s painful, it’s dangerous, but the reward comes in getting back on, and not stopping until it’ll take a saddle and carry you — and those around you — farther than you could ever go on your own two feet.

 PROC. BY  MOVIES

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