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Literature / Lonesome Dove

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Robert Duvall as Gus MacCrae and Tommy Lee Jones
as Woodrow Call.

"I wanna do it, Gus. I wanna see that country, before the bankers and lawyers all git it."
Captain Woodrow Call

Lonesome Dove is the name of a highly-regarded Western novel by Larry McMurtry published in 1985. It was also adapted into a 1989 Emmy-winning four-episode television miniseries. The novel was the first of a tetralogy of novels, followed up by a sequel novel, The Streets of Laredo, and two prequel novels, Dead Man's Walk and Comanche Moon. All were made into miniseries. It is also considered the first part of an informal trilogy of Westerns staring Robert Duvall, with the second being Open Range and the third being Broken Trail.

In 1876, former Texas Rangers Captains Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call run a livery in the small border town of Lonesome Dove. When their old colleague Jake Spoon arrives with tales of the unsettled territory in Montana, Call is inspired to drive cattle there to start a ranch.

The miniseries boasted an All-Star Cast headed by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones as Gus and Woodrow, with Diane Lane as Lorena, Anjelica Huston as Clara, and Danny Glover as Joshua Deets. Also features a pre-stardom Steve Buscemi as Luke.

Provides examples of:

  • Action Girl: Janey, whose rough life has taught her to live off the land. She helps capture two outlaws by throwing rocks at them and when Blue Duck attacks their camp is the only one with the reflexes to fight back well. Unfortunately due to the Deconstruction nature of the story she ends up being Too Cool Too Live.
  • Alternate Continuity: The sequel miniseries Return to Lonesome Dove portrays a completely different set of events than those depicted in the McMurtry-penned followup Streets of Laredo.
  • An Arm and a Leg: Gus has a leg amputated against his will after it becomes gangrenous due to an arrow wound. Unfortunately, by that time the blood poisoning is too widespread and he dies a few days later.
  • Annoying Arrows: Heavily averted; several people are killed by them and bow-wielding natives are considered a serious threat. In Gus's case, he sustains a "mere" hit to the leg with an arrow and subsequently dies a few days later after the wound becomes gangrenous.
  • Badass Boast: Just before Gus rides into Blue Duck's camp to gun down all his gang and rescue Lori:
    Gus: They don't know it, but the wrath of the Lord is about to descend upon 'em.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: When facing hanging, both Jake and Blue Duck decide to preempt their execution. Jake, who was being hanged from a tree branch, spurred his horse out from under himself before Gus could do it (though it's as much about sparing Gus from having to do it). Blue Duck, when about to be led from his fourth-story cell to the gallows, broke away from his guards and jumped out a window.
    • In Dead Man's Walk, Shadraq and Bigfoot Wallace warn the young Rangers to slit their own throats rather than letting the Comanche take them alive.
  • Break the Cutie: Newt, Lori, July... Frontier life is hard, and bad things happen to good people all the time.
  • Brilliant, but Lazy:
    • Gus is a competent tracker, skilled in a gunfight, and generally an all-around impressive individual - when he can be bothered. Left to his own devices, he'll just drink on the porch with an occasional trip to a whorehouse.
    • Jake Spoon thinks he's this, but he's not. However, he is charismatic enough that people often don't figure that out right away.
  • Broken Bird:
    • Poor Lori. First she falls for Jake Spoon and his empty promises of living the high life. Then she’s kidnapped by Blue Duck, spending weeks in captivity being gang-raped multiple times per day by his crew, while Jake quickly abandons any notion of rescuing her and soon forgets she even exists. Gus eventually manages to rescue her, but by then she's been horribly brutalized. The novel deepens Lori's struggle by describing the string of abusive relationships that brought her to Lonesome Dove in the first place. She considers Jake a cushy partner because he tends to hit her just once when he's angry; previous lovers and pimps were not so gentle.
    • Elmira, the wandering wife of July Johnson, also gets hit with this trope in the expanded backstory provided in the novel. She's an ex-whore with a hard history; she leaves Fort Smith and heads to her doom because she just can't appreciate how nicely July treats her.
  • Bunny-Ears Lawyer: Famous Shoes, a Kickapoo Indian employed by the Rangers as a tracker. His own tribe finds him strange as hell, he walks everywhere and refuses to ride a horse, but he can track a grasshopper across a hundred miles of bare rock. He also speaks English, Spanish, and Comanche, and is very familiar with the religions, cultures, myths, and customs of the various tribes of Texas and Northern Mexico. Captain Scull describes him, without reservation, as a genius. Plus the Comanche are forbidden from harming him, thanks to a favor he once did for Buffalo Hump's mother.
  • Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie: Woodrow Call brings Gus MacCrae's body across the country so he can be buried in his favorite orchard.
  • Cattle Drive: the whole basis of the plot
  • Cool Old Guy: Bigfoot Wallace and Shadraq in Dead Man's Walk. Gus has become one in Lonesome Dove.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Gus is such a focal character throughout the story that it comes as a major shock when he dies and Woodrow makes it his mission to bring Gus' body home to Lonesome Dove for burial. Woodrow later becomes the main protagonist in Streets of Laredo.
  • Defiant to the End: Gus is very unimpressed with Dan Suggs' recalcitrance in the face of his execution for several murders, to the point that he and his impromptu posse leave the man's corpse swaying in the breeze while his cohorts (and Jake) were given the dignity of a proper burial:
    "I'll say this to you, Suggs: You're the kind of man that's a pleasure to hang. If all you can talk is guff, go talk it to The Devil."
  • Defiled Forever: Discussed. Lori feels this way about herself after being kidnapped by Blue Duck and gang-raped by his followers, then subsequently rescued by Gus. She's convinced that between that and her time as a prostitute, she's unfit for any kind of decent society, and when Gus tells her of his plan to set her up with a new life on Clara's ranch, she argues that "She'll know what I am!" Gus, Nice Guy that he is, is having none of it and declares, "You're absolutely right. She'll recognize right right away that you're a fine human being!"
  • The Dreaded: Blue Duck is a feared criminal across the plains. A vicious leader of a gang of other bad criminals. Known for his crimes, murder, rape, and slavery.
  • Driven to Suicide Xavier, out of loneliness, and Jake Spoon.
  • Dropped a Bridge on Him: By the time Streets of Laredo begins, two of the most sympathetic characters still alive by the end of Lonesome Dove are both dead: Newt and July.
  • Emotions vs. Stoicism: A central part of the story is the contrast between the laid-back, talkative and generally pleasant Gus and the grumpy, uptight, unemotional Call.
  • Face Death with Dignity: Jake spurs his own horse during his hanging, sparing Gus from the actual act of executing his friend.
  • Generic Ethnic Crime Gang: Blue Duck's gang primarily has Kiowa Indian members, but others are white and Blue Duck is Mexican and Comanche.
  • Genre Deconstruction: McMurtry intended the series to be one for the Western genre, but feels that a lot of people missed out on this. It could have a lot to do with the miniseries' bright cinematography and adventurous score setting a tone more suited to a classic, idealistic western film, rather than the kind of gritty, desaturated style that would normally go with a story that reflects the actual harshness of life in the Old West.
  • Idiot Ball: Gus passes up a chance to simply shoot Blue Duck in the back and bring his violent career to a an early and very much deserved end. Gus himself regrets this almost immediately, and indeed, numerous innocent people are killed (along with Blue Duck's entire gang) as a direct result of that decision.
  • I Ate WHAT?!: When recruiting a new cook in San Antonio, Po Campo asks Gus and Call to try something he made. Call pops it in his mouth and says "Dang, that's tasty!" What exactly is it? "Grasshopper." Cue Spit Take.
  • Judge, Jury, and Executioner: Call, Gus, and associates will summarily execute bandits, horse thieves and other scofflaws they run across. Overlaps some with Vigilante Man since they continue to do so after they've retired from the Texas Rangers and have no official legal standing to dispense justice.
    • This is somewhat justified, in that towns are few and far between on the frontier, and not all of them even have lawmen, so it's not necessarily practical for Gus and Woodrow to try to bring them in for trial. If anything, it shows what a Crapsack World the frontier could be, as taking the law into your own hands is often the only option.
    • At one point Gus is bemused by an outlaw who believes Gus is simply going to arrest him.
    Gus: [to Dan Suggs] I don't know what makes you think we'd tote you all the way to a jail.
  • Kill the Cutie: A lot of characters suffer violent deaths over course of the story; many of them are characters you did not want to see it happen to.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: The Army scout gets one from Woodrow when he tries to force Newt and Dish to sell their horses with his fists.
    Capt. Woodrow F. Call: [to onlookers] I hate rude behavior in a man... I won't tolerate it!
  • Pretentious Latin Motto: Gus insists on putting one on the Hat Creek sign because he thinks it looks classy - although he can’t read it. Call doesn’t think it makes any sense to have such a motto in the first place and says it might invite robbers for all Gus knows. The motto in question is "Uva uvam vivendo varia fit," a (misspelled) snippet from Juvenal that means A grape ripens when it sees another grape. A fitting sentiment for the way the characters affect each other in this story.
    Gus: The first bandit comes along who can read Latin is welcome to rob us, as far as I'm concerned. I'd appreciate the chance to shoot at an educated man.
  • Real-Person Cameo: Anyone familiar with Texas history will probably recognize Bigfoot Wallace, though he didn't actually die that way. Buffalo Hump (whose actual Comanche name literally translated as "Man's Hard Dick") was a real Comanche chief at the time of the story. Legendary Texas Ranger Charlie Goodnight (whose life actually inspired this story) appears briefly in Dead Man's Walk to advise the ill-fated Santa Fe Expedition to turn back.
  • Revolvers Are Just Better: Given the time frame, revolvers are naturally the sidearm of choice. Gus deserves special mention, though, for packing a Walker Colt — the largest and most powerful handgun available at the time. The San Antonio saloon scene demonstrates how its great size and weight could be assets; it makes a wickedly effective club without factoring in its shooting abilities.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Everyone, but especially Deets and Famous Shoes.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Elmira's story arc ends with her finding Dee just as he's scheduled to hang, abandoning both July and her newborn child, then setting out for St. Louis and dying in a Sioux attack. The only thing she accomplished was getting a few horny buffalo hunters killed in the process.
  • Shout-Out to Bandolero with a Sheriff named July Johnson who has a deputy named Roscoe who embarks on a quest to catch a fugitive. July is also in love with someone who doesn't love him and would rather be with an outlaw named Dee.
  • Taking You with Me: When Blue Duck pulls his high-dive, he drags a lawman with him.
  • Time-Shifted Actor: Gus and Woodrow are played as teenage Texas Ranger recruits by David Arquette and Johnny Lee Miller in Dead Man's Walk, as Rangers in their late 20s/early 30s by Steve Zahn and Karl Urban in Comanche Moon, and as old men retired from the Rangers by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove.
  • Super Window Jump: Blue Duck throws himself out of a high window.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The plot of the original novel is a close analogue to the story of the Goodnight-Loving Trail, the westernmost cattle trail blazed by Texas cattlemen Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving in the 1860s. Call and McCrae are larger-than-life stand-ins for Goodnight and Loving. Several historical events are replicated in the book, including Goodnight/Call burying his respected African-American scout beneath a wooden marker and later honoring his partner's wishes by taking Loving/McCrae's body back to Texas after he was killed in a fight with Native Americans.
  • Worst Aid: Gus' solution for an arrow in his leg is to try and push it out the rest of the way, which might not have directly caused the infection that ends up killing him, but most certainly didn't help his situation.
    • Although suspect according to modern medicine, this was an accepted practice at the time. American frontiersmen believed that Indian arrowheads could be poisoned, barbed, and even detachable to prevent easy extraction from the wounds they caused. Some — not all — arrows were as devious as described.