Monday, August 29, 2011

LONESOME DOVE - The Back Story

           Lonesome Dove: A Novel Right at the outset, let me say that all or much of the following may be old news to many of you reading this. If so, sorry to be wasting your time—as for me, I only recently learned these things and found them to be pretty fascinating. For those of you hearing about them here for the first time, hope you enjoy the info as well.

            LONESOME DOVE, as everybody knows, was a 1985 novel by Larry McMurtry that earned tons of critical acclaim and even went on to win that year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction. What I was surprised to learn—it was never acknowledged in the book nor anywhere else by McMurtry, as far as I can tell—was that the central theme of the book, the big cattle drive headed by Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, was largely based on the real-life experiences of Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving.
I'd heard of the Goodnight-Loving Trail before but didn't really know much about the two men after whom it was named. Both were Civil War veterans. Goodnight was a Texas Ranger in the late 1850s. After the war, the two joined forces to round up herds of longhorn cattle that had been left to roam free, unattended, while the war was going on. There was need for beef in New Mexico and Colorado. The route that became famous as the Goodnight-Loving Trail was already known to some, but it was Goodnight and Loving who mapped and more clearly defined it. Goodnight even invented the "chuckwagon" for their initial drive. They made two drives without significant incident. On the third, however, they ran into trouble when Loving stirred up a band of Comanche and suffered severe wounds from which he eventually died after blood poisoning set in. Goodnight sat at his partner's bedside during the final days that he clung to life. And then, in answer to Loving's last wishes, Goodnight accompanied his body back for burial in Texas. For many years afterward, Goodnight kept a picture of Loving in his pocket and later had it framed and placed on his desk.
If you know the storyline of LONESOME DOVE then you see how closely it followed these events. Woodrow Call was patterned after Goodnight; Gus McCrae after Loving. Of course McMurtry wove a deep, rich tapestry of backgrounds and secondary characters and subplots around this thread of history and there surely is nothing wrong with fictionalizing and expounding upon factual occurrences, especially in the hands of someone as talented as Mr. McMurtry. I guess I'm just a little disappointed that Mc-Murtry didn't acknowledge the real history more openly. (And if he has —and I'm simply unaware of it—then my apologies all around.)
Now … Go back a little over ten years prior to LONESOME DOVE the book. In 1972, McMurtry originally penned the LD story as a screenplay for a theatrical movie to be called THE STREETS OF LAREDO. (Somewhat ironically, McMurtry would use this title later for a novel that was a sequel to DOVE—but the original STREETS screenplay was the cattle drive story.) At any rate, the screenplay fell into the hands of director Peter Bogdanovich who badly wanted to make the film. He pitched it to John Wayne, James Stewart, and Henry Fonda who were to play the parts, respectively, of Woodrow, Gus, and Jake Spoon. Stewart was keen to do it but Wayne had reservations, for whatever reasons. Eventually director John Ford convinced Wayne it was wrong for him and the whole thing fell apart.
Having watched the LONESOME DOVE TV miniseries nearly a dozen times, I've got to say it stands as damn near perfect. Hard to imagine anyone else playing the roles of Gus and Woodrow (and in subsequent attempts, where it was done, it didn't work nearly as well) and I don't know how it possibly could be improved upon. A big screen movie running only 2½ to 3 hours naturally would have had to cut out scenes and characters that made it to television so much of the depth and richness of the story surely would have been lost.
Still, I gotta admit … the imagination can't help but rev a bit at the thought of those wonderful old veterans—Duke, Jimmy, and Hank—in those key roles … man, wouldn't that have been something?

I'd love to hear what anybody else thinks …

Persevere — WD


Walker Martin said...

I'll have to stick with the LONESOME DOVE TV mini-series. Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones were great and the over 6 hour length allowed the director to do the novel justice. One of the best adaptations ever done for TV.

wayne d. dundee said...

I agree, Walker, which I think I indicated. All I'm saying is that if some truncated portion of the storyline HAD been done in a shorter, big screen version then having Wayne, Stewart, and Fonda in those roles makes for intriguing thought.

Persevere --- WD