Since its inception, the television miniseries has been an ideal medium for screenwriters committed to bringing character-heavy epics and ambitious adaptations to film. The format not only affords filmmakers a broader canvas, a longer runtime, and the opportunity to flesh out minor characters and subplots, it allows them to develop more deliberate plotting, grander character arcs, and more absorbing realities. Granted, a miniseries can easily overwhelm a director and devolve into a slow-paced bore. However, when done properly, it can captivate the imagination, capture a forgotten era, and craft a sweeping tale that simply couldn’t be crammed into a two-hour film. CBS’s 1989 television-western ‘Lonesome Dove’ is the perfect example of a miniseries done right. Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Larry McMurtry novel of the same name, this six-hour epic connected with audiences on a variety of levels, earning critical praise and a collection of Emmy nominations.
’Lonesome Dove’ tells the tale of two distinguished and retired Texas Rangers, Captains Woodrow F. Call (Tommy Lee Jones) and Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall), who run a cattle ranch in a little town called Lonesome Dove. The ranch is frequented by McCrae’s lover (Diane Lane), an experienced tracker (Danny Glover), a hard-working ex-Ranger (Timothy Scott), a young orphan of sorts (Rick Schroder), and their cook (Leon Singer). When an old friend named Jake Spoon (Robert Urich) rolls into town and describes the abundance of fertile, unsettled land in Montana, Call convinces Gus and a team of workers to help him drive their Cattle north. However, it turns out Jake is a fugitive from the law who’s being pursued by a single-minded sheriff (Chris Cooper) determined to bring the man to justice. What follows is a perilous, epic journey that forces the men to consider their pasts, look toward their futures, and decide whether their efforts are worth the hardship and tragedy they will encounter.
As it stands, the very heart, soul, and resultant appeal of ‘Lonesome Dove’ lies squarely in the hands of its incredibly capable leads. Duvall brings a gruff but high-spirited humanity to a character that could otherwise be an aimless dreamer, while Jones imbues his character’s rough exterior with a soft underbelly that complements, yet contrasts Duvall’s portrayal of McCrae. The miniseries’ supporting cast further serves to highlight the pair’s strengths and weaknesses, giving director Simon Wincer plenty of opportunities to balance their individual developments and craft an established, plausible relationship. In fact, my favorite scenes in ‘Lonesome Dove’ don’t center around the tribulations the men face on their way to Montana, but those that feature them bantering back and forth like brothers. Despite the characters’ intermittent frustrations with each other, there’s a genuine, mutual respect that makes any threat to their friendship more menacing than threats to their lives.
Despite nearly bursting at the seams with various storylines and emotionally complex characters, ’Lonesome Dove’ is held together by a quaint simplicity Hollywood has abandoned in recent years as revisionist westerns have become more and more popular. I’m as much a fan of ‘The Proposition,’ ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ and ‘Open Range’ as the next guy, but I have to admit there’s a familiar comfort level associated with the classic stylings of golden age westerns. Don’t get me wrong, ‘Lonesome Dove’ isn’t full of sugar-coated, bloodless nonsense, but it does ascribe to a tone and atmosphere that probably won’t tap into your inner ‘Unforgiven.’ As such, the miniseries’ period and setting are romanticized a bit more than fans of bleaker westerns may enjoy.
I’m thrilled to see a television miniseries like ’Lonesome Dove’ is still valued enough to earn a Blu-ray release. I’m sure there are a lot of western fans who’ve never had the pleasure of riding north with a pair of perfectly-defined characters like Call and McCrae, but this release proves that a fading classic can be revived for a whole new generation. I won’t go so far as to say that this is the greatest western of all time, but I will say it’s a fantastic entry in a genre that doesn’t get the attention it deserves.
Magnificent cinematography and breathtaking vistas aside, ‘Lonesome Dove’ arrives on Blu-ray with a decent 1080p/VC-1 transfer that suffers from a collection of technical issues. First and foremost, textures and edges are a bit hazy compared to more recent BD titles, softening quite a few long shots and undermining too many close-ups. More distressingly, contrast wavers on a fairly regular basis throughout the presentation and prevents the image from appearing completely stable. Noise is also a consistent problem that appears in a variety of forms -- swarming in bright skies, diffusing detail in low light, and rendering nighttime shots unattractive and uneven. I was relieved that the image wasn’t hindered by edge enhancement or unsightly DNR, but I was also disappointed with the transfer’s overall clarity and technical proficiency.
It's also worth noting that 'Lonesome Dove' was originally a full screen 4:3 presentation. While the miniseries has been reframed for widescreen on this Blu-ray release, the studio hasn't seen fit to include both versions. Comparison shots between the two are available online and show how the image has been affected in various situations. I don't think it will be an apparent issue to anyone who doesn't know the problem exists, but it probably won't sit well with purists. Admittedly, including both would have seriously increased the production complexities and costs of an already 2-disc, six-hour miniseries, however, it would have been nice to see each make an appearance.
Still, even a quick glance at the miniseries’ standard DVD counterpart makes it clear that the new Blu-ray edition offers a notable upgrade. Colors are more lively (despite the subdued palette), detail is more revealing, and copious artifacts and crushed shadows have been resolved. More importantly, the original print has weathered the last twenty years very well -- I didn’t encounter any distracting scratches, worn frames, or rough patches. As it stands, ‘Lonesome Dove’ features an above average transfer that shouldn’t prevent anyone from enjoying the miniseries itself. I imagine fans will probably have an easy time overlooking the transfer’s errant mishaps, while newcomers will shrug them off as unfortunate remnants of a twenty-year old television production.
Likewise, ‘Lonesome Dove’s standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track isn’t a proficient, lossless monster ready to rope in hordes of blind buyers, but it still does a fine job handling the miniseries’ somewhat narrow sound design. The thundering cattle sound solid and weighty, the landscapes are rife with quiet ambience, and the soundfield creates a mildly immersive experience. Dialogue is also relatively crisp, clear, and well prioritized in the mix -- in fact, I only encountered a few, infrequent problems when aggressive sound effects would inadvertently muffle an actor’s lines. Still, while LFE and rear speaker support is admirable for a remixed television miniseries, I did find myself wishing for a bit of filmic polish. If I have any major gripe it’s that accuracy and directionality are unfocused and imprecise when distributing sound to the surround channels. Effects, gunfire, and shouts tend to occur from every direction during chaotic scenes, reducing the integrity of the soundfield and lessening its realism and impact.
All in all, ‘Lonesome Dove’s standard sonics shouldn’t dissuade anyone from giving this one a spin -- just don’t expect much technical wizardry from such an adequately mastered audio track.
The Blu-ray edition of ‘Lonesome Dove’ includes all of the supplements that appear on the new 2-disc DVD released in early August. Owners of the 2003 DVD will notice a few missing features (namely a short interview, a trivia game, and some additional textual information), but I don’t think the exorcised material would have added much value to the package.
’Lonesome Dove’ is one of the finest television miniseries I’ve seen and one that should certainly grace the shelves of any serious fan of westerns. The six-hour runtime and tonal romanticism may scare off modern viewers, but I’m confident that anyone who gives it a legitimate shot will come away satisfied. The Blu-ray edition is a bit of a mixed bag, but still offers a decent technical presentation. It features above average (albeit problematic) video and audio, as well as a generous collection of supplements. All things considered, this one’s definitely worth a look.