I first saw the “Lonesome Dove” miniseries in 1993, about four years after it had first been shown on television. Essentially a six-hour movie, it was widely credited with resurrecting not only the TV miniseries format but also the genre of the Western, which had been thought of as dead for some years. In fact, “Lonesome Dove” was shortly followed by at least three great Westerns in movie theaters: “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “Last of the Mohicans” (1992), and “Unforgiven” (1992).
These are four searing and unforgettable films, and all quite different from Westerns of the past — but ironically they resurrected the genre, even giving us a kind of second golden age of the Western.
“Lonesome Dove,” adapted from Larry McMurtry’s 1985 novel, was the first of these films to be made. But I saw the other three movies first, when they were released in theaters. So the thing that stood out for me about “Lonesome Dove” was the lack of the revenge motif.
In “Mohicans,” by contrast, Magua takes revenge for the death of his children, the loss of his wife and village, and for his own enslavement by another tribe (“the Grey Hair was the father of all that”). Magua then goes too far by killing the son of Chingachgook, who exacts revenge upon Magua at the very end of the film in one of the most feel-good vengeance scenes you will ever see.
In “Unforgiven,” we’ve got William Munny falling like an angel of death upon those responsible for a whole list of sins: the brutal murder of Ned Logan; the unpunished slashing of a prostitute; and Munny’s own beating at the hands of the sheriff.
“Dances With Wolves” is somewhat different, but we do have Dunbar strangling and drowning Spivey, the man traveling with the Union Army that had personally tormented Dunbar more than any other.
In “Lonesome Dove,” there is no vengeance scene, and no single character is set out for revenge. There is just as much violence as in the other movies — particularly in the “Lonesome Dove” novel, where you have crimes that don’t appear in the other stories (gang rape) and details of violence too gruesome even for R-rated theatrical films. Those details, unsurprisingly, are not seen in the TV miniseries, but the novel has no shortage of violence. What it does lack is scenes of revenge.
The reason for this is somewhat subtle. People remain unforgiven in Lonesome Dove; no one talks about forgiveness. There’s little peace of any kind: Call and Gus, the two central characters, would have hung the chief villain, Blue Duck, if they could catch him. But they can’t catch him. At one point, Gus comes close, and he’s urged by Sheriff July Johnson to catch up to Blue Duck, who has just finished murdering a deputy and two children, including July’s young son.
“And maybe you’d be dead and I’d have to tidy you up,” Augustus said. “Don’t be reviling yourself. None of us is such fine judges of what to do.”
“You told me to stay,” July said.
“I know I did, son,” Augustus said. “I’m sure you wish you had. But yesterday’s gone on down the river and you can’t get it back. Go on with your digging and I’ll tidy up.”
…He carried the bodies up to the prairie, laid them in their shallow graves and helped July pile rocks on the graves, a pitiful expedient that wouldn’t deter the varmints for long. In the other camp he had merely laid the buffalo hunters and the dead Kiowas in a line and left them.
“I guess he took Joe’s horse,” July said.
“Yes, and his life,” Augustus said. “I’m sure he had more interest in the horse.”
“If you’re going after him I’d like to try and help,” July said.
“I got nothing to go after him on,” Augustus said. “He’s better mounted than us, and this ain’t no place to go chasing a man who’s got you out-horsed. He’s headed for the Purgatory this time, I bet.”
“The what?” July asked.
“It’s a river up in Colorado,” Augustus said. “He’s probably got another gang there. We best let him go this time.”
“I hate to,” July said. He had begun to imagine confronting the man and shooting him down.
“Son, this is a sad thing,” Augustus said. “Loss of life always is. But the life is lost for good. Don’t go attempting vengeance. You’ve got more urgent business. If I ever run into Blue Duck I’ll kill him. But if I don’t somebody else will. He’s big and mean, but sooner or later he’ll meet somebody bigger and meaner. Or a snake will bite him or a horse will fall on him, or he’ll get hung, or one of his renegades will shoot him in the back. Or he’ll just get old and die.”
He went over and tightened the girth on his saddle.
“Don’t be trying to give back pain for pain,” he said. “You can’t get even measures in business like this. You best go find your wife.”
Here Gus does talk about taking revenge upon Blue Duck on behalf of July. The theme is not entirely absent. But Gus doesn’t envision revenge as something personal, as a thing that a man could take up and reliably accomplish; and he dissuades July from making it something so personal. And, critically, there are better things to attend to than vengeance: July should try to find his run-off wife. Gus himself has just rescued Lorena from Blue Duck’s gang and needs to get her back to safety.
In a way, it’s a no-brainer: you’ve got a rescued captive on hand, you probably should give up the chase.
What’s so memorable here is that Gus talks all this out. He’s not the strong and silent gunslinger of so many Westerns: Gus McCrae loves to talk, sometimes wearing out his listeners when the topic is boring, but other times doing much more, as in the scene quoted above.
Words such as Gus speaks above can fall trite and flat if they seem like mere breath or detached philosophy — or a screen for something else, like fear. Just exactly how convincing they are on the page to a first-time reader, I can’t know, because my first exposure to them was in the movie. And there, Robert Duvall manages to convince. Throughout the length of the film he communicates Gus’ love of life, particularly his penchant for meeting life with humor. So when we come to this scene with Sheriff Johnson, though Gus is displaying an extraordinary degree of self-possession and gratitude of spirit under these circumstances, we believe the character and are glad that both he and July Johnson are choosing life over death.
Toward the end of the novel, Gus is mortally wounded by Indians, and we have this scene between Gus and his lifelong friend:
“Do you want me to do anything about them Indians?” Call asked.
“Which Indians?” Augustus asked, wondering what his friend could be talking about. Call’s cheeks looked drawn, as though he hadn’t eaten for days, though he was eating even as he asked the question.
“Those that shot the arrows into you,” Call said.
“Oh, no, Woodrow,” Augustus said. “We won more than our share with the natives. They didn’t invite us here, you know. We got no call to be vengeful. You start that and I’ll spoil your appetite.”
This is the closest that the novel comes to something like the Christian command to forgive one’s enemies. McMurtry would be going too far to describe it that way, and I doubt he had anything specifically Christian in mind.
Nothing is as radical as the act of loving one’s enemies, and we don’t have that here. In the context of a Western, however, we do have something that says yes to life and begins to say no to death. It’s death-defying in a surprising way. It doesn’t show how to end violence or death, but in a small way how to spare life, even when grievously injured by it. Instead of giving further thought to fighting, Gus attends to making his goodbyes, as his own life runs out.
The great irony here is that Gus at this moment does not choose life. He does have a chance to survive his injuries, if he will only let the doctor cut off his remaining, gangrened leg. But his vanity won’t allow it, as he admits to Call. He won’t live as a cripple. So really in the end, he won’t spare his own life — won’t spare, too, the hurt it will cause to those who still want him (Woodrow, Clara, Lorie).
Choosing life over death is more than sparing the lives of others, and this is something I think McMurtry returns to in the sequel, “Streets of Laredo,” when Call faces a similar choice, and makes a different decision. But all this takes us a bit beyond the original themes of vengeance and forgiveness and is a topic for another day.