Dead Man’s Walk

They say that “Streets of Laredo”, the sequel to “Lonesome Dove,: suffers from not having Gus McCrae, who didn’t survive the first book.  They also say that because fans wanted to see Gus again, Larry McMurtry wrote his prequels to “Lonesome Dove”, in which we get to see both Gus and Call in their youth:  “Dead Man’s Walk,” and “Comanche Moon.”

But I’ve recently read “Dead Man’s Walk,” and it doesn’t have Gus, either – not the mature Gus who died in “Lonesome Dove.”  He’s only 19 in this prequel, and at that age he just doesn’t have the experience that will make him interesting later.

In the miniseries from 1996, David Arquette does make him somewhat recognizable, but Jonny Lee Miller does even better with Call. 

At last count, six actors have portrayed Woodrow F. Call in TV series or miniseries:  Jonny Lee Miller (“Dead Man’s Walk”), Karl Urban (“Comanche Moon”), Tommy Lee Jones (“Lonesome Dove”), Jon Voigt (“Return To Lonesome Dove”), James Garner (“Streets of Laredo”), and Lee Majors (“Lonesome Dove: The Series”).  Call is the only character that appears in all the adaptations of McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove” novels.

I’ve seen all these Calls except Lee Majors’.  Miller’s portrayal might be my favorite. 

Too many actors, even good actors, when playing taciturn, can bury the personality.  Miller avoids this, and I can’t say how, so it’s probably with subtle techniques, but it works.  His face – his whole body language – somehow speaks, without overt mannerisms, without mere macho rigidness.  It’s not even really Stoic – and McMurtry did once say that he conceived of Call as Stoic, and Gus as Epicurean – because you can sense that this Call has feelings.  But you don’t sense that he’s consciously repressing or disciplining them.  He feels, but what he feels is just different from what most men feel; it’s not necessarily cold, but it can be; and it’s often rage; and it’s usually not made for socializing.

I had previously seen Jonny Lee Miller only in Jane Austen adaptations (he is Edmund Bertam in “Mansfield Park” and Mr. Knightley in “Emma”).  He does those characters very well because in the setting of disciplined, restrained English emotions, he still speaks very well with his face and body language, without, again, overt mannerisms.  He’s almost a natural, in that way, for playing Call.

No one will ever top Tommy Lee Jones.  He is the original Call and always will be; and no one can forget the particular edge that felt so dangerous, that he brought to the character.  But Miller has put in an interpretation that is sticking to me like glue.

I think the novel of “Dead Man’s Walk” is a step down from “Dove” and “Laredo,” though still great in many ways.  Again the characters are the strength of the story, but there’s an excess of violent encounters and journeys through harsh terrain:  more of these than seem necessary.  The movie actually streamlines the violence, and we get an more efficient story about people.  I almost never think that “the movie is better than the book” (really, how often does that happen?), not least because a movie, no matter how long it is, must have “less” than the novel.  But in this case, less is better; it produces a quieter and more restrained story that is sometimes more moving than the novel.

Music can be a movie’s unique contribution and the score by David Bell is very, very good. The main theme is a solo fiddle with an orchestra beneath; it doesn’t hit you in the face, or the eardrum, as “epic.”  Bell has said that “the theme is in waltz time – three-quarters time – which gives it a flow, a tenderness.  It speaks of loyalty, of peacefulness, of youthful exuberance – because the story is about Gus and Call as young men starting out on these adventures, and then they get hit smack in the face with harsh reality.” 

This surprisingly peaceful music works very well to mitigate what is in the novel, again, an almost unrelieved series of violences.

The novel can be also criticized for telling tall tales and not being realistic — contrary to McMurtry’s efforts to be realistic — but the parts that interested me most were the ones that hewed closely to magical realism:  the buffalo that wouldn’t die, for example.  And that whole deus ex machina with Lady Carey.

Magical realism has always been present in the “Lonesome Dove” series.  All those coincidental meetings on the vast prairie, for example. 

When the Santa Fe expedition’s prisoners arrive in San Lazaro and start seeing skeletons, I was already wondering if McMurtry was set to take us into full-on magical realism.

I think he spoke of skeletons this way on purpose, to work on the imagination of the reader.  A strictly realistic author would have reported that we’ve arrived in a leper colony and that the lepers looked like skeletons to the hapless Texans.  Or, more subtly, a strictly realistic author could have taken the inner character’s fooled perspective and popped the bubble with reality, and continued to do that through the end of the novel. But McMurtry actually keeps moving away from realism.  Even though he pops the “skeleton” bubble by explaining that these are lepers, he nevertheless proceeds upward into the realm of magical realism, with the wonderfully unlikely story of Lady Carey.

And these sections of the story work best on the page.

This is not as great a novel as either “Dove” or “Laredo”, but it has a unique story. It is, if nothing else, a page turner, but less for its action than for characters such as Captain Salazar, Matilda Roberts, and last but not least, Bigfoot Wallace — an experienced old tracker who talks as much as Gus but is much more interesting than the pup McCrae.

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