Asked recently by David Letterman what he thought was the best work he’d done so far, Robert Duvall didn’t hesitate for a second: ”Oh, Lonesome Dove,” he said quickly. As thorny Texas Ranger Augustus McCrae in the magisterial eight-hour television miniseries in 1989, Duvall gave flesh, blood, and orneriness to Larry McMurtry’s artful variation on the classic Western. The critical and ratings success of that CBS epic took a lot of people by surprise. Westerns hadn’t been much of an audience draw in quite some time. And McMurtry’s novel, while a well-received best-seller, was also widely misperceived as a revisionist Western — a work, like the beautifully brutal 1969 Sam Peckinpah film The Wild Bunch or Michael Ondaatje’s lyrical 1970 book The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, that demythologized, rather than celebrated, the conventions of the genre.
But Lonesome Dove, and now its canny prequel about the early lives of the Dove characters, Larry McMurtry’s Dead Man’s Walk, are neither homages nor criticisms of the Western. Instead, Dove and Walk (McMurtry’s most recent novel) are the best kind of genre fiction: stories about likable but flawed people who muster the gumption to rise above their weaknesses. Add snorting horses, blazing guns, and bloody scalping to the mix, and it’s no wonder McMurtry’s creations managed to revive a dormant entertainment form.
In Dead Man’s Walk, we meet a Gus McCrae still in his teens, embodied by the perpetually quizzical-looking young sitcom vet David Arquette (Double Rush; the TV version of Parenthood). Gus’ friend Woodrow Call, portrayed in Lonesome Dove by Tommy Lee Jones, is played by Jonny Lee Miller (Hackers). You can enjoy Dead Man’s Walk without having seen so much as a pixel of Lonesome Dove, but it adds to your enjoyment to know that these young saplings with spurs grow up to be complicated saddle tramps.
McMurtry’s Westerns seem to require men of aged realism, however, and so the youthful Gus and Call are paired in Walk‘s adventure with a couple of grizzled scalp hunters, Shadrach (Harry Dean Stanton, wearing a hollowed-out raccoon on his head) and Bigfoot Wallace (Keith Carradine, with so many whiskers and such a growly voice that for the first few minutes you may not even realize it’s him). This motley quartet enlists in the Texas Rangers for an expedition to ”take Santa Fe from the Mexicans” — that is, to do our government’s bidding to annex New Mexico as part of the Texas republic.
McMurtry, who adapted his novel with Diana Ossana, doesn’t shy away from extravagantly colorful characters, and in the case of Walk it’s Captain Caleb Cobb, the leader of the troop our heroes join, a pompous showboater with a green parrot named Beelzebub perched on his shoulder (F. Murray Abraham — as Cobb, not Beelzebub).
Director Yves Simoneau (Amelia Earhart: The Final Flight) keeps the action jumping during the first night. Just as Dove had its most powerful villain in Frederic Forrest’s Blue Duck, so Walk offers another Native American foe of almost supernatural vehemence: Buffalo Hump (Eric Schweig), a Comanche in goose-pimpling war paint. On the romance front, Gus McCrae goes gaga over shopkeeper Clara Forsythe (Jennifer Garner), who has deep dimples and intricate banana curls, and is an egotistical flirt. (This vain little drip will grow up to become the magnificent Clara embodied by Anjelica Huston in Dove.)
On the second night, things slow to a crawl, literally. Our ragtag imperialists begin to dwindle after their horses are stolen, their food runs out, and they are bedeviled by grizzly bears and Buffalo Hump one too many times. Captured by a Mexican army unit headed up by Captain Salazar (Edward James Olmos), Gus, Call, and the rest slog across the section of New Mexico called Dead Man’s Walk. The TV movie begins and ends with a scene of poetic mysticism involving a vision that Buffalo Hump first had as a child. Its content can’t be revealed here, but it gives Walk the emotional jolt it needs to finish strongly. Not as fresh and surprising as Lonesome Dove, Dead Man’s Walk nonetheless gives us a Western of meticulous detail and wild power. A-