The Lonesome Dove franchise has proven to be fertile ground producing no less than five miniseries and two short-lived television shows. The originating series, based off Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, won 7 Emmy awards and arguably revitalized both the miniseries format and the western genre upon its broadcast in 1989. It was first conceived as a movie script in the early 1970s intended to star John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart under the diretion of Peter Bogdanovich. Thankfully, for us, this collaboration never came to fruition. While it peaks my interest to wonder what the originally intended movie would have been like, I cannot believe that it would held up against the classic miniseries that was eventually delivered.
Lonesome Dove is an epic western in both setting and scope. The basic story involves a cattle drive from Texas to Montana spanning over three years and involving multiple subplots that eventually tie back into the main thread. Pages could be spent cataloging the ins and outs of the story. Suffice to say it contains all the archetypes of a classic western with enough heroes and villains, gunfights, horseback riding and bars and brothels to satisfy any western lover.
Ample detail is paid to the time period involved which is an integral reason behind the huge success of the series. At the time Lonesome Dove was shot, interest in the western had all but evaporated due to the slick, overproduced and often impersonal genre entries being generated by Hollywood. Since Dove was shot totally on location, it delivers a gritty and realistic yet intimate drama that absorbs the viewer with the rich and often harsh feel of life in the late 1800’s old west.
The mesmerizing tale is told through literally dozens of characters in the truest definition of an ensemble cast including Danny Glover, Robert Urich, Rick Schroeder, Diane Lane, Chris Cooper, D.B. Sweeney and Angelica Huston. While the series revisits these characters often, two in particular are the emotional center of the series: Gus McRae and Woodrow Call portrayed by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones respectively. They are former Texas rangers who play as foils against each other with Woodrow being stoic and practical and Gus being gregarious and exuberant in his love of life. The series is worth viewing if for no other reason than the banter between these two longtime friends.
While the story is engaging western fare, it can appropriately be viewed as the backdrop for the interaction of the characters. The miniseries format suites this adaptation so well that any telling of the story that did not contain the same level of attention to character development would pale in comparison. The show is often compared to a soap opera and, when the comparison is apt, it should be taken as a compliment. Dove benefits from patient storytelling that gives the series time to breath and open up to the full potential of its epic drama. Trying to condense the story into a third or fourth of its six plus hour runtime would have been detrimental to achieving the intimacy and familiarity of the characters involved. Considering the length, the story never feels overly long and leaves the viewer wanting more upon completion.
If I had to search for complaint about the miniseries, I would note that some of the supporting actors are not quite as strong in their portrayals. Considering the huge tapestry of characters involved and the leads being comprised of some of our best actors, it is easy to overlook this fault. Another small issue is with the minimal use of visual effects. While the show relies upon its real life locations to support its realism, a few visual effects were utilized which unfortunately show the technological limitations of the time.
These moments are extremely rare throughout and not particularly distracting. It should lend to the praise of the series that these few nitpicks are all I could gather over the 6-plus hour run time. Lonesome Dove may not be the best western ever made as some critics claim but easily ranks with the best of the genre. It is one of the most absorbing stories ever filmed and easily transcends its “made for television” roots.
Lonesome Dove is the first Blu-ray Disc published by Genius Products and is presented in a collector’s edition spread across two discs. The initial three episodes reside on the first disc with the second disc housing the final episode and special features. With this release presenting the video framed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, it marks the debut of the series in widescreen on home video. There is confusion among critics regarding the original aspect ratio. Some state that the Blu-ray presents a cropped image from the original fullscreen in contention to the claims of the previous fullscreen video being produced from the transfer presented here. The latter supposition may be attributed to a comment in the special features where the director notes that the series was originally displayed for critics in widescreen. However, he does not specifically state that it was shot in widescreen.
I did some comparisons with the original DVD and there are many scenes where the 1080p Blu-ray image is definitely cropped, though not detrimentally so. However, there are other scenes where the widescreen transfer opens up the image providing more information than its fullscreen counterpart. My guess is that the series was shot open matte with the intention of formatting to a 4:3 ratio for television but still leaving the opportunity for a widesceen presentation in the future. Whatever the case may be, the widescreen transfer feels more cinematic and better suits the epic nature of the story.
Taking into account its age and having originated as a “television movie,” I am very impressed with the 1080p VC-1 encoded transfer. The image is not as dimensional as the best of high definition, sometimes is a bit flat but overall is exceptionally clear. Colors, while not overly vibrant, are stable and remain faithful to the intended natural earth tones of the show. There is almost no print damage and no evidence of digital tampering in the form of DNR or edge enhancement. There is a minimal, natural level of grain throughout that rarely becomes problematic. Close ups provide ample amounts of detail, and the gorgeous outdoor scenery is captured to often stunning effect. For the most part, Dove looks quite pleasing in high definition.
Unfortunately, there are some negatives to this transfer. Detail and contrast, while generally very good, vary from scene to scene and sometimes within the same scene. The main issue appears to be that the film stock used does not pick up detail in dimly lit or night shots as well as it should. There are some night shots so poor that they jar you out of the spell of the show with horrendous spikes of grain, noise and utter lack of detail. Thankfully these are the exception. Some of the daytime shots show a bit of digital noise, but it never becomes distracting. Complaints aside, this is easily the best the show has ever looked. In comparison to the original DVD release, the Blu-ray transfer improves upon the video in virtually every way possible.
The audio choices include an English Dolby Digital 5.1 track and French and Spanish 2.0 tracks. What we are presented with in the Dolby 5.1 track is acceptable but not overly impressive. Dialogue is clear and Basil Poledouris’ majestic score is given its best reproduction yet. The rear channels are mixed low and mostly seem underutilized. There are moments, such as during the horse raid in Mexico, where the subwoofer and rears kick in to good effect, but it is not often repeated throughout the length of the series.
One prominent issue is that environmental sounds that should have been isolated in the rears are spread throughout the surround mix. The effects sometimes end up causing dialogue to fight for prominence and be muffled or drown out. The soundtrack overall has a somewhat harsh sound, but I am guessing this is due to the limitation of the original mono source. The Dolby 5.1 mix does a decent job, and is the best soundtrack I’ve heard for Lonesome Dove to date. It does not come close to competing with the lossless tracks on more recent releases but services the series as well as can be expected. The only subtitles included are for English.
There are close to 90 minutes worth of special features all presented in standard definition.
The Making of an Epic: A documentary running right at 50 minutes constructed from interviews filmed at the time of the series release interspersed with footage from the show. The opening feels like a promo directed at provoking interest in the show rather than giving background details. Thankfully this effect subsides, and we are presented with an informative look at the background production of the show. Fans of the series will find many interesting moments ranging across interviews with the cast, director, production assistants, costume designers, etc.
Original Interviews on the Set: 13 minutes of extra interviews with cast members derived from the same footage of the included documentary. There is a level of overlap with some of the exact same moments being used but some new interview footage included.
On Location with Director Simon Wincer: A recent 15 minute interview with the director that should be extremely interesting for fans of the series.
Blueprints of a Masterpiece: A short feature lasting 3 minutes and 30 seconds includes the director showing preliminary design sketches for the show and drawings from the script. Some of the designs were briefly displayed in the included documentary.
Interview with Larry McMurtry: An almost 7 minute interview with the author of the novel. It is interesting in that it gives some insight into the thought process behind constructing this epic. The sound on this interview leaves a lot to be desired.
Lonesome Dove Montage: A slightly over 3 minute montage of scenes from the show. While an admirable idea, the fact that it is not in high definition undermines its intent on Blu-ray.
While I personally do not feel Lonesome Dove is the best western ever, if someone were inclined to bestow it with that appellation, I would find little room to argue. With the Blu-ray release, we have the best presentation of this beloved miniseries to date and are arguably likely to see. It will not compare to the best of Blu-ray, but if you can temper your expectations accordingly, you will be amply rewarded. Any issues with the presentation will be overlooked once the hypnotic spell of the show grabs hold of you. If you have never seen this classic, definitely give it a rental. Fans will demand a purchase for the upgraded video alone.
– Robert Searle
Order Lonesome Dove on Blu-ray from Amazon.com.