Lonesome Dove is a story where death overshadows life. It’s also a story of many more endings than beginnings, where people roam the high country lost and isolated and where others whose measure is their devotion to not only those they love, but to their destiny as well.
The old Texas Ranger, Augustus MacCrae (Robert Duvall) is the pivot around which the story revolves. He maneuvers through this harsh landscape with the wisdom, competence, grace, and love of a taoist master. Watching Duvall in this role is, for me, a personal catharsis. It is the light and the guidance we need to rise above the trivial and banal of the day. It is living life as if life is all that matters.
The story of Lonesome Dove is a simple one. The name is that of dusty forlorn town along the Rio Grande where two aging Rangers (the other being Capt. Woodrow Call played by Tommy Lee Jones) are searching for something to bring back excitement and adventure into their lives. They hear about the vast, open grasslands of Montana and decide to organize the first cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Their journey is the epic container that holds this narrative together, for there are many separate and converging story lines in this tale.
Nearly everyone dies in Lonesome Dove. They die because their time is up, they die from starvation (the Lakota), they die from living a lawless life, they die from being in the wrong place at the wrong time, they die because they have taken on grave risks, and they die because the need to die. Love does not conquer all in Lonesome Dove, but devotion, perhaps the highest form of love surely does.
Gus shows us that mastery of life takes a master. He is, at once, comic, philosopher, sharpshooter, pragmatist, and dreamer and he knows exactly when and how to use those gifts. What makes this so special and so taoist, is that Gus is acutely sensitive to the context that life presents in the moment. He sees and through this seeing he is wise. He feels and through his feeling he is a devoted friend.
Opposed to him is the vicious half-breed (what a horrible term) Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest). He is Call’s opposite; equally alert, equally seeing, but unlike Call, alone – a killing scavenger, a warped remnant of the wild times that prevailed before this story. He is energized by spreading hate through sadism and murder. He is the dark side. It turns out that this story line pales in emotional power and drive to that of love that brings everything together.
That which holds everything is the magical American plains on which all are attached, even those most isolated and cut off from life’s web – love itself. The story of the West is a violent one – that spared few.
The death of Gus is the climax of the story and it is the dark shadow that fills so much of the narrative while he is alive. The poignancy of his story has, I believe, few equals in film. When I watched his farewell to the two ladies of the story – the matriarch Clara (Angelica Huston) and the young beauty Lorena (Diane Lane) with the promise that he will return, while we know full well that indeed he will return but in a coffin, the hard thud of love and tragedy mix as one and we see that even the greatest of masters is both human and ever so mortal.
Gus’ final wish is to have his body buried in Lonesome Dove. The return of Call in his casket over 1500 miles of barren plains is a task that staggers the imagination. But the stoical Call. He assumes the task alone as his one last act of love and devotion he holds for his dear friend. Unlike Gus, he is a limited character, but even within his limitations, he is capable of the epic and even in moments where his guard is so briefly let down (those moments are few indeed), is able to do what he needs to do, what he must do in the call of love. Perhaps, that’s why his name is Call.
This reminds us of the preciousness of this moment, of this time we have together. It tells us of the primacy of devotion, of awareness, and the need to be as both deep and light as we can be.
Gus’ tale (which begins in an earlier story) begins in the Wild West. This story of Lonesome Dove begins in a West that is becoming tamed, but before Gus can die, he most return to that wild place where death awaits us all. It is a call to us to be all that we can be – to do what we know in our hearts we should do, to take risks, to be tender when we need to be, to be tough when that time arises, to see with a clear piercing vision. Do you hear this call?