The Plots of Streets of Laredo and Dead Man’s Walk Are Prone to Wandering Off Into the Frontier

In 1989 the adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove was a huge hit for CBS. The miniseries garnered a large television audience, won multiple Emmy and Golden Globe awards, and spawned two TV series and an additional slapdash miniseries. Many fans deny the legitimacy these endeavors because McMurtry wasn’t involved with the productions, and they were created to exploit the popularity of the original miniseries.

No matter the stance of the fan base, from 1993 to 1996, Lonesome Dove was all up in everyone’s business. In 1995 and 1996, official adaptations of McMurtry’s second and third sequels, Streets of Laredo and Dead Man’s Walk, were produced for television. McMurtry seems to have singlehandedly fueled the late ‘80s and mid ‘90s miniseries industry.

Like the original, 1995’s Streets of Laredo features an almost absurd list of actors. The cast includes James Garner, Sissy Spacek, Sam Shepard, George Carlin, Ned Beatty, Wes Studi, James Gammon, and Randy “The Superior Quaid” Quaid, among others. Everywhere you look you see a familiar face. It’s like four and half hours of pointing at the screen and going, “Hey, I know that guy from something else”.

Garner plays legendary former Texas Ranger, Woodrow F. Call, the role played by Tommy Lee Jones in Lonesome Dove, which has also been played at various points by John Voight, Lee Majors, Jonny Lee Miller, and Karl Urban. Many years have passed since the action of the original, and Call is now a bounty hunter working for the railroads. He is hired to kill a young, blond Mexican, Joey Garza (Alexis Cruz), who has been robbing trains.

Call enlists the help of his trusty sidekick, Pea Eye Parker (Shepard). In true western fashion, Pea Eye has amended the hell-raising ways of his youth, and settled down. He has about forty kids with Lorena (Spacek in the role Diane Lane played in the 1989), his ex-prostitute cum schoolteacher wife. He is reluctant to leave his family behind, and originally declines Call’s offer, sending him on his way alone, but his new way of life butts heads with his old ways, and he ultimately leaves to go find and join Call.

What follows is a sprawling jumble of a story. Some might use the word “epic”, but not me – epic implies more coherence. I lost count of the innumerable subplots and minor characters. Everyone’s tale gets told, regardless of how it relates to the plot and progression of the narrative, and all of a sudden the story shoots off in one direction for a while following a tangent that has no importance to the main thrust of the story. There are a young husband and wife that only exist so she can be raped then commit suicide, and so the husband can then have a break down and be murdered off screen after he finds out. It is completely ancillary. Lorena disappears for almost 90 minutes in the middle. At times, it can be frustrating to watch since the focus of the story shifts every few minutes and wanders off.

These are all kinds of things you can get away with in a 500 page novel, and I know McMurtry wrote the screenplay and wanted to preserve the integrity of his work, and fans of his books probably love it, but so much of this could have been trimmed. The miniseries originally appeared in three 90-minute blocks, which could have been pared down to two without any trouble. The story would be way more streamlined, and, without getting hung up on digressions and asides, would have a smoother flow. As it is, it will try to buck you off as you ride along.

The acting is as solid as you would expect it to be, given the cast. Garner is good as the aging gunslinger that isn’t quite as fast as he used to be. He is cool and withdrawn, emotionally disconnected from the world, and though everyone talks of him being a bad ass, you don’t see it portrayed on screen and start to wonder. That is, until the rage and fury tear finally through the façade and he nearly beats a man to death in a mad eruption of brutality. In the most violent moment in the miniseries, he has to be tied up by his friends and pulled off. It’s like a shark in a feeding frenzy. A few minutes later he is calm again, but now we know something about him. In the end, his character is the most interesting, and is the most changed from his experiences.

Spacek and Shepard are both haunted by ghosts from their pasts. They have this new life, a domesticated bliss, which seems perfect on the surface, but try as they might, it is difficult for them to escape the people they once were. Pea Eye is drawn to Call by loyalty and a sense of adventure he doesn’t get from his family, and skeletons from Lorena’s closet crawl back out into the daylight and threaten her new found tranquility.

From Streets of Laredo

Despite the quality performances, Streets of Laredo feels like a soap opera in cowboy boots. The source material is over the top melodramatic. That’s probably why I remember seeing the books on the shelves in the supermarket next to trashy romance novels. Seriously, there is a mother who has one son that has “gone bad”, another who is mentally handicapped and only communicates in goat noises (I’m not making this up), and a blind daughter. Really? Why not just give her a wooden leg, an eye patch, and a lisp while you’re at it? Everything, every aspect of the story is infused with melodrama, and saturated with excessive emotionality and sentimentality.

The scenery is full of the standard western images. There are blood-red sunsets over expansive plains, shootouts, trains steaming into small outposts, reformed gunfighters, rough farmers, former prostitutes, and everything else that goes along with the genre.

One major flaw, and I’m not sure whether to call this a flaw or not, is that there is a lot to Streets of Laredo that is staked on a preexisting knowledge of Lonesome Dove. There are connections between characters that aren’t entirely clear, and subtleties in relationships that you won’t necessarily understand without prior knowledge of these people and their histories. While I’m sure that is great for fans, it makes it difficult for the miniseries to be watched as a stand alone entity.

That is the trouble with a sequel. You have to walk a thin line between completely rehashing the first part and boring the carry over audience, and relying too much on what came before, not clarifying enough, thus alienating potential new fans. Perhaps in the Lonesome Dove mania in the mid ‘90s, the average viewer was more familiar with the material, but from a vantage point of 15 years, there isn’t enough connection with the past.

The year after Streets of Laredo, the third installment of the Lonesome Dove books appeared television. Like its predecessor, Dead Man’s Walk is four and a half hours long. That’s 270 minutes if you’re keeping track. Though equally long, the story is much more straightforward.

Dead Man’s Walk is a prequel, which is a term I hate, so I’ll use my preferred idiom and call it an origin story. This story serves the same purpose as The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Batman: Year One. It introduces beloved characters in their early, formative days, and is the story of Woodrow F. Call (Jonny Lee Miller in this manifestation) and Augustus “Gus” McCrae (David Arquette in the role made famous by Robert Duvall). They are feisty young Texas Rangers trying to make their way, looking for love, adventure, and a life in the rugged Republic of Texas.

While Streets of Laredo is as much a melodrama as a western, Dead Man’s Walk is a straight ahead Cowboys and Indians story. We meet our heroes in the wilderness on a scouting mission, and spend the majority of the screen time following them on an ill-fated mission to take over Santa Fe and annex New Mexico into Texas. They are nearly wiped out by hostile natives, starvation, and dehydration, and taken prisoner by the Mexican army.

For anyone looking for overt racism in the western genre, this is a prime example. The portrayal of Native Americans is ridiculous across the board. They are cowards who will abandon you; they are one-dimensional, blood-thirsty savages; they will kidnap and torture you; they will rape every woman they see; and they will trade with you then sneak up and rob and murder you. It is like they took every antiquated stereotype and crammed it into a single story. They’re portrayed as animals that barely communicate outside of grunting and pointing. I thought by 1996 we had moved beyond such simplistic, blanket representations in westerns, but apparently I was very, very wrong.

Like its predecessors, Dead Man’s Walk has a list of well-known names in the credits. I already mentioned David Arquette and Jonny Lee Miller, but Brian Dennehy, Keith Carradine, F. Murray Abraham, and Tim Blake Nelson all show up. Man-faced Jennifer Garner plays Clara, Angelica Huston’s role in Lonesome Dove, and let it be said, Jennifer Garner is no Angelica Huston.

Arquette’s accent is over the top ridiculous, though over time it seems to settle in and become manageable, and Jennifer Garner is flat out annoying, but her screen time is thankfully limited. While overall, the acting is nowhere near as solid as in the previous installments, there are some bright spots. Edward James Olmos is great as a captain in the Mexican army. In a relatively small role, he gives a subtle performance as a man conflicted by his duty and his heart, and steals all of his scenes.

Harry Dean Stanton, as the plainsman Shadrach, is the best part of the entire miniseries. He dispenses grizzled, frontier wisdom, and wears an entire raccoon on his head the entire time. Though he can be hard and tough, he is also responsible for the sweetest, most human moments in Dead Man’s Walk. The scenes between Shad and his ex-prostitute wife, Mattie (Patricia Childress), provide the only moments of real romantic, emotional connection. (I think McMurtry has a thing for former prostitutes). They achieve what the interactions between Gus and Clara do not, moment of authentic emotion. The scenes with Gus and Clara falter are contrived, uninspired exchanges that falter and establish nothing.

There are moments of supposed levity, but most fail as ridiculous and overly slapstick. There is a lot of drunken falling, and forced, faux hillbilly idiocy. All I’m going to say on this is that Colonel Cobb (F. Murray Abraham) has a parrot in the middle of the Texas desert.

Dead Man’s Walk functions better on it’s own than Streets of Laredo, and though it stands alone, there are still enough references to the saga as a whole to keep fans happy, though you don’t need to be one to make sense of this story. That said, it is definitely the weaker of the two. While the story is more coherent, at the end you’ll be left asking yourself, “Why?” There is nothing introduced that is necessary to the Lonesome Dove mythology as an entire entity, and it doesn’t show the characters becoming who they ultimately become, because, throughout the narrative, the four and a half hour narrative, none of them actually changes. Neither Gus nor Call is any different at the end than at the beginning. Apparently the forth book in the series, Comache Moon, itself a 2008 miniseries, is yet another prequel to Lonesome Dove.

Last, I just need to vent for a second, if you have four and a half hours to tell a story, you shouldn’t have to rush to tie up every single loose end in the last fifteen minutes. It feels like after 255-minutes of screen time producers realized, “Holy crap, we only fifteen minutes to resolve this thing”, and quickly brought in every minuscule dangling thread.

If you are already a fan of Lonesome Dove, then you will probably enjoy Streets of Laredo and Dead Man’s Walk. If not, and if you don’t intend to watch the entire saga, you’ll probably won’t want to invest the time – and it is certainly an investment.

Though the DVD packaging is slick and looks nice, neither miniseries comes with any extras at all. You can select scenes, but that’s it. There aren’t even any subtitles, but lets be honest here, after sitting through a combined nine hours of miniseries, do you really need to watch more?

RATING 5 / 10