Captain Inish Scull (Val Kilmer) is in pursuit of a “felonious foe.” In 1858, he and his fellow Rangers are riding the Northwest Texas range, their bodies bent and faces sun-burned. When one of his men points off in the distance toward a band of Comanche, suggesting these might be appropriate “foes,” the captain is adamant. “They’re the wrong Indians,” he says, deciding against attacking Buffalo Hump (Wes Studi). Instead, he contemplates the future, when all the Indians will be gone or contained. He’s not looking forward to such a day, he tells Gus McCrae (Steve Zahn): “I’m a fighting man, Mr. McCrae. And fighting men need other fighting men to fight.”
This first exchange in Comanche Moon leaves Gus and his best friend Woodrow F. Call (Karl Urban) at something of a loss. Much as they admire Scull’s outsized personality and entertaining vanity, their understanding of what it means to be a Ranger is rather different than his. While all of them take advantage of the reputation it affords them — as untamable manly men, only rarely alighting among civilians and ever ready to venture forth — they tend to see Rangering as a job, not a moral mission. And they certainly don’t see the Indians as “men,” fighting or otherwise.
Unfortunately, the three-part miniseries Comanche Moon, based on Larry McMurtry’s prequel to Lonesome Dove, is primarily concerned with Gus and Call (played with more heft in the 1989 miniseries by Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones). They’re good boys, en route to becoming old, but they’re awfully bland too, Western heroes with few complications or surprises. (Again, they are here differentiated from Scull, who early on pronounces, “The tragedy of man is not death or epidemic or lust; the tragedy of man is boredom”). All three are surrounded by a host of younger versions of Lonesome Dove figures, including the painfully loyal Deets (Keith Robinson), well-meaning youngster Jake (Ryan Merriman), and Gus’ lively, practical-minded love Clara (Linda Cardellini). Much as the series is dedicated to filling in backstory for Gus and Call, it jumps in and out of multiple plots, which means Scull is not on screen nearly enough and the titular Comanche are reduced to stereotypes.
These include Buffalo Hump, a once mighty warrior and band leader now aging out of his role and aware of the writing on the wall. “They will get stronger until they fight better than we fight,” he warns an assembly of Comanche braves. “We must defeat the Texans now, otherwise they will break us and the way of the Comanche will disappear.” When he adds the coda that “We will kill every Texan we find,” he can’t know how literally his son rambunctious son, Blue Duck (Adam Beach) will take his words. The younger man is not alone in his bitter resentment of the limitations imposed by the whites, including directives as to where they’re supposed to live (on reservations) as well as how (no roaming about with buffalo herds, no competitive interactions with other bands). As the miniseries begins, a flashforward shows a ceremony in which the “chieftans of the mighty Comanche nation” are conceding land and independence to a squad of white men, only to be interrupted by an angry subset of Comanche who swoop in a commit bloody mayhem on everyone in sight: the scene ends on a traumatized child wailing by his mother’s hatcheted corpse.
This is not the work of “men” in the sense that Scull envisions. And his decision to send his Rangers home so he can pursue the “felonious foe” Kicking Horse (Jonathon Joss) does lead to some confusion and a plotline that vaguely resembles that of The Searchers: as soon as they arrive home in Austin, Gus and Call are sent back out by Governor Elisha Pease (James Rebhorn) to retrieve him, an assignment they will pursue for months, repeatedly returning to base and departing, their horses enduring long months of hard riding. They can’t know that Scull has since been captured in Northern Mexico by the arrogant horse thief Ahumado (Sal Lopez), who travels with his very own torturer and “skinner,” Goyeto (Fredrick Lopez), but they do know the assignment gives them yet another chance to get out of town and once again abandon the girls who await their commitments.
While Gus appears truly to be in love with Clara, she’s rightly concerned about his predilections (her mother cautions, “You may have his heart, but you’ll never have the man; he will wander god’s green earth until the day he dies”). She tells him outright, “I just can’t stand all this leavin’,” even as he promises for the umpteenth time that he’ll be back in a week and then disappears for a year. At the same time, because such plots tend to be overly balanced, Call’s girl, erstwhile hooker Maggie (Elizabeth Banks), is more willing to wait. Much like her precursors in John Ford movies, she’s stalwart, spunky, and confused, holding down a domestic front while Call is utterly incapable of articulating his feelings for her, much less taking responsibility for the child she soon reveals she’s carrying. It’s a familiar narrative and tedious for that, especially given Urban’s flatfooted performance. Three’s not a moment in the series when you think she should be waiting for him, much less enduring hardship and scornful pity from her god-fearing, mostly anonymous community.
Lucky for her, Maggie does have a couple of stoic “best friends” in Clara and Pearl Coleman (Melanie Lynskey). Unlucky for us, their roles soon devolve into occasions to show how poorly men understand the diurnal details of an organized, socially responsible life. When, during one of the Rangers’ many absences, the Comanche swoop in for a bloody raid, leaving at least one woman “ruined” (not to mention her unborn child miscarried), her man can’t even acknowledge what she’s been through. Instead, he’s focused on his own humiliation and loss, which again means a woman is left to cope with raising kids, suffering gossip, and abiding all manner of economic privation. At least they’re not reduced to “sexual object,” as is Therese Wanz (Indira Varma), the French cofounder of Lonesome Dove, who first appears to Gus and Call covered in impossibly opaque bath-soap and demanding Gus’ duster so she might service them with haircuts and shaves.
The miniseries seems not to take any of its women seriously, especially its most strident versions, Inish’s angry harridan of a wife Inez (Rachel Griffiths), who appears repeatedly seducing young, stupid white men, and the “wise old Mexican woman” who informs Ahumado of his prisoner’s apparently magical (or is it just manic?) powers. Though Ahumado imagines he’s got control of the situation when he locks Scull in a cage or then later drops him into a pit with poisonous snakes, the captain remains ascendant.
Mostly, Scull achieves such status by Kilmer’s singular energy: this guy is essentially in another movie altogether, unconfined by the strictures of “Western” heroics or even conventions of valiant masculinity. He is, rather, a loon, singing in German and French, calling up a bright green parrot and a jaguar (embodiments of Comanche mythology), and completely convinced of his own brilliance and righteousness.
The most outrageous and most pleasurable element in Comanche Moon, Scull is also its strangest, least plausible, and most convincing incarnation of “history.” Selective in its representations of any sort of history, the miniseries skips right over the Civil War, between Parts Two and Three, in order to maintain focus on its melodramatic white folks and, less effectively, their interactions with the Comanche. Scull fills in some gaps, his self-importance, careerism, and willful blindness alluding to the complexities and flaws that comprise American Western myths.