A worthy follow-up to Lonesome Dove, the landmark, phenomenally successful 1989 Western miniseries, Return to Lonesome Dove (1993) is more of the same and almost as good, this despite the fact that a) several leading roles have been recast; and b) unlike its predecessor and all subsequent Lonesome Dove-based miniseries, it's an original work not based on a Larry McMurtry novel, nor does it seem to have been made with his participation.
The two disc set, which offers the four movie-length episodes on two discs (with a combined running time of approximately five hours and forty-five minutes) is okay but unexceptional. The show appears to have been shot in 35mm but edited on tape, and rather than remaster everything by going back to the original film elements, distributor Vivendi Entertainment seems content to go with the finished-on-tape version, a disappointment following the excellent Blu-ray presentation of Lonesome Dove . There are no extra features.
The serpentine miniseries picks up almost right after where Lonesome Dove left off. If you haven't yet seen that series, you might want to stop reading right here.
Set in 1878, former Texas Ranger Captain Woodrow F. Call (Jon Voight) spends just one day in Lonesome Dove, Texas - thus making the title something of a misnomer - before heading back toward his Montana ranch. Having stumbled upon a herd of wild mustangs, he decides to drive them north, hoping to breed them with the fine stallions of Clara Allen (Barbara Hershey), who lives on her remote horse ranch with devoted hand July Johnson (Chris Cooper). Call enlists the aid of illegitimate son Newt (Rick Schroder), former ranger Gideon Walker (William Petersen), Isom Pickett (Louis Gossett, Jr.) and his mute, horse-gentler brother, Isaac (Reginald T. Dorsey), and Isom's wife, Sara (CCH Pounder) working the chuck wagon.
Later, unhappy with the greenhorns and lowlifes in Texas, Gideon is persuaded by Agostina Vega (Nia Peeples) to hire poor but experienced horse wranglers from Mexico. She had appeared in the series' opening scene, mysteriously firing her six-shooter and making kindling out of the wooden cross marking the grave of Augustus McCrae, Call's former friend. The unraveling of this mystery is one of Return to Lonesome Dove's many story threads.
Late in the first episode the group eventually splits up. Call rides toward Clara's ranch but is captured by smiling but sadistic outlaw Cherokee Jack Jackson (Dennis Haysbert, effectively creepy in an atypical role) and some full-blooded Indians.
An obnoxious, ne'er-do-well cowboy, Jasper (Barry Tubb) talks Newt into a night at the local whorehouse, but a fight breaks out and, having gunned down their opponents, the pair are on the verge of being lynched when wealthy rancher Gregor Dunnigan (Oliver Reed), a complete stranger, unexpectedly bails them out. Dunnigan's motives are ambiguous: he seems to be grooming Newt for something big, this despite the fact that Dunnigan's much-younger wife, reformed whore Ferris (Reese Witherspoon), is taking an obvious liking to young Newt.
Return to Lonesome Dove is blessed with an exceptional cast - so exceptional that you don't mind that the roles played in the original miniseries by Tommy Lee Jones and Anjelica Huston have been replaced by Jon Voight and Barbara Hershey. It's a lateral shift, with fine actors all-around, and to their credit both Voight and Hershey channel some of their predecessor's speech and mannerisms while at the same time delivering a performances that are uniquely theirs. In recent years Voight's long and impressive career as a film actor has been overshadowed by increasingly bizarre public appearances and editorials taking extreme right-wing fringe positions, such as liking President Obama to the Antichrist, positions that make more famous Hollywood reactionaries like John Wayne and Charlton Heston appear downright moderate by comparison. So extreme are his views I wondered if that would cloud the viewing experience (as, for instance, the appearance of O.J. Simpson in his '70s and '80s movies does for many today). However, Voight so successfully loses himself in the character that within 30 minutes of the first episode this reviewer easily was able to separate the Western character from the very public but way-outside-the-mainstream activist.
The miniseries itself has the same qualities as all the others: the extremely leisurely pace allows for rich, highly satisfying characterizations, as written by John Wilder (who also adapted Lonesome Dove) very much in McMurtry's style and performed with great sensitivity by the ensemble cast of established and future stars.
The series feels only very slightly repetitive and calculating (with its cliffhanger endings and so forth) but it's a formula that works extremely well. A period authenticity is maintained, and Wilder deserves much credit for creating action sequences that are exciting yet also logical. For instance, Capt. Call's escape from Cherokee Jack Jackson and his Native American warriors is notably intense and yet, against all odds, the manner in which he breaks free is extremely clever but also desperate and completely believable.
Video & Audio
Presented in its original full-frame aspect ratio, Return to Lonesome Dove consists of four episodes running approximately 90, 92, 85, and 78 minutes, with two per single-sided disc. While I'd have preferred to see the show remastered and in high-definition, this presentation serves its function adequately. The Dolby Digital stereo audio is up to 1993 television standards, okay for what it is. There are no subtitle or alternate audio options, and no Extra Features.
If you enjoyed Lonesome Dove, chances are pretty good you'll enjoy this worthy follow-up, despite despite the absence of original stars Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. Highly Recommended.
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.