Did I write, "Dallas is dead," in my last review? Well, no it ain't, boy! Warner Bros., doing the right thing, has released the Dallas Movie Collection, a two-disc gathering of the made-for-television movies Dallas: The Early Years, a beautifully shot prequel from 1986, Dallas: J.R. Returns, from 1996 (which settled that final nasty cliffhanger), and Dallas: War of the Ewings, from 1998. As an added treat, the 2004 TV special, Dallas Reunion: Return to Southfork, in included here as a sweet bonus. You know something, son? Dallas ain't never gonna die...at least not in the hearts of its loyal fans, and these three TV movies give those fans just what they want: every last drop of deceit, chicanery, blood feuds, sexual infidelity, and always, always, the lust for power―all provided courtesy of Mr. J.R. Ewing, rat bastard extraordinaire. Let's look very briefly at these three television movies.
DALLAS: THE EARLY YEARS
Armistice Day 1951 on the vast Southfork cattle ranch in Texas. As multimillionaire oil man John Ross "Jock" Ewing (Dale Midkiff) discusses with his guests the chances of Dwight D. Eisenhower entering the Presidential race, a dirty, disheveled, drunken Willard "Digger" Barnes (David Marshall Grant) stumbles through the crowd, unsteadily aiming his gun at his former friend and now deadly enemy, Jock Ewing. Flash back to Southfork, 1933. Eleanor "Miss Ellie" Southworth (Molly Hagan), the spirited, headstrong, independent daughter of cattleman Aaron Southworth (Hoyt Axton), wants her friend, Willard Barnes, to stop drinking and to meet her parents. But Willard blows the evening (he smashes their liquor cabinet when he climbs it to get a drink), coming back later to climb into her bedroom window and profess his love for Miss Ellie. She responds, but after being chased out of the second-story window by her brother, Garrison (Matt Hulhern), Willard lights out of Southfork for good.
Enter Jock Ewing, who, riding the rails with Willard, defends the smaller man from a boot-stealing hobo. Fast friends now, Jock takes Willard to meet his brother Jason (David Wilson), who works for oil man Ed Porter (Geoffrey Lewis). Willard, a natural "diviner" for oil fields, tries to tell Ed he's tapping a dry hole, but no one listens...until Jock takes "Digger" seriously when the diviner suddenly "feels" an oil well lying under a black sharecropper's farm. Jock determines that Seth Foster (Bill Duke) and the rest of the sharecroppers could sublease their land to him, and thereby drill for oil, but bigot oil man Newman (William Frankfather), makes sure they don't get any money, courtesy of the Klan. Still, Jock and "Digger" make out okay when they sell their oil leases, and it's time to return to Southfork where Digger plans to claim his prize: cash-poor Miss Ellie, who desperately wants to save her Daddy's ranch since drought and anthrax have almost wiped out the proud family. There's only one thing she didn't count on: her attraction to smug, arrogant Jock.
I haven't seen Dallas: The Early Years since its premiere way back in March of '86, but I never forgot it―it's a terrific prequel to the series, epic in scale, beautifully shot and acted, and quite deft in laying out the groundwork for all the "future" confrontations that will come to the characters. Loyal fans of Dallas in 1986 were not exactly happy with the direction the series was taking (that's an understatement), so it was remarkable to see this three-hour (with commercials) TV movie pop up for spring "sweeps" that year. Written by David Jacobs, one of the original creators of not only Dallas but its spin-off Knots Landing, and directed by Larry Elikann, a veteran of many TV movies and series too numerous to list here, Dallas: The Early Years feels like a smaller version of Giant, the George Stevens film that many believe served as the inspiration for Dallas (right down to the initials of James Dean's wretched oil man character Jet Rink: J.R.). Shot as well as any big screen movie out in the theaters in 1986 (courtesy of cinematographer Neil Roach), with a meticulous production design that gets all the period details just right, Dallas: The Early Years has an alternately solemn/playful feel that expands our mythology of the original series, lending it a retroactive weight that feels almost Shakespearean in its delineation of the decades-long blood feud between Jock Ewing and Digger Barnes.
As followers of the series know full well, the Jock/Miss Ellie/Digger triangle held dark secrets that served as the fulcrum for the series' central (and best) conflict: the Ewings versus the Barnes. Here in Dallas: The Early Years, we get to see how it all happened, and there are some surprises in store for fans, including the notion that Miss Ellie essentially "sold" herself to Jock―a horny little amorality made somehow romantic when she innocently asks, "When can we do this again?" after Jock takes her virginity (so much for our little lady Miss Ellie...). Handsome Dale Midkiff essays another pop culture icon to solid effect (he's probably the best-remembered of all the TV Elvises), while Molly Hagan hits just the right note of predicting Barbara Bel Geddes' spunkiness and sweet grit. David Marshall Grant, though, walks off with the movie, creating a memorably weak, charming Digger Barnes who can't do anything but drink and find oil. He's treating his performance like it's something out of O'Neill or Steinbeck, and indeed, the entire production is geared not as some half-assed soap opera knock-off, but as legitimate, tragic drama―a surprising tone when you consider the celebrated (and welcome) crude vitality of the original series. Dallas: The Early Years is a winner all the way down the line; too bad CBS didn't expand this one-off into a concurrently running "prequel" series of Dallas―how cool would that have been back in 1986?
DALLAS: J.R. RETURNS
Picking up five years after the final, desperate act of J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) to commit suicide, Dallas: J.R. Returns finds the wily oil man alive and well (he apparently missed with that pistol to the head shot), and coming back to Dallas from Paris. Bent on what else―getting Ewing Oil back―J.R. pays a friendly visit to Ewing Oil's president, Cliff Barnes (Ken Kercheval), letting him know he's going to lose that company, but fast. Meanwhile, back at the Southfork ranch, Bobby Ewing (Patrick Duffy), is realizing that with Christopher (Chris Demetral) going off to college, he doesn't want to rattle around Southfork all alone, so a sale is planned. Of course, nothing could be more sacrilegious to J.R. than having Southfork sold to a stranger, so part of J.R.'s plan to take back Ewing Oil involves getting Bobby back into the oil game...which Bobby wants no part of. So J.R.'s "double secret probation" plan goes into effect. With the um...ahem...aid of Harve Smithfield's (George O. Petrie) smoking hot niece, lawyer Anita Smithfield (Tracy Scoggins), J.R. discovers that Jock's will's codicil includes a payment of stock of a computer company―now worth 200 million―to John Ross Ewing (Omri Katz) upon the death of J.R.. So...J.R. has Anita change the depositor slip to himself...and then proceeds to fake his own fiery death by squishing a hobo with a tracker trailer. The money goes to his account; he buys up Westar stock, the holding company for Ewing Oil, and now he gets to squeeze nemesis Carter McKay (George Kennedy). There's only one pesky problem for 'ol J.R....he, um...faked his own death.
When I saw ads for Dallas: J.R. Returns back in 1996, I did not want to watch it. I knew I was going to, of course...but I didn't want to. Dallas had been cancelled five years earlier, and it seemed both too soon and too long-gone for a potential series reboot. The final seasons of Dallas had been trying at best for fans, and I was done with it for awhile; nostalgia hadn't had time to set in. But naturally, I watched it, and I have to admit that I found Dallas: J.R. Returns just as enjoyable then as I do now. This may not be top-flight Dallas by any means (nothing can compare to those first few, fevered years, when Dallas was balls-out the most entertaining drama on television), but Dallas: J.R. Returns does a more-than-credible job of distilling down about a season's worth of plotting and backstabbing in a quick, quick 86 minutes. All the classic Dallas elements are featured here: J.R.'s relentless scheming and double-dealing; his rutting, barnyard sexual sensibilities (his first act in Dallas after visiting Ewing Oil, of course? Nailing a twenty-something lawyer in his office); Bobby's existential angst over loss of family and his place alongside his hated/loved brother; his perpetual search for a Pam replacement; Sue Ellen's (Linda Gray) growing independence, complicated by her sick need to still be with J.R.; Cliff's inevitable trouncing at the hands of J.R. (McKay for that matter, too). All of these elements are handled with a noticeable yet subtle bemused stance; the filmmakers know full well what they're perpetuating. Most of the stalwarts are back in the saddle for this one (Hagman, the driving force behind these reunion specials, knew that's what fans wanted: the core Dallas dynamic), and Patrick Duffy and Linda Gray look remarkably untouched. It may be a little disconcerting to see how ravaged Larry Hagman appears here (was this before or after his liver transplant?), but he's certainly game for all the J.R. hijinks, and you can just tell he'd love another weekly stint playing good 'ol J.R. The networks didn't bite for that proposal, but they did go in for another TV movie: Dallas: War of the Ewings.
DALLAS: WAR OF THE EWINGS
With Sue Ellen and Bobby now owners of Ewing Oil, Westar's president, J.R. Ewing wants them out, and apparently, the only way to do that is to get Bobby and Sue Ellen together sexually (huh?). Well, it's complicated, but the way J.R. figures, with his lawyer/sex partner Anita, the sooner Bobby and Sue Ellen get close, the quicker they'll part, leaving Sue Ellen alone at Ewing Oil, so J.R. can swoop in and snatch up the joint. There's a problem, though: J.R. needs cash to buy Ewing Oil, and the banks aren't going for it. There's always Ray Krebbs' (Steve Kanaly) cotton and, though, and that half-breed Ewing is back from Europe and looking for some fast cash. However, that's where another problem crops up: underneath all that cotton, there's oil in them thar fields, and J.R. and Carter McKay will stop at nothing to get it.
SPOILERS WARNINGComing a year and a half after Dallas: J.R. Returns, the over-emphatically titled Dallas: War of the Ewings (who's warring again? Is it really a war...or just the same old bickering and back-stabbing?) seemed rather pointless in 1998. If anyone wanted to see J.R. return, they did so with the previous movie...and not enough wanted to to have a new series commissioned. So what was the driving factor for fans to catch this follow-up almost two years later? I could forgive the producers, however, for hatching this follow-up, in the spirit of beating a dead horse. Why the hell shouldn't executive producers Hagman and Duffy try and milk every last penny from the one franchise that kept them in front of the public? If I were either of them, I would be playing Bobby and J.R. in dinner theaters, at county fairs, at demolition derbies, at PTA meetings for crissakes, if it meant a substantial payday. So why not keep the whole ball rolling?
And that's cool...until you realize there's no real story in Dallas: War of the Ewings because the central premise never makes a lick of sense. Explain again to me why Bobby and Sue Ellen must become lovers to make the plan work? That's obviously the ploy the filmmakers wanted to exploit, considering they open the film with a parody of Dallas' most notorious sin: the shower scene with Bobby. Only this time, it's Sue Ellen getting the Irish SpringŪ treatment from her ex-brother-in-law. Okay...I'm game for them getting together; after all, the series hinted at the possibility several times over the years, and nothing would be better revenge for both of them on cheating, lying J.R.. However, the producers back off of this intriguing situation, and drive instead towards a thoroughly conventional Dallas plot about stealing back Ewing Oil that we've all seen a hundred times already. None of it is particularly interesting. None of it certainly is original. And if you really want to see that story some fifteen years after the original fact...go back to the reruns; they did it better back then. A pointless exercise in printing more money which fails the first―and only―Dallas test: it's boring.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.