NEW YORK -- 'Lonesome Dove' returns us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear -- to the thundering hoofbeats of cattle and the grit and glory of the cantankerous men who drove them.
The television version of Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is an eight-hour, four-part miniseries, the story of a cattle drive from south Texas to Montana. It airs on CBS Sunday through Wednesday, Feb. 5-8, 9-11 p.m. Eastern time.
It takes the viewer on a great adventure, across the wide sweep of the American frontier. It is full of action, humor, compassion and loving detail.
This is no ordinary cowboy shoot-'em-up. The only cattle rustlers are the heroes. The Indians don't circle the wagons, although there are skirmishes with hostile parties. The cavalry doesn't ride to the rescue.
The heroes are a pair of crusty old codgers, once legendary Texas Rangers who now run the dilapidated Hat Creek Outfit, a cattle and livery company outside the south Texas town of Lonesome Dove.
Robert Duvall plays Gus McCrae, wise, witty, chatty, whose good-natured relations with available saloon girls adds a new dimension to the term cowpoke.
Tommy Lee Jones plays Capt. Woodrow F. Call, a stubborn man of few words, erect spine, stolid and immovable.
The two men are like an old married couple -- they know each other inside out, they bicker, they sometimes irritate each other -- but underneath they are fiercely loyal to their friendship.
Among those at Hat Creek are Newt (Ricky Schroder), the son of a dead prostitute who doesn't know who his father was, and Deets (Danny Glover), a tracker and scout.
Along comes Jake Spoon (Robert Urich), another former Texas Ranger, who's described as a man who's 'blown by the wind' and 'more interested in pretty girls and clean shirts' than in a day's work. He quickly stakes out Lorena (Diane Lane), the local saloon girl.
Jake talks about the beautiful wild country in Montana, where there's adventure to be had and money to be made establishing a cattle ranch. Woodrow decides he wants to go, and from that moment the cattle drive is inevitable.
They steal cattle and horses in a foray into Mexico, take on some extra help -- including William Sanderson ('Newhart's' Larry, as in 'I'm Larry, this is my brother Daryl, etc.') and take off for Montana, along with a pair of frisky pigs who eat out of Gus's hand.
Montana is '2,500 miles thataway,' as one character says.
Gus and Woodrow may be gray-haired and scruffy, but along the drive they prove they can still hold off a marauding band of hostiles or teach respect to a surly bartender.
There are storms, a roiled nest of water mocassins, drought, and so many miles to cross. Gus plans to stop off in Nebraska. He wants to see Clara (Anjelica Huston), the woman he has always loved. He also hopes she's a widow by this time.
Jake and Lorena trail along, until Jake takes off and Lorena is kidnapped by Blue Duck (Frederic Forrest), a renegade Indian of awesomely evil character. Gus gets her back, but it ain't easy.
A subplot deals with July Johnson, the sheriff of Ft. Smith, Ark. He takes off looking for Jake, who accidentally shot (and 'killt') the town dentist. No sooner has Julyhit the trail than his wife, Elmira, hops a ride on a whiskey boat to find her old boyfriend. July ends up seeking Elmira instead of Jake.
A whole lot happens during the eight hours of 'Lonesome Dove,' but more important than the action is the interplay of the characters and the aching nostalgia for an age we never knew, for the country of wide open spaces before the frontiers closed and the towns were built and the range was fenced.
It's a nice place for an armchair visit, even if most modern Americans really wouldn't have liked to live there. We can understand Gus, who wants to stampede a herd of buffalo just because soon there won't be any more herds of buffalo to stampede.
One big advantage television has over feature films is that it works on a flexible clock -- TV can take its time in telling McMurtry's story, paying attention to detail, giving a superb cast a chance to build their characters into three-dimensional people.
The cast makes full use of its eight hours, particularly Duvall and Jones as the graying curmudgeons who never lose their self-respect -- men who can make you laugh, make you sigh, make you cry.
The downside of television is that some of the scenes almost shout for the big screen to show the wide vistas of the West. But even on the small screen the scenery is magnificent, the towns simultaneously dusty and muddy.
When it comes to special effects, it's hard to beat the scene in which the cattle drive is caught in a storm and the lightning dances and crackles blue along the horns of the big herd.
'Lonesome Dove' provides a wonderful trip to another time -- a chance to return to where you've never been.