The World of
Western writer Larry McMurtry claims his fiction is misunderstood. Readers celebrate his works’ heroism and romance, but McMurtry maintains his intention is to de-spur cowboys and sabotage myths about the American frontier. Lonesome Dove depicts the harsh lives of retired Texas Rangers; his Brokeback Mountain screenplay portrays a tragically unhappy cowboy love story; The Last Picture Show exposes a Texas town’s ugly underbelly. Subversive or not, McMurtry spins a darn good yarn.
Tom Wolfe, the white-suit-wearing American author of The Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) and The Right Stuff (1979), was a pioneering literary journalist in the 1960s. His Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test chronicles the meandering bus trips of the Merry Pranksters, a group of hippies led by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962). The pranksters, who also included Jack Kerouac’s pal Neal Cassady, followed their leader on trips both geographic and drug induced (“acid test” refers to LSD). Wolfe’s book describes the group’s 1966 encounter with Larry McMurtry, who is shown in photographs of the time wearing a sweatshirt labeled “Minor Regional Novelist.” The mild-mannered Texan is polite though taken aback when an addled, naked hippie jumps off the bus and embraces his young child as her own.
Kesey and McMurtry met in 1960 as students in the Stegner Fellowship writing workshop at Stanford University. Writer and critic Malcolm Cowley, teaching for Wallace Stegner that fall, took out his hearing aid when Kesey and other students (some already published authors) battled wills. In a memorial essay he wrote after Kesey died, McMurtry remembered him as a “stud-duck” who dominated the classroom.
Nineteen years before his career-defining novel Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry created a cast of characters raunchier than trail hands, crueler than bloodthirsty bandits, wilder than the untamed frontier: small-town Texas teenagers. The beautiful, egotistical Jacy induces her boyfriend, Duane, to take her virginity only so she can arouse another man’s interest. Duane, in his turn, smashes a beer bottle into his best friend’s eye. Meanwhile, the friend, Sonny, is cuckolding the high school football coach. When The Last Picture Show was published in 1966, McMurtry’s hometown, Archer City, Texas, did not react with the blend of pride and honor customarily bestowed on residents who make it big. Instead the townsfolk were appalled that the bold upstart had painted their burg in shades so ugly.
Peter Bogdanovich directed a film adaptation of the novel in 1971. The movie was shot mostly in a seedy wisp of a town—none other than Archer City—and the tone of the book was not mellowed. During an all-nude swimming party, actor Cybill Shepherd, as Jacy, strips down on a diving board in front of a peering child before throwing her underwear in his face. In 1973, Phoenix, Arizona, banned the film for that scene.
The Last Picture Show ends with the closing of the only movie theater in an impoverished, desolate Texas town, an unsubtle metaphor for the end of an era. While scouting locations for the movie, author Larry McMurtry and director Peter Bogdanovich discussed making another film, a Western. McMurtry began writing a screenplay—an epic centered around two aging former Texas Rangers herding cattle northward to Montana. The movie was pitched to Hollywood legends John Wayne and James Stewart but hit a dead end when Wayne refused the role: “A last picture show for Westerns,” as he put it, did not appeal to him.
Bogdanovich considered the developing screenplay, already 350 pages, “way too long” and encouraged McMurtry to turn the story into a novel. Lonesome Dove, running to nearly 850 pages, was published in 1985. Four years later McMurtry’s Western finally hit the screen (though not the one intended), as a CBS television miniseries. In place of Wayne and Stewart was a new pair of actors, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Duvall. Lonesome Dove’s final shot is of an impoverished, desolate Texas town, the sky turning shades of purple as the sun fades—a “last picture” of a bygone West.
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s novel about a cattle drive from the Texas-Mexico border to Montana, delights readers with its minutiae, from the culinary (including fried grasshoppers) to the linguistic (e.g., the preferred cowboy term for sex, a poke). With its sweeping scope and attention to detail, it was challenging to adapt to the screen. The locations provided the requisite realism: So much grit and grime billowed about the set, the crew referred to the production as “Lonesome Dust.” The result is remarkably close to the book.
Yet McMurtry did not like the miniseries, nor had he been happy with the book’s reception, even though it won a Pulitzer Prize. He had written it as an anti-Western, a protest against Hollywood contrivances like cowboys saving distressed damsels. In one encounter, Augustus, one of the protagonists, rides into a group of bandits, kills them all and, yes, saves a woman. But McMurtry subverts the act of bravado a few pages later: When Gus returns to his camp he finds the slaughtered remains of the two children and their bumbling protector whom he had left behind. Nevertheless, many readers saw the novel’s larger-than-life characters as engaged in an epic romance of frontier days.
In the Lonesome Dove miniseries, protagonists Augustus McCrae (Robert Duvall) and Woodrow Call (Tommy Lee Jones) order drinks in a San Antonio saloon. The surly bartender complains about the dust caking their clothing. Augustus breaks the bartender’s nose. It’s not the barkeep’s rudeness or his “dawdling service” he objects to so much as the lack of respect: Behind the bar is a framed photograph of the pair in their days as Texas Rangers, when they protected settlers from attacks by native Comanche.
The Texas Rangers, now a division of the state’s Department of Public Safety, formed in the early 1800s, when Mexico controlled the region, to protect Anglo-American settlements. A drawn-out, bloody war between Mexico and the settlers resulted in the annexation of Texas to the United States in 1845 but did little to promote good race relations. The rangers patrolled with such brutality the Mexicans called them los diablos Tejanos, “the Texas devils.” Corridos, songs that became popular in Mexico in the late 1800s, often featured a stock villain who was a Texas Ranger. The rangers, responsible for killing the notorious bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde in 1934, have always been heroes to some and glorified thugs to others.
Tommy Lee Jones plays an aging Texas lawman in both Lonesome Dove and No Country for Old Men. Forty-one years old when he made the Lonesome Dove miniseries (1989), Jones wore prosthetic wrinkles to match the age of his character, Woodrow Call, but he had no trouble embodying Call’s persona: taciturn, stubborn and vastly confident of his own capabilities. Even the idea of driving cattle thousands of miles causes Call no qualms.
In No Country for Old Men, based on Cormac McCarthy’s 2005 novel, Jones’s character, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, lacks Call’s self-certainty. Sixteen years after Jones mimicked Call’s perpetual frown, his face has developed its own wrinkles. Up against the stomach-curdling brutality of a border drug war and a psychopath (Javier Bardem) whose favored mode of murder is a bolt gun normally used to stun cattle, Bell fails to resolve or even make sense of the mayhem. The force of the bleak, violent Texas backdrop is overwhelming. Larry McMurtry sought to portray a similarly corrupt vision of the West in Lonesome Dove, but to his chagrin, readers focused on the heroism in the characters of Call and company. McMurtry has professed admiration for McCarthy’s book as a Western novel.
Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain (2005), its screenplay adapted by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana from the 1997 short story by Annie Proulx, tells of roughnecks Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), who become lovers one cold summer night while protecting sheep on a mountain. The bigoted, violent inhabitants of early-1960s Wyoming do not look kindly on such a relationship.
Brokeback is another attempt by McMurtry to change public perception of the American cowboy and subvert what he calls “the Western myth.” Although titles like Rough Romance and Ride Him, Cowboy, seem to suggest otherwise, homosexuality is rarely shown explicitly in cowboy movies. Brokeback, however, did not shy from sex scenes between the wranglers. Fox News pundit Bill O’Reilly, while affirming the rights of gays to pursue happiness, viewed this as an affront to tradition. In an article titled “The Good, the Bad, and the Pup Tent,” O’Reilly ponders what might happen if the characters from the iconic Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly came across Ennis and Jack at their camp: “I believe gunfire might have been involved.” Larry McMurtry is probably happy knowing someone finally thinks he subverted the myth.