“We must be wild, like the wild men,” says one of the characters in the ABC miniseries “Larry McMurtry’s Dead Man’s Walk.” But it is an admonition for change that is rarely fulfilled in the five-hour epic, which traces the early years of “Lonesome Dove’s” Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call.
The only “wild men” in the series, in fact, are the war chief, Buffalo Hump, and his Comanches. Their portrayal, and the portrayal of Apaches as well, may be the most retro depiction of Native Americans in years. At its worst, it harkens back to the western movies in which indigenous peoples appeared to have no interests beyond torturing, burning and killing--of which there is plenty in this often harrowing picture.
The occasionally confusing sequence of events follows McCrae (performed with an appealing, ingenuous quality by David Arquette) and Call (stoically rendered by Jonny Lee Miller) as Texas Rangers, embarked upon a quixotic odyssey to seize Santa Fe from the Mexicans.
In the course of their expedition, they encounter freezing weather, burning deserts, angry bear attacks and a series of vicious strikes by the Comanches. Captured by the Mexicans they planned to assault, who are led by Edward James Olmos’ soldierly Capt. Salazar, they reach the startling climax of their journey in the leper colony of San Lazaro.
But the growth and change that one would expect to see in the dramatic tale of young men exposed to such a remarkable rite of passage never takes place. Instead, it is the prostitute, Matilda Jane (in a sweetly compassionate performance by Patricia Childress), who--through her capacity to experience and articulate the emotions that the others seem incapable of expressing--emerges as the individual who has gained the most from the long and deadly days on the trail.
Among the additional participants, F. Murray Abraham offers an overly theatrical interpretation of the land pirate Caleb Cobb and Harry Dean Stanton seems intermittently perplexed as the tracker, Shadrach. Keith Carradine, however, is perfectly cast as the yarn-spinning conscience of the story, Bigfoot Wallace.
The beautifully photographed atmospheric scenes were shot in Southwest Texas by cinematographer Edward Pei. Director Yves Simoneau did the best he could with a script--by McMurtry and producer Diana Ossana--that provided little in the way of workable character development.
* “Larry McMurtry’s Dead Man’s Walk” airs on 9-11 p.m. Sunday and 8-11 p.m. Monday on ABC (Channels 7 and 3).