Commentary – A great story is a great story

Joe McWilliams

Like a lot of people who grew up in my generation, I saw a lot of western-themed movies and TV shows. By the time I was in my upper teens, I was pretty much fed up with westerns and the western genre generally.
I wasn’t alone in that impression. Hollywood eventually got the message and started looking elsewhere for the ‘next big thing.’ It turned out to be space. George Lucas put a western in a galaxy far, far away and changed everything. Hollywood has been cashing in ever since.
The western film never disappeared altogether. Various eccentric westerns came out; Mel Brooks made fun of the whole genre in Blazing Saddles. Somebody else hired Bob Dylan to provide music for a story [yet another one] about Billy the Kid, in an effort to recapture a lost audience. It was a lousy movie, but some of the songs Dylan wrote for it have an enduring appeal, such as Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.
Clint Eastwood never gave up on the western. He tried to do something a bit different in the 1970s through the 1990s, but it wasn’t really the thing. Not for me, anyway. Same old, same old.
Then along came Lonesome Dove, the mini series based on a Larry McMurtry novel of the same name. Wow! Who knew a western story could be so interesting? That was when I started to realize it is not the genre that is at fault. What matters is the story. A great story can be set anywhere and it’s still a great story!
So not long ago, when a friend asked if I read McMurtry, I started wondering why I never had. Anybody who wrote the book the Lonesome Dove TV series was based on must have something going for him.
Not only that, Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses had impressed the daylights out of me. It has a western setting – very much so – but is so far removed from your standard story set in cow country as to be almost from another planet. I’m talking about the book, not the film. It tried, but failed to capture the power of McCarthy’s story.
So. . .let’s give old Larry McMurtry a try, I said. Comanche Moon is a ‘prequel’ to Lonesome Dove. Woodrow Call and Augustus McCrae as Texas Rangers, responding to Comanche raids in that period of Texas history when the two incompatible cultures were pushing against each other.
Darn it, the book was just not as good as I had hoped it would be. Maybe McMurtry is losing his touch. I would have to read Lonesome Dove to figure that out, and now I’m not sure if I want to. I’m afraid I might find out the real genius of the TV series was in the screenplay and the acting and not in the original novel. Once in a while that can happen – an actual improvement on the book, although more often the dramatization is a weak reflection of what’s on the written page.
But the point remains. The genre doesn’t matter. There are undoubtedly great cowboy stories yet to be written. Even more certain is that there are great stories yet to be told from the perspective of the people those cowboys pushed out of their land and confined to reservations.
Oh, yes! There’s a lot of that coming, even if nobody has dreamed it up yet.
And a lot of it is bound to make your average non-Indigenous person uncomfortable.
But bring it on, I say! A good story is a good story, regardless

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