With Lonesome Dove, the meaning of the expression old west changes – we aren’t talking any longer about a golden age of discovery, about fights between the American cavalry and Indians, or about anything else seen in the more traditional westerns. Instead we are talking about the old men of the west.
We have under the magnifying glass the cowboys that got old and then questioned if the life they have led was actually worth it.
In one of his interviews, Larry McMurtry (the writer of the novel on which Lonesome Dove the miniseries is based) said that his opus was never intended to reinforce the same ideas about the old west. These ideas were nothing else than a myth, propelled further and further by all the movies made until then.
He wanted to bring a critique not to those harsh times, when life on the frontier was an adventure in itself. He wanted to dismantle the myth created upon the true stories about the unforgiving west. And the myth was that a cowboy is a simple person, a man that knows right from wrong just like it can distinguish white from black.
Well, as the miniseries said, there are grey areas and cowboys will always be human beings before everything else. So it is a given that they will, sooner or later, question themselves and the actions they do or did.
In old westerns it is clear which characters are good and which are bad, no matter what. But when one of these old cowboys asks another, rhetorically, if they killed what made the country more interesting, you know that there is nothing simple in their life.
We see them driving their cattle and, occasionally, pulling their guns. They seem to lead a bohemian life, knowing where the trail starts and where it ends. But even so they still don’t know what lies ahead and where their own decisions will take them.
These are the real men of the old west. Just like us, they discover themselves one step at a time. And, above all, they should be viewed with the same sense of realism just as if we are watching ourselves in the mirror.
Otherwise, we might as well annul them.