It’s been nearly 20 years since Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones introduced television viewers to the charismatic Texas Rangers Augustus “Gus” McCrae and Woodrow F. Call.
Based on the characters featured in the Larry McMurtry novel of the same name, 1989’s “Lonesome Dove” set the standard for the TV miniseries. His prequel to that classic tale is “Comanche Moon.” It promises to spark a similar reaction from viewers when the first of three parts airs Sunday on CBS.
With an all-star cast that includes Val Kilmer, Karl Urban and Steve Zahn, “Comanche Moon” also features the superb acting talent of Wes Studi, who plays the role of Comanche leader Buffalo Hump.
Originally, Studi was offered a different part, with the role of Buffalo Hump going to seasoned actor Graham Greene. After Greene bowed out, Studi stepped in to play the fierce warrior.
“I think something happened with Graham’s health and I was offered that part afterwards,” Studi said from his home in Santa Fe, N.M. “I wanted to do it. It was the best part that I could get on that particular miniseries.”
Studi, who has appeared in more than 50 films, is known for playing strong characters in “Dances With Wolves,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Geronimo” and “The New World.” This wasn’t his first appearance in the “Lonesome Dove” saga. He played the Kickapoo tracker Famous Shoes in the 1995 sequel, “Streets of Laredo.”
“Once this airs, I will have been in the prequel and the sequel (to “Lonesome Dove”),” said Studi, who chuckled when he revealed that the character he was originally offered for “Comanche Moon” converses with the younger version of Famous Shoes. “I thought that would have been an odd one had I done that. I would be having a conversation with myself. My younger self.”
Urban plays a younger version of Jones’ Woodrow Call, but it’s Zahn who steals the show as Gus McCrae, played in the earlier miniseries by Duvall.
Gus and Call spend most of the film trying to rescue the brilliant Capt. Inish Scull (Kilmer), Yankee aristocrat and hero of the Mexican War, who is being held captive by a Mexican criminal named Ahumado. They also are on the trail of the Comanche leaders.
Buffalo Hump and his son Blue Duck, played by Adam Beach, provide a dramatic twist to the story as a disagreeing father and son who eventually butt heads.
“That was extremely intense,” recalled Studi of the scene in which Blue Duck and Buffalo Hump square off. “(Buffalo Hump) knows that his own son is definitely off his rocker more or less to put it as nicely as possible. Blue Duck was pretty nuts.”
Adding an element of realism to the miniseries was the inclusion of subtitles and the Comanche language, something that, according to Studi, everyone took very seriously when it came to learning their lines.
“I think it’s a matter of studying hard,” Studi said. “As long as you know what particular words actually mean, you can punch it out and translate that emphasis pretty much like you would do it in English ’cause that’s our understanding in the mind’s eye.”
“It’s a matter of knowing key words and understanding more or less what you’re actually saying,” he continued. “It’s really not that difficult except for long passages (and) the flow isn’t always as you would expect it to be in English.”
It’s important to relay the core of the original language, but it’s also vital to add to the lingo and keep it modern in order for it to survive, according to Studi.
“Languages do change over a period of time because they have to, to be viable,” said Studi, who exclusively spoke his native Cherokee until he entered grade school.
“They have to be able to invent new words and concepts and grow, otherwise they become fairly, not totally dead, but … for a lack of a better word, ill. It’s not developing and describing the world around it. A language has to be present in order to function in this world. It has to.”
Studi hopes “Comanche Moon” will ignite a similar spark as “Dances With Wolves” and fire up the stagnant Western genre.
“Other filmmakers follow in the footsteps of any success that happens and I think ‘Dances With Wolves’ was a success,” said Studi, who played the role of the Pawnee leader in the Oscar-winning film.”
“A number of other Western-themed films and miniseries’ were put together after that. With the success of this one, I think that will happen again and get a lot of Indians more work.”
While there was a great Comanche named Buffalo Hump, the character in McMurtry’s story is fictionalized. Studi prefers to think of it as a semi-historical portrayal of the real warrior.
“A lot of (Comanches) say at one point, the guy had kind of a hump on his back which caused that, but others tell you that his name really was in reference to his sexual prowess,” Studi said with a laugh. “You know what my pick would be.”
Comanche Moon will be aired on television as a three part mini-series:
Sunday, January 13, 9 p.m. on Channel 4 (CBS)Tuesday, January 15, 9p.m. on Channel 4 (CBS) Wednesday, Janaury 16, 9p.m. on Channel 4 (CBS)
This article first appeared in the Great Falls Tribune. Patrick Douglas is a staff writer for the Great Falls Tribune. Reach him by e-mail at [email protected]