Sunday, September 04, 2011

Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit


Of course, this scene is from the television miniseries Lonesome Dove, based on the novel of the same name by Larry McMurtry.

I can remember reading the book for the first time. It was such a great, rollicking adventure right out of the starting gate, until the river crossing where the young Irish immigrant was killed by a nest of water moccasins disturbed by the cattle crossing. It was like getting a five gallon bucket of that muddy river water dashed onto my head - gritty, cold and shocking. But, that is life - not always pleasant or fun, and this novel certainly captured that sentiment.

It was originally a screenplay intended for John Wayne in the Woodrow Call role, Jimmy Stewart as Augustus McCrae, and Henry Fonda as Jake Spoon. John Ford, for whatever reason, counseled Wayne to refuse the role, causing Stewart to back out as well. McMurtry eventually bought his manuscript back and adapted it into the Great American Novel we know it as now. After having great difficulties getting it made as a movie or as a miniseries, the success of the novel had networks lining up trying to get McMurtry to show it on their stations.

At any rate, the miniseries was made and released to great ratings, acclaim and awards. I'd think a three hour movie would have shortchanged the book, and releasing it as a miniseries was a stroke of genius. The story of two retired Texas Rangers and their interactions and personalities made for great entertainment on film as well as in print. It was the contrasts between Gus and Woodrow that made this work.

They were both archetypal in the sense of being opposite sides of a coin. Gus was the lackadaisical hedonist - but he was too much of a veteran of the prairie to treat his survival in that manner. He enjoyed life, perhaps too much, shirking responsibilities of the domestic variety. When I heard that Robert Duvall (one of my all time favorite actors) was slated to play Gus, I felt at that time that perhaps he was miscast. Today, I cannot envision anyone else in that role. 

And Woodrow - a tightly wound pleasure avoiding workaholic with a strict moral code that kept him upright and steadfast even in his greatest moments of self doubt. While Gus would cut loose to let off some steam, Woodrow was quite incapable of the same. Even so, he could still lose control as witnessed by the awesome scene above. His boy, who he never acknowledged as his, was being beaten, and Woodrow F. Call would have none of that. Tommy Lee Jones did a masterful job of portraying Call. Even as Call beat the Army scout, his visage was coldly neutral and businesslike. After Gus roped him and Call regained his composure, his inability to communicate emotions overcame him once again. I hate rude behavior in a man. I won't tolerate it. Indeed. Tommy Lee Jones, a ranch owner who breeds horses and cattle himself, shows he knows a thing or two about riding as well.

Of course the supporting cast was superb. Robert Urich, Fredric Forrest and Timothy Scott are no longer with us. Danny Glover, Angelica Huston, Diane Lane, Chris Cooper and Rick Schroder (the kid from Silver Spoons? Are you kidding me?) deserve accolades as well.

But it all rolls back to the contrasts between Woodrow and Augustus. The Latin quote (Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit) on the Hat Creek Cattle sign - that also included the caveat that the establishment did not rent pigs, seems to hold the major clue to the intentions of the author - from Wikipedia:
The sign for Gus McCrae and Woodrow F. Call's Hat Creek Cattle Company includes a Latin motto, "Uva Uvam Vivendo Varia Fit," which appears to be a reference to a proverb first attributed to Juvenal. The proverb, "Uva Uvam Videndo Varia Fit" is translated as "A grape (uva) other grapes (uvam) seeing (videndo) changes (varia fit)." Some readers think McMurtry's substitution of "vivendo" for "videndo" is an artifice used to underscore Gus's lack of education and unfamiliarity with Latin. But later, when Call asks Gus about the motto, he jumbles it comically, not even pretending to know what it means. Having established that, McMurtry gains nothing by adding a spelling error that only Latin scholars would catch. Likewise, it seems unlikely—as other readers have suggested—that the substitution was simply a typographical error. Although the substitution is ungrammatical, "vivendo" means "living," turning the phrase "A grape changes when it sees other grapes" to "A grape is changed by living with other grapes;" or, since we are not really concerned with grapes after all, to "We are changed by the lives around us." The author's alteration takes on greater significance in light of the larger themes in the narrative that deal with how one leads one's own life and with living itself. These themes are also indicated in the remark made by Gus to Call: "It ain't dyin' I'm talkin''s livin'."



Lisa Paul said...

Wonderful backgrounder on one of the best miniseries EVER! But of course, you had me at uva uvam.

The interesting thing, if you read up on Texas history was how much of it McMurtry filched unchanged for his story and characters. There actually was a Texas Ranger who died the way Gus did.

Not that I'm denigrating the books or screenplays at all for being lifted from history. The late great Quentin Crisp said: "The movies are life with the boring bits cut out."

Jeffro said...

Oh yeah, Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, for instance.

Dad Bones said...

Can't remember a book I enjoyed reading more than Lonesome Dove.

Jeffro said...

Lonesome Dove is definitely on my stranded on a desert island list.

Cathy T said...

Perhaps the meaning because it isn't literally explained in the writings of Lonesome Dove, is simply an expression of the mystery of these tangled friendships and lives of the characters in the book. It seems to me that the relationship of Gus and Call is one of pure love, a more permanent bond that they couldn't or wouldn't share with the women in their lives, but a love born of shared lifelong experiences facing death and life altering decisions. You see it clearly when Gus is on his deathbed and Call is at his side. They have a bond even stronger than blood brotherhood, more like a marriage really, without the complications of sex (although Gus is definitely uninhibited in his desire for women while Call is the picture of reserve in everything he does except for his interactions with Gus, dead or alive.) No, I think the latin is there on Gus' cross as an expression of what Gus meant to Call. It's perhaps Call's way of saying that even though Gus has died, he will always be remembered for his serendipitous wisdom and for his treasured friendship. Call could have chosen some plain boards or just used rocks, but he wanted Gus' marker to reflect Gus' unusual nature and maybe even a hint of a promised eternal life with the latin. I guess it will remain a mystery.

Jeffro said...

Clara sure didn't want to come between Gus and Woodrow!

I've always felt Woodrow's suspicions that Gus really didn't know what it meant were probably more true than not, and it was just a ploy to make people think Gus was better educated (thus smarter) than he really was.

Even though the sign ended up being used for a far more utilitarian purpose, and only the fragment with the Latin on it survived, I can't help but think Call had a sense of irony about it all.

EvCo NJ/PA/CR said...

I am watching it right now (spoiler alert) and Call just buried Gus What an excellent commentary you’ve written here. I am so glad you shared it. Your analysis is interesting about Mcmurtry amending the quote to “we are changed by the lives around us” I wonder if that was his intention…
The first time I read the book I was on a flight to Europe. I was very excited about the trip. But as we were landing I got to the part about Deets death. I was devastated getting off the plane and melancholy part of that day.
But I rallied and cheered up.
I had a ring in my pocket and never left it.
I got engaged my wife three days later