Originally written by Larry McMurtry in 1971 as a movie script. He intended John Wayne to play Woodrow Call, James Stewart to play Gus McCrae and Henry Fonda to play Jake Spoon, with Peter Bogdanovich directing. Wayne turned it down, and the project was shelved. Ten years later McMurtry bought the script back and wrote the book (on which the series was based).
During the storm that hits early into the cattle drive, the herd of cows are struck by lightning, which is then conducted from cow to cow by means of the tips of their horns. This is a real phenomenon, known as "St. Elmo's Fire."
For authenticity the producers decided to use real ranch horses in the movie. When the effect of "bullets" hit below Gus' horse, the response was genuine and Robert Duvall was actually bucked off. Because it lent itself to the authenticity everyone desired, the cameras continued rolling and the scene was kept in the final cut.
Despite the huge ratings and massive critical acclaim (20 years later, it is still mentioned at every Emmy Awards show when they reference the greatest mini-series of all time) for the series, it lost--inexplicably, to many fans and critics--the 1989 Outstanding Miniseries Emmy Award to War and Remembrance (1988).
In 1985, Suzanne De Passe bought the rights to Larry McMurtry's unpublished novel for $50,000 with the idea of doing a miniseries in conjunction with the release of the book, but she was turned down by every major network in America. After the novel was published, became a massive success and won the Pulitzer Prize, every network who had turned her down contacted her to try to persuade her to make the show with them.
Principal photography lasted for 16 weeks at 6 days a week, and encompassed 89 speaking parts, 1000 extras, 30 wranglers, 100 horses, 90 crew and 1400 cattle. Some scenes were so complex that they were shot from 6 different cameras at once.
The Latin phrase, "uva uvam vivendo varia fit" that appears on the Hat Creek Cattle Company is a corruption of the latin phrase "uva uvam videndo varia fit" from the scholia to Juvenal 2.81. It means, literally a grape changes color [i.e., ripens] when it sees [another] grape.
Woodrow Call's final line, "A Hell of a vision," was taken from the book "Cow People" by J. Frank Dobie, and is a quote he attributes to Charles Goodnight, a real-life Texas cattle baron who was the model for Call.
Two scenes in the miniseries are based on actual incidents that occurred during a cattle drive from Texas to Montana: 1. Some cowboys asked "how far is it to Up-North?", believing it to be place, not a direction. 2. During one of the river crossings, the cowboys stripped off their clothes and rode the horses naked. Both episodes are related by Teddy "Blue" Abbott, a 19th-century Texas cowboy who participated in a cattle drive from Texas to Montana. Abbott remained in Montana, married the daughter of cattle baron Granville Stuart and become a relatively prosperous rancher. He wrote a book of memories called "We Pointed Them North".
The following famous "Old West" firearms are used in the film: Gus McCrae - Colt Walker (in the novel, Gus actually carries a Colt Dragoon, an improvement on the Walker design, and it is Deets who carries the Walker); Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call - 1860 Henry rifle; Jake Spoon - 1875 Remington with a pearl grip; July Johnson, Blue Duck, and various Hat Creek hands - 1873 Colt Single Action Army, aka "Peacemaker"; Blue Duck - 1859 Sharps cavalry carbine; Dan Suggs - 1875 Remington revolver carbine; Roscoe Brown - 1851 Colt Navy with 1872 cartridge conversion; Dog Face (Blue Duck's sharpshooter) - 1859 Sharps buffalo rifle; Jim (the smaller of the two robbers who attack Roscoe) - "Buntline Special", a version of the Peacemaker with a 12 inch barrel; Various - 1873 Winchester rifle.
The 1847 Walker Colt carried by Gus in the film is as ubiquitously iconic as the Texas Rangers. It was designed by Samuel Colt and produced at his Paterson, NJ, factory at the behest of Texas Ranger and militia Capt. Samuel Walker. The pistol is enormous--16 inches long with a nine-inch barrel and when loaded weighs almost five pounds. It owes this size to its intended use as a heavy cavalry pistol, meant not to be worn on the belt but carried in a saddle-mounted holster and powerful enough at short range to have one-shot stopping power against both man and horse. The long cylinder holds a .44-cal. bullet on top of 60 grains of black powder, making it the most powerful black-powder revolver ever made. Modern tests have shown the Walker to have stopping power at least equal to the metal-cartridge .357 Magnum. However, the cylinders issued with the Walker initially were not strong enough to handle the combination of such a large powder charge, and improper loading of conical rounds caused the guns to acquire a reputation for its cylinders exploding during firing. The later Colt Dragoon pistol received improvements in its design, with a slight downsizing of the gun overall and it being equipped with thicker-walled cylinders. Only about 1100 Walkers were produced, 1000 for Capt. Walker's order and another 100 added by Sam Colt for special gift and promotional guns.
Charles Bronson was originally offered the role of Woodrow Call but turned it down. Robert Duvall was next cast but the producers decided to give him the part of Augustus instead. James Garner was chosen next but bowed out for health reasons. After Garner, Jon Voight turned down the role, and ultimately Tommy Lee Jones was cast. However, both Garner and Voight would portray Woodrow Call in sequels.
Augustus McCrae's (Robert Duvall) pistol in the film is a Colt Walker 1847 revolver with a conversion to fire metallic cartridges. Cartridge conversions are commonly done to percussion revolvers in films because firing black powder is potentially dangerous and using metallic blank cartridges is both safer and cheaper to use. While cartridge conversions were popular in the actual old west, they typically allowed the guns to be easier reloaded, while guns used in films try to make them less noticeable to fool the audience into thinking they ARE percussion guns.
The "Buntline Special" Colt Peacemaker carried by Jim, one of the two outlaws who jump Roscoe in the woods, is--according to legend--a period firearm produced by Colt after Ned Buntline, popular dime-store novelist of the day, placed a request for five Peacemakers with 12-inch (standard length was 7.5-inch) barrels to give to the lawmen of Dodge City, Kansas (including Wyatt Earp and William Barclay 'Bat' Masterson) in recognition of their service to that town. Little, if any, evidence survives to support this story. However, Colt, as with other leading gun makers at the time, did produce both longer- and shorter-barreled models of its popular pistols. This includes known 19th-century factory-model Peacemakers available in 3", 4", 5.5", 7.5", 12" and 16" barrel lengths. The popularity of both Buntline's novels and the story of his infamous gift to Earp, Masterson, et. al., led any long-barreled Peacemaker to be referred to as a "Buntline Special"; however, the question of whether the accuracy of such a long barrel would be worth the slower draw time for a gunfighter or lawman is the subject of much speculation.
During his trek back to the heard, Pea-Eye Parker is led by the ghost of Joshua Deets. One-armed Bill Wilson, who accompanied Loving just as Parker did McCrae, was actually found by Bose Ikard, who was still alive at that point.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Although author Larry McMurtry claims that they have no basis in historical fact, it seems likely that the characters of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call are modeled after cattlemen Oliver Loving and Charles Goodnight, respectively. Upon the death of their scout, an escaped slave named Bose Ikard, Goodnight carved a sign for his grave, just as Call does for Joshua Deets. Loving died of blood poisoning from Indian arrows, just like McCrae. Upon his death, Goodnight carried his body back to Texas for burial, just as Call does for Augustus. Indeed, Goodnight is actually featured as a character in a small scene in the original novel.