We’ve kinda seen it all before
Americans do so love the ‘family saga’. Long tales of the adventures of different generations of a dynasty are immensely popular, in book form and on the screen. Such a one is the Yellowstone franchise, the brainchild of ‘creator’-producer-director-writer Taylor Sheridan, available on Paramount +.
Yellowstone itself, and its prequel 1923 are really neo-Westerns, in that they have Western themes and contain many Western tropes but are set in more modern times than the classic forms of the genre, but 1883 is different. It’s a straight wagon-train Western of the old school.
Stories of the hardships faced by settlers moving out to Oregon have always been a staple of the Western. Epic silent pictures like The Covered Wagon (1923), talkie versions such as The Big Trail (1930), countless B-Westerns (most of the screen cowboys rode the Oregon Trail at one time or another), big more modern pictures like The Way West (1967), TV dramas, notably Wagon Train, of course, one way and another every format of the oater has had a go at the wagon train Western. Mr Sheridan is just the latest in a long line.
Nor, to be frank, does he have much to add. There is a slightly new slant in that the most heroic character is a young woman, Elsa (Isabel May) and she becomes a ‘cowboy’ and rides and shoots with the best of them, but really most of the misadventures that befall the wagon trainers have been done before. The pioneers face fearsome river crossings, dangerous Indians, accidents, prairie surgery, bandits, snake bites, severe weather, and so on.
Of course such travelers did face many hardships, though most representations overlook the chief characteristic of such treks, the grinding monotony. I suppose that doesn’t make very good TV.
I wasn’t too keen on the fact that there is a lot of voiceover narration by Elsa, and much of it was teenage ‘philosophy’ that didn’t really convince.
Heading the cast is not Ms May but good old Sam Elliott, as Shea Brennan, doing his by now very customary white-mustached curmudgeon act. I’ve liked Sam so much in Westerns over the years that it’s hard to say this, but doesn’t he have any other persona? He is an elderly ex-Civil War captain, scarred by the terrible memories, naturally, and he also loses his wife and daughter to smallpox in E1, and it is he who leads the wagon train westwards.
With him as sidekick, evidently a wartime one too, is Thomas (no surname given), played by Lamonica Garrett, a sort of Deets figure. And indeed, 1883 has more than a passing similarity to the Lonesome Dove franchise.
Like Dove, it is handsomely photographed, and the Texas and Montana locations are often truly splendid. The widescreen TVs we all have these days do more justice to the visual aspects, and there were some notably good shots, I thought. The cinematography was credited to Ben Richardson and Christina Alexandra Voros, who both also produced and directed episodes.
But 1883 is really the story of the Dutton family, destined to ranching greatness in later times, and so in some ways the hero is Tim McGraw as James Dutton, the bearded, tough and utterly determined man, also a Civil War veteran, a Confederate, who leads his family to the promised land, whatever may be the cost (and boy, are there costs). His wife Margaret (Faith Hill) is an almost equally tough cookie, John Dutton III’s great-grandmother, and Elsa (May) is their resourceful 17-year old daughter. Her little bro, John Dutton III’s grandfather to be, is here a young boy of five (Audie Rick).
There are some guest stars, cameos really, such as Tom Hanks as General George Meade, who in a flashback comforts Dutton after the slaughter of Antietam; Graham Greene as Spotted Eagle, a Crow elder who takes a shine to young Elsa; Taylor Sheridan himself as rancher and trail-pioneer Charlie Goodnight; and, in E3, a short-haired Billy Bob Thornton as a particularly ruthless Longhair Jim Courtwright in Fort Worth, who has no time for the ‘code of the West’, simply outing his pistol in the White Elephant saloon (Luke Short’s joint, though Luke doesn’t appear) and shooting dead ones he considers bad guys, whether they are armed or not.
Some of the language is salty, as doubtless it was on the frontier, but there’s an interesting and probably authentic moment when the foul-mouthed cook uses the f- word with women and children around and Dutton and Brennan arrange it that he won’t do that again.
I didn’t care much for the music (Brian Tyler, Breton Vivian), which tended to the faux-romantic slushy when the action centered on Elsa, as it often did.
Well, you might enjoy this show, especially if you are fond of family sagas. I thought it was OK, though I probably wouldn’t want to see it again.