Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

1883 (Paramount+, 2021)

 

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.

 

Taylor’s brainchild

 

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.

 

She wears less and less as each episode passes

 

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.

 

Sam doing his usual

 

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.

 

The Deets figure

 

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.

 

Often a pretty picture

 

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).

 

Mr & Mrs Dutton

 

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.

 

 

14 Responses

  1. Mr Arnold, you’re doing an invaluable service. Keep going! I see no mention of The Lazarus Man, so thought I’d push your way my potted review from my Western database.

    The Lazarus Man **to*** 7.4 pilot episode for 20 episode TV series filmed around Santa Fe, New Mexico watched 2/2013
    R0, USA, 1996, colour. 1 hr 27 mins. Dir. Johnny E. Jensen and Norman S. Powell. Stars Robert Urich
    Man is found buried alive in grave and is found and cared for by Southern family. He then repays them by his protection, The ‘found alive/memory’ theme is less important than this good picture of life immediately after end of Civil War amid the rancour of defeat and arrogance of victory, as one man’s longing for peace of mind is wrecked by the continuing clandestine, violent struggle. Good period detail and decent action even if final action scenes become unrealistic. Anachronistic synthesizer music. RU quietly impressive.

      1. Certainly. But it’s hopelessly feeble and inadequate set alongside your marvellous effort which I’ve only just come across, alas. I’m not keen in principle on Westerns set wholly in town, and with a couple of exceptions I dislike Spaghetti Westerns.

        It consists of:
        (a) one-line comments on c. 261 Westerns watched once and then discarded.
        From:
        Across the Wide Missouri *plus imdb 6.2 USA, 1951, colour. Dir. William Wellman Stars Clark Gable
        Fine scenery, but this Hiawatha-era nonsense piles on the childish humour while lacking any narrative save via constant narration..
        to:
        Wyoming Renegades ** imdb 5.6 1955, colour, Dir. Fred Sears. Stars Philip Carey
        Lacklustre Butch Cassidy gang western, with confusing plot, too much night action and simple-minded good or bad characters.

        (b) two/three-line comments on 72 Westerns enjoyed to some extent and so retained with reservations for re-watching.
        From:
        The Alamo ***minus imdb 6.9 1960, 2 hrs 30 mins, colour. Dir. John Wayne. Stars John Wayne, Richard Widmark, Laurence Harvey
        Far too long (and, remember, original length was 3 hrs +), bombastic, preachy, jingoistic and sentimental (all John Ford features, and it’s thought he had more than a hand in the film). Yet the battle spectacle (albeit it takes an age to arrive) and sheer number of extras, plus fine photography throughout, give this epic western impressive weight. Pace is too slow owing to frequent interruptions by diversions – musical, folksy chat, romantic interludes that go nowhere etc. LH rather histrionic but JW here restrained and effective. Watched three times, inc. at the cinema in 1961.

        To:
        Yellow Sky *** imdb 7.6 filmed in Alabama Hills and Death Valley, California
        USA, 1948, 1 hr 34 mins, b/w. Dir. William Wellman. Stars Gregory Peck, Richard Widmark, Anne Baxter Group of bank robbers evade posse by crossing into inhospitable salt flats where they fall upon aged prospector and his grand-daughter. Fine opening desert chase sequence. leads to long, dull section of greed and purposelessness where GP and gang jockey for position rather fruitlessly, both on ground and in dramatic sense. Events culminate in brilliantly atmospheric and enigmatic shoot-out, though last scene is sentimental. Almost no music. Watched twice: enjoyed more the first time.
        and
        Yuma **plus imdb 6.4 made for US TV pq soft. Greek release; plays at 4:3. filmed at Old Tucson and nearby in Arizona
        USA, 1971, 1 hr 10 mins, colour, Dir. Ted Post Stars Clint Walker, Barry Sullivan US Marshal is appointed to clean up Yuma, beset by lawlessness and corruption. Western of modest aims, no themes and with CW improbably a one-man law band. Action is a bit thin on the ground as the various factions manoeuvre and bluster. There’s also a perfunctory love interest and irritating Mexican boy. But CW is impressive in his monolithic presence, slow drawl and bass voice and he just about carries the film with him. Very marginal retain.

        (c) slightly longer comments on c. 130 Westerns enjoyed and retained with for re-watching.
        From:
        Ambush ***to**** imdb 6.5 b/w is dark in the several night scenes. Adjustment needed. Filmed at Simi Valley Ranch, California and Gallup, New Mexico
        USA, 1949, 1 hr 28 mins, b/w. Dir. Sam Wood. Stars Robert Taylor, John Hodiak, Arlene Dahl
        Nothing very original about this; cavalry struggling to defeat marauding Apaches and send them back to the reservation while discontent and fractured love rivalries back at the fort undermine their single-mindedness. But this is an attractive western with decent balance kept between danger and romance (screenwriter’s a woman). Excellent opening sequence, and outdoor scenes are very well conceived, with a really good, beautifully filmed last half hour in rocky landscapes. RT, without looking the part of frontier scout, is in other respects an excellent lead.
        and
        Ambush at Tomahawk Gap *** imdb 6.1 filmed in Simi Valley, California
        USA, 1953, 1 hr 11 mins, colour. Dir. Fred Sears. Stars John Hodiak, John Derek
        Four released convicts search frantically for bank robbery cash in ghost town while Injuns menace. Short and sour, this is a rough if not brutal western. No theme save that crime and greed do not pay. Tension and violence are ever-simmering among the four and their captives, and narrative pleasantly chaotic. Good Technicolor. A little above average.

        To:
        The Wonderful Country ***to**** 6.4 here as Mas Alla del Rio Grande filmed around Durango, Mexico
        USA, 1959, 1 hr 34 mins, colour. Dir. Robert Parrish. Stars Robert Mitchum, Julie London, Gary Merrill Western with style and interesting theme: what and where is a man’s home, and what pull does it exert on the exiled or wanderer? Theme is well explored by script, as is that of man weary of political machination. Although all the Mexicans tend to be annoying, and the RM/JL unappealing romance is flatly handled owing to her and her husband’s roles having been underwritten, these things are more than compensated for by excellent direction, photography and colour, most arresting music and the vg RM.
        and
        The Yellow Tomahawk *** 6.2 pq acceptable; rather faded and scratchy. Film was made in colour but released to TV in b/w filmed in Arizona and Kanab, Utah
        USA, 1954, 1 hr 19 mins, b/w, Dir. Lesey Selander. Stars Rory Calhoun, Peggie Castle, Noah Beery jnr.
        Small western with unequivocal theme: the Indian v. White conflicts are self-defeating and likely to last forever unless common humanity and understanding be applied to situation. Racism also addressed through medium of RC’s half-breed scout and obdurate butcher of a cavalry major who harbours a guilty secret. Despite scratchy print and bleached b/w (film originally made in colour) this is quite a tough, violent effort, effective in its message and well-done in scenes of action and debate alike. Well-acted, with RC as usual an attractive and articulate lead.

        1. Very interesting. I agree with much of what you say (though not all!) and there are some real insights here.

          1. Thanks! If you’re interested and think it worthwhile, I could send the whole thing to your email address.

          2. You’d be welcome to and I’d be happy to quote it from time to time in my reviews.

  2. Jeff, good write-up of 1883(filmed 2021, first shown on Paramount+ December 19, 2021-February 27, 2022). This limited tv series is misnamed. It should have been titled ELSA DUTTON’S JOURNEY, which it was. I think you said just about everything to be said about the series. I think it’s worth at least one viewing for Sam Elliott’s performance. I liked LaMonica Garrett, and I think that Tim McGraw and Faith Hill held their own. The series looks really good and there are some things to like, but it’s no LONESOME DOVE, which is a masterpiece, as far as I’m concerned.

    My favorite Sam Elliott Western Movie is CONAGHER(filmed 1990, first shown July 1, 1991, on TURNER NETWORK TELEVISION). Sam co-scripted it with Jeffrey M. Meyer and Katharine Ross. The story was taken from a Louis L’Amour novel of the same title. Sam also co-produced it, and the movie had a really good cast of Sam Elliott, Katharine Ross, Barry Corbin, Billy Green Bush, Ken Curtis, Paul Koslo, Gavan O’Herlihy, James Parks, Buck Taylor, Dub Taylor, James Gammon, and Angelique L’Amour.

    If you’re looking for Sam Elliott in a different type of role than he usually plays, then view THE DESPERATE TRAIL(filmed 1993-94, released 1994). It’s well worth a look see.

  3. Among the most recent “wagon train” westerns, haven’t you talked of Meek’s Cutoff (2010) directed by Kelly Reichardt and starring Michelle Williams, Paul Dano and Bruce Greenwood !? Probably one of the closest regarding the real life on the Plains. Maybe an other one which was lost in JeffArnold’s Triangle…

    1. Excellent ! I travelled by car several times as close as possible along the Oregon Trail in various states from Nebraska to Oregon and Washington. Beside of plenty of museums and historic markers, many sites and beautiful Interpretive centers are managed by the National Park Services under the Oregon National Historic Trail banner. The (true) story of Stephen Meek and his ill fated cuttoff is pretty well documented. He should have known what Malheur meant when he chose to foĺlow this river.

  4. Thank you. I would send my database but I can’t see your email address anywhere.

    My potted review of Meek’s Crossing

    Meek’s Cutoff ***plus 6.5 filmed in Oregon
    USA, 2011, 1 hr 40 mins, colour. Inc. a weak Making Of. Dir. Kelly Reichardt. Stars Michelle Williams, Bruce Greenwood, Shirley Henderson
    Gritty account of wagon train pioneers heading west for the promised land, having left the Oregon Trail and striking off on their own with an unreliable scout as a guide. Is this how the trail really was? It certainly looks right with burnt autumn colours, endless horizons and plenty of hunger and thirst. Nothing really happens but the look and atmosphere are very well done, and the film exercises quite a pull. A case of a fair bit achieved with little means.

  5. Going through the series on Blu ray. Have to say I find it very good. I like it quite a bit. Nice to see they can still do Westerns of this quality still.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Recent Comments
Labels