A massive production with an impressive list of stars
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If you’ve watched any of the Western series Yellowstone, a huge hit for the Paramount Network, you know that John Dutton is a wealthy, ruthless landowner who will stop at nothing to defend his family and his enormous ranch. Eager to capitalize on this hit, Paramount has now released 1883, the story of how the Duttons came to Montana and how the family legacy began. It’s a massive production, with an impressive list of stars (Tim McGraw, Faith Hill, and Sam Elliott), cameos by famous actors like Tom Hanks and Billy Bob Thornton, hundreds of extras, and beautiful, sweeping cinematography. But is it worthwhile to watch?
The story opens on the dangerous streets of early Fort Worth, Texas, where James Dutton (great-great-grandfather to John) prepares to reunite with his family as they begin their journey to a better land. A bitter, defeated veteran of the Confederate Army, Dutton (played by McGraw) has abandoned Tennessee and wants to start a new life in the West, final destination yet unknown. Of the four episodes released as of this writing, the first two are the most violent and disturbing, as writer and executive producer Taylor Sheridan paints the scene of dangerous old town Fort Worth, full of sin and lawlessness. In his family’s first night in Fort Worth, Dutton kills the drunkard who attempts to rape his daughter, Elsa. A few days later, he helps the marshal (played by Thornton) bring rough justice to a gang of thieves—no trial, no arrest. “We murdered them,” says Dutton to his wife Margaret (Faith Hill).
Eager to leave, Dutton links up with Capt. Shea Brennan (played by veteran of many Westerns, the instantly recognizable Sam Elliot) and his partner Thomas (LaMonica Garrett), who have been hired to escort a wagon train headed to Oregon. The European pioneers who make up the convoy are woefully unprepared for the frontier: They don’t know horses, they don’t have guns, their wagons are overloaded, and most can’t swim. It’s not a promising start.
At the beginning of the journey, much like his descendant John Dutton, James Dutton seems to care little for others and has solely his family’s interests at heart. He says to his wife, “I believe in you, and I believe in our boy and I believe in our daughter. That’s it.” As the journey unfolds, we see Dutton’s heart thawing as he shows compassion for the pioneers who need his help. Several days into their travels, Dutton and his family are an integral part of the protection and guidance needed by the vulnerable procession.
1883 is an ambitious project. Like many Westerns, it is violent and raw in its portrayal of sin and suffering. The characters are interesting, with backstories woven into the plotlines. Viewers should be warned that there are frequent foul language and blasphemy, violence, and brief scenes of nudity—a shame, because the series holds some promise as an interesting addition to the stories of the West.
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