Taylor Sheridan's 1883 and a Kick in the Head
“I looked at this place and saw my unfinished soul. I looked at this place, and knew, for me that war was over. I knew what I am now—I’m a cowboy.”
Elsa Dutton, 1883
Since 2015, with his successful screenwriting credit for Sicario, Texas native Taylor Sheridan has had quite a run as screenwriter, producer, director, and actor. The peak of acclaim has come with his wildly popular television series Yellowstone, bringing cowboy mobster-like characters to the screen, starring Kevin Costner as John Dutton III.
Flushed with the success of Yellowstone, Sheridan created a backstory for the Dutton family and the establishment of their Montana ranch, the Yellowstone—the anticipated ten-part prequel, 1883. The reliable and versatile Sam Elliot (Shea Brennan) anchors a cast that includes LaMonica Garrett (Thomas, Brennan’s sidekick and conscience), country singer Tim McGraw (James Dutton, great grandfather to John Dutton), McGraw’s real life wife Faith Hill (Margaret, McGraw’s on screen wife), and Isabel May (Elsa, the Dutton’s daughter).
With high hopes, I recently spent a weekend binging 1883. Unfortunately, my hopes were misplaced. By the end of it, I concluded a kick in the head from a mule would have been more enjoyable. This certainly isn’t the popular view among viewers. Nevertheless, the series suffers from a number of drawbacks, though the score by Brian Tyler and Brenton Vivian isn’t one of them.
Unlike Yellowstone, there’s a drought of originality in 1883. The story and characters are a patchwork sown together with scenes and costume elements from better movies and television series. For example, 1883 opens with Shea Brennan and the loss of his wife and daughter to small pox. Distraught, he lays them in a bed and torches his home. This scene, while beautifully shot, is a lift from Kevin Costner’s Wyatt Earp, when Earp’s wife dies of typhoid fever and he burns their home after her burial.
LaMonica Garrett’s character, Thomas, is unmistakably a Deets-like character from Lonesome Dove. Both are African-Americans, known by one name, are excellent trackers, and frontiersmen. And while Thomas doesn’t wear a military kepi, as Deets does, he does wear a cavalry uniform with sergeant strips.
Both Brennan and Thomas are lawmen of sorts—Pinkerton Detectives—mimicking retired Texas Rangers Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrea in Lonesome Dove. And though Elliot is iconically known for his bushy mustache, that, coupled with his badge and “Gus”-creased hat, he becomes a fuzzy (and lesser) image of McCrea, rather than a distinctive character.
Elsa undergoes a Lt. John J. Dunbar-like transformation that was central to Costner’s character in Dances with Wolves, whereby he morphs from a U.S. cavalryman into a Sioux Indian. Likewise, Elsa mutates from a dress-and bonnet-wearing young woman into a pants- and cowboy hat-wearing flirt, and then into a deerskin leggings- and beaded vest-wearing Comanche.
In all of this, the cliché aptly applies: “Been there, done that.” But done better.
Authenticity was the watchword in the buildup to 1883. To help them look the part, the actors spent a couple of weeks at “Cowboy Camp,” learning to ride and handle weapons. And yet, there is little authenticity in their their movements or horsemanship. For example, at no time in 1883 did any horse move faster than a gallop, even during chase sequences. Anyone familiar with older westerns, say a John Ford western, where horses ran flat out—as would have been the case in real life threatening situations—could easily spot the difference. Even the boys in the 1972 film The Cowboys were better horsemen than the actors in 1883.
Other historical and geographical inaccuracies also stuck like a bur under my saddle. (I’m by no means listing all the problems, just a sampling.)
Why were Pinkerton Detectives leading a wagon train to Oregon, and why was an Oregon-bound wagon train leaving from Texas in the first place? I don’t recall Texas being a frequent, or infrequent, jumping off point for western-bound immigration.
The wagon train consists of German immigrants. But German settlements dotted the Texas Hill Country, so why would these immigrants make such a perilous journey when civilized settlement already exited in Texas?
One Texas cowboy is depicted wearing wooly chaps. But never in the history of cowboying in Texas did a Texas cowpuncher ever wear woolies. It’s too hot. And where did they get orange slickers in 1883?
Leaving Fort Worth with cowboys in tow (odd in its own right) and arriving at the Red River Brennan deemed the crossing too dangerous. The Red was notorious for quicksand, but by 1883 cowboys trailing millions of cattle knew where to cross—and the closest and safest place near Fort Worth was Red River Station. How did the cowboys accompanying this wagon train not know about this crossing?
Tuning west (and south) from the Red River, the wagon train came to the Brazos River. At the Brazos, which in many places is deeper and wider than the Red, Dutton decides to cross the river with his family—alone and in the dark. We’re to believe Dutton is a skilled frontiersman, but only greenhorns and fools cross unknown rivers in the middle of the night.
Toward the end of the series, Elsa is hit in the head by a war club and shot through the midsection with an arrow, which penetrated front to back. And yet, she’s able to fire a pistol, run, and carry on a conversation—in English—with a Sioux warriors, who, instead of killing her or taking her captive, let her go—with the arrow still protruding through her body.
Weapons by and large appear to be period accurate, but both Dutton and the cowboys wear double rigs—a straight draw and a cross draw. I’ve never seen photographs of cowboys wearing double rigs because pistols were expensive, costing a cowboy at least a month’s pay. But even if some did they would either wear them cross draw or straight draw—not one and the other. The 1883 double rig set up might rank high on the “cool” factor, but it ranks low on the “authentic” factor.
When rounding up cattle, cowboys are seen with rifles slung to their saddles. This was rarely done since ropes could easily tangle in rifle butts. Typically, rifles were left in a wagon until needed, and that was usually for hunting.
Unlike Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove—the novel and the adapted television series—Sheridan fails to ensure that 1883 is historically, geographically, or logically accurate—even though historical narratives are created out of such stuff.
If the scenes that make up 1883 are cribbed from better westerns and the supposed “authenticity” proves to be anything but, the writing is overbearing, clumsy, and pompous There’s no levity in the language anywhere. And cursing, as in all of Sheridan’s work, is so ubiquitous it merely illicit a collective eye roll. I’ve longed believed overuse of abusive language is the last refuge of weak men feigning strength, like puffer fish blowing themselves up to scare away predators. But no one is moved in fear at the obscenity laden prattle uttered by these characters. If anything, it might move you with disgust, when it’s not yawn inducing.
But even the profanity isn’t the most off-putting aspect of Sheridan’s script. That distinction goes to the narration of eighteen-year-old Elsa. Aside from the fact that her accent and odd diction—“civil-i-zation”—serves as an ear worm wiggling its way into your brain, driving you stark raving mad, Elsa philosophizes on subjects she knows nothing about: cowboying, life and death, sex, the weather, the nature and meaning of life, and the essence of freedom. These philosophical musings are both Camus-like (in that they are absurd) and Nietzsche-like (in that they are nihilistic). Here’s a sampling:
“I looked at this place [of Texas] and saw my unfinished soul. I looked at this place, and knew, for me that war [of trying to figure out your purpose in life] was over. I knew what I am now—I’m a cowboy.”
“I don’t have the heart to tell her [Margaret, her mother] there is no heaven to go to because we’re in it already. We’re in hell too. They coexist right beside each other. And God is the land.”
In making Elsa the intellectual center of 1883, Sheridan tries too hard for eloquence and profundity—and fails on both accounts. Where’s a mule to kick you when you need one?
Writers should always create complex and three dimensional characters, which is to say, real. It’s only through realism that readers and viewers learn to care for the characters—to root for or against them, to laugh or weep with them. The characters in 1883 don’t meet this test. They’re flat, one dimensional, and simplistic.
Claire Dutton, Dutton’s widowed sister-in-law, is not even a character. She’s a caricature. It’s as if Sheridan has never meet a living, breathing, walking, talking Christian. Claire is a cliché—a puritanical, Bible-thumping, bitter, spiteful, bitch. And yet, she’s presented as the token Christian in the bunch. But a faithless one, who in the end shoots herself in the head.
Dutton, an ex-Confederal captain, who had been wounded and captured at Antietam, comes off as thuggish, not tough. A know-it-all who takes offense at being called a farmer—though that’s what he was in Tennessee—who, when he arrives in Texas, can navigate the dark and dangerous streets of Hell’s Half Acre and is magically an expert with longhorn cattle, river crossings, and Plains Indians. He learns nothing because there’s nothing for him to learn.
Margaret, though ever present, seems to melt into the background without making any impact on the viewer. Her bond with Elsa comes across as the same old stale banality we’ve seen before between the mother-teenaged daughter relationship. During one scene, Margaret tells Elsa, after she’s married Sam (the Comanche), she doesn’t know what love is. Elsa, in a non-1883-like response, says something to the effect, “Oh, and I guess you do.”
Elsa is proud, petulant, and impetuous. She’s suppose to be, I presume, a forerunner of Beth Dutton of Yellowstone fame, who is a more complex character. Though Elsa experiences much—a near rape in Fort Worth, her first sexual encounter with a cowboy, then losing him and shooting his murderer, marrying a Comanche, killing a buffalo and eating its raw heart, then leaving him to accompany her family to Oregon (or wherever Dutton decides to strop), and finally being shot through with an arrow—she’s the same person we see at the beginning of the series: a not so innocent girl sitting in a train car bound for Fort Worth. She doesn’t grow or gain wisdom—no matter how hard Sheridan tries to prove me wrong with her insipid philosophizing.
Brennan, grief stricken over the death of his wife and daughter, contemplates suicide but agrees to take the immigrants to Oregon so he can see the ocean—a dream his wife hoped to fulfill one day. When he isn’t melancholy, he’s angry. He’s not a leader. He’s a bully, berating the immigrants at ever turn. I wouldn’t follow him across the street, much less follow him across the country through hostile territory. And when he kills himself on an Oregon beach, I felt nothing but a sense of good riddance.
The German immigrants are portrayed as ignorant buffoons and petty thieves. Obviously, they would be unaware of certain dangers in the American west—rattlesnakes, for instance. But there are snakes in Germany, as well as horses, cattle, wagons, and rivers. Nevertheless, it’s as if all this is foreign to them. Sheridan’s immigrants dishonor those who actually immigrated to the American west and established thriving communities.
In the end, I didn’t much care whether any of these characters lived or died. I was never invited into the lives of realistic people. Rather, I was treated like a perpetual outsider, allowed to observe what the characters do and say, but not allowed to feel what they feel. So, I concluded these folks might as well die, and be quick about it, because this mess of a show was worse than a kick in the head by an ornery mule.
Update: I suppose I ought to say something positive about 1883, besides praising the score of Tyler and Vivian. There are at least two redeeming qualities about the series. First, Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of “Big Jim” Courtright, Tarrant County Deputy Sheriff, was thoroughly believable. He looks great on screen and was the best written and performed character in the series. Unfortunately, he’s only on the screen for ten minutes or less. Second, at least Sheridan, who portrays Charles Goodnight in one episode, didn’t gallop his horse to a sliding stop.