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‘1883’: Brilliant ‘Yellowstone’ prequel portrays an era of open spaces, constant dangers

Stars Tim McGraw, Faith Hill spectacularly good on the Paramount+ series as parents joining up with an ill-fated wagon train.

The narrator of “1883,” teenage Elsa (Isabel May), is joining her family on a treacherous journey from Texas to Oregon.
Paramount+

“Some call it the American desert, others the Great Plains, but those phrases were invented by professors at universities, surrounded by the illusion of order and the fantasy of right and wrong. … [This] is hell, and there are demons everywhere.” – A young woman’s assessment of the world she has come to know in “1883.”

A broken man in a weather-beaten cowboy hat kneels in a field, pointing his six-shooter under his chin. He’s ready to leave this unforgiving and cruel world.

His partner approaches and says simply, “Captain … you coming?”

“I’m thinking about it,” comes the reply from the shaken man, who is still holding his gun to his chin.

“Think on it quick,” says his friend. “If I’m digging a hole, I’d rather do it before the sun’s high.”

This is as close to open-hearted emotion as things get in “1883,” the gritty, bone-smashing, beautiful and brilliant prequel to the smash-hit contemporary Western “Yellowstone.” As much as I love the latter series in all its rough-and-tumble glory (and soapy melodrama), there are times when “1883” explodes with such harsh brutality, it makes “Yellowstone” seem like a summer-stock production of “Oklahoma!” by comparison. This just might be the greatest Western on TV since “Lonesome Dove” some 30 years ago.

With “Yellowstone” showrunners Taylor Sheridan and John Linson taking the reins, “1883” will be a particularly enriching experience for fans of the Kevin Costner series, but it works perfectly as a stand-alone story in a late 19th century world — the Great Plains at a time when the land offered great promise and generational freedom, but also a high probability of premature mortality. In the early episodes of “1883,” various characters meet their maker via smallpox, suicide, a snake bite, wild animals, hanging, gunfights and getting crushed by a wagon wheel. (Even drinking the water without boiling it can knock you for a loop.) At the outset of a wagon train journey that will begin in Texas and (hopefully) end in Oregon, one of the veteran guides hired for the job notes, “Half these folks ain’t gonna make it,” and his prophecy begins to come true within days.

The married country-and-western duo of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill star as James and Margaret Dutton, the great-grandparents of Costner’s John Dutton, and they are spectacularly good together. We’ve known for years McGraw is a strong onscreen presence thanks to his work on “Friday Night Lights,” “The Blind Side” and “Country Strong,” but Hill has only a handful of acting credits, yet she turns in grounded, layered, powerful work as a loving wife, a fiercely protective mother — and a woman who knows her way around a horse as well as any man.

Married singers Faith Hill and Tim McGraw star on “1883” as the grandparents of John Dutton of “Yellowstone.”
Paramount+

James, Margaret, their teenage daughter Elsa (Isabel May) and their 5-year-old son John (Audie Rick) are about to make their way from Fort Worth, Texas, to a yet-to-be-determined destination when James crosses paths with a couple of Pinkerton agents who fought together in the Civil War and have remained best friends: Sam Elliott’s Shea and LaMonica Garrett’s Thomas. These two have signed on to guide and protect a wagon train of ill-equipped (in more ways than one) European immigrants all the way from Fort Worth to Oregon, and they’re short-handed. Shea has already seen evidence of James’ handiwork with a rifle, so he proposes the Duttons join the caravan, where they can look out for each other along the way.

Even before we’re out of Texas, violence and tragedy explode on multiple occasions, whether it’s a group of bandits attacking the camp, a drunken lout attempting a rape, the signs of smallpox on an immigrant’s back, or one grief-stricken individual deciding there’s no point in living anymore. The Duttons’ daughter Elsa is our narrator through the journey, and while she is quickly realizing this is not the fantasy adventure she once envisioned, she also speaks of the beauty and the wonder of the territory, and the rush of excitement she feels when she’s proving to be a more than capable cowboy or when she engages in her first real flirting with a ranch hand. “What an adventure,” says Elsa. “What an adventure for all of us.”

All of us indeed. Filmed primarily in Texas with some location shoots in Montana, “1883” has sweeping, cinematic visuals, from the impressively staged wagon-trail sequences to the high-end production values in the obligatory tavern where the liquor is flowing and the women-for-hire are working the room and atmosphere is raucous — and you know not everyone is getting out there alive. There’s a stunning flashback sequence to the Battle of Antietam, with Tom Hanks appearing as a Union general, and the star-power cameos continue in the “present day” with Billy Bob Thornton as a marshal who informs the populace, “If anyone fancies himself a gunman, you’re in the wrong town. There’s only one killer in Fort Worth, and that’s me.”

Rough place, that Fort Worth. But compared to all the dangers lurking on the path from Texas to Oregon, it’s practically a safe haven.