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Laramie Movie Scope: 1883

The Murphy's Law Wagon Train

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 1, 2022 – Last night I finished watching the depressing 10 episode Western miniseries 1883, (on a disk I borrowed from a local library) which is a prequel to the popular Yellowstone streaming series created by Taylor Sheridan (“Wind River” and “Hell or High Water”).

The miniseries follows the exploits of James Dutton (played by singer and actor Tim McGraw) and his family during a cursed covered wagon journey from Texas to Montana. Dutton, his wife, Margaret (played by McGraw's wife, singer and actress Faith Hill of “The Stepford Wives”) and daughter Elsa (played by Isabel May of “Run Hide Fight”) are the main characters of this epic drama.

The disputed leader of the wagon train is grizzled wagonmaster Shea Brennan (Sam Elliot of “A Star is Born”) and his partner Thomas (LaMonica Garrett of “Clemency”). Both Shea and Thomas are ex-soldiers with a lot of Oregon Trail experience.

The series opens with Shea contemplating suicide following the death of his wife and daughter from smallpox. Shea agrees to lead the wagon train for one last trek to Oregon for reasons of his own.

Shea and Thomas meet up with the party of European immigrants, few of whom speak English, in Fort Worth, Texas, finding them woefully unprepared for the journey. Only one man, James Dutton, seems to have the skill to make the trip. Like Shea and Thomas, Dutton is a former Civil War soldier.

Dutton is stubborn and independent, but Shea is glad to have him along on the journey, because he can handle himself in a fight and is deadly accurate with his sniper rifle. Even though Shea and Thomas do their best to prepare the immigrants for the trip, they soon begin to die.

I call this the Murphy's Law wagon train because it seems like everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Disease, accidents, drownings, bandits, Indians, thieves, rattlesnakes, disputes and bad decisions end up wiping out most of the travelers.

Along the Oregon trail, many people perished. Deaths on a typical wagon train were four to six percent. The death toll on this wagon train is over 80 percent. The journey is also slow, due to the inexperience of the immigrants. The wagon train is also running up against a winter deadline.

Despite the lack of inspirational material in this story, it does have some good characters. In addition to those already mentioned here, one of the immigrants, Noemi (Gratiela Brancusi) becomes romantically involved with Thomas, another, Josef (Marc Rissmann of “Overlord”) serves as leader of the immigrants.

The cowboys on the trip, Ennis (Eric Nelsen of “A Walk Among the Tombstones”) Wade (James Landry Hébert of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and Colton (Noah Le Gros of “The Beach House”) also figure prominently in the story.

Both Ennis and a Comanche warrior, Sam (Martin Sensmeier of “Wind River”) are part of a kind of romantic triangle in the story. Romance of one kind or another is an important part of this story. There is a lot of poetry in the extensive off-screen narration by Isabell May as she talks about Elsa's love of adventure, this wild land, and the people who live in it.

Margaret wants her daughter, Elsa, to be a lady, but she soon discovers that Elsa will not be tamed. She is a cowgirl, and a warrior, at heart, and she is right at home riding on the great grass ocean of the prairies. The conflict between her wild heart and the demands of civilization is another prominent theme in this story.

The tragic, brutal conflicts, gunfights and outright murders, also weigh heavy on James Dutton, Shea, Thomas and others in the wagon train. They have to kill to survive, and to continue the journey. There is a moral and mental cost to all this killing, and all these difficult moral choices. In addition, both James Dutton and Shea are haunted by memories of the Civil War.

There are a couple of other notable cameos besides series creator Taylor Sheridan, who plays famed trail master and rancher, Charles Goodnight. Tom Hanks appears with James Dutton in a Civil War flashback scene as General George Meade. Graham Greene (“Wind River”) appears as Spotted Eagle of the Crow tribe in the final episode. There is a good use of locations at Taylor Sheridan's Bosque Ranch near Weatherford, Texas and in Montana. Cinematography by Christina Alexandra Voros and Ben Richardson (also directors of this series) captures the stark beauty of the land.

I found this miniseries to be relentlessly downbeat, but it does have strong characters, a compelling story, well-written dialog, and poetic narration. It is also well acted. So, if you are O.K. with a story about a road trip where just about traveler is doomed to die a horrible death (but not before they kill a lot of other people) you might like this miniseries. It rates a C+.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in digital formats, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff (no extra charges apply). I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright 2022 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at dalek three zero one nine at gmail dot com [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]