‘1923’ Review: Leisurely Paced ‘Yellowstone’ Prequel Off to a Promising Start

Harrison Ford and Helen Mirren play Dutton ancestors in the latest Paramount+ expansion of the franchise

1923 Harrison Ford
Harrison Ford stars in "1923" (Paramount+)

Montana hasn’t seen the likes of Helen Mirren behind a shotgun before – until now. The Oscar-winning Dame, a pioneer in the film-to-TV migration with her BBC show “Prime Suspect,” plays Cara Dutton, the family matriarch in Taylor Sheridan’s “1923,” the “Yellowstone” prequel and “1883” sequel. As it turns out, the tough-but-tender Mrs. Dutton can chase an injured interloper crawling across her land and pull the trigger while looking the villain in the eye as he begs for his life. Nevertheless, the killing leaves her wailing at the sky like an agitated mama wolf pushed to her limits. Fortunately for the clan’s future, Cara’s antagonist has given his last shout.

And then we get to meet the Mister, Jacob Dutton (Harrison Ford). He’s the ancestor of Kevin Costner’s John Dutton III and brother to Tim McGraw’s James Dutton. Binoculars in hand, surrounded by cowboys, surveying his dying cattle, flies feeding on their bovine eyes and locusts dotting his neckerchief, we see the star in all his Fordiness. This is a face for Mount Rushmore: so craggy, every wrinkle exposed and scar earned, no hint of doubt behind his eyes. And then he speaks: and he has that rumble whisper that brooks no bullshit that audiences love. Let’s ride!

The Duttons have already built an empire in the American West. They’re sitting on a pile of land that stretches as far as the eye can see. But, as always, there are problems: locusts and drought and land-wars; Scottish sheep herders versus Irish cattle ranchers battling for dominance of the (free) range; the coming Depression; and damn danger-seeking, bronco-riding kids that can’t settle down. This is not a bunch that’s into peaceful coexistence.

Even the prodigal son, Spencer (Brandon Sklenar), who’s taking his time and breaking his mother’s heart returning from the killing fields of WW1 by way of Kenya, gets a shot off. He slays a lion (I am hoping the awkward visual effects were just temporary). And tracks man-eating jaguars in a very Ernest Hemingway (24 in 1923) parallel plot that will have you pulling out your Norton Anthology to read his great white hunter stories. Or dressing in safari khakis and buying vintage camp furniture.

Reviewing a series from a single episode requires a psychic, but from what I can tell from the premiere Paramount + made available to press, we have a lot of expository ground to cover. The ranch. The conflicts among the men who’ve controlled the land for generations, and the incomers who still believe in the freedoms they were promised by Lady Liberty. It all seems pretty standard, male-dominated stuff with an aproned Mirren a pop of dusty blues and roses among the dirt-clod brown – and then Jennifer Ehle arrives as a sadistic nun.

We’ve seen this kind of menacing scene before, too. The strict sister disciplining a Native American girl, and demanding the young woman explain soap’s ingredients (that’s not on the SAT). What the heck is lye anyway? But this irate Bride of Jesus has her own vicious agenda and a wicked way with a stick. She’s intent on breaking this proud young woman’s spirit, and watching her fellow students crack along with her. Oddly, this is when the plot shifts – and the pupil fights back. When was the last time you saw a girl come out swinging and clock a nun? And it only gets stranger when Sister and student visit the principal and the real lesson begins: this holy father is a man without mercy.

The first episode introduces some intriguing characters and cultural dynamics. I look forward to seeing what happens with the nun, and savoring the easy rapport of Jacob and Cara Dutton as age-appropriate husband and wife. The drama so far is leisurely paced and there’s a lot of chunky exposition. When “Yellowstone” came out in 2018, it had time to find its audience before it became a hit. Now, as 2023 looms, there are more eyes watching “1923” from the first episode, but I, for one, would follow Mirren and Ford anywhere. Let’s see what happens.    

“1923” debuted on Paramount + on December 18, with new episodes premiering weekly on Sundays.