Harrison Ford aiming a pistol is an indelible American image, yet one almost entirely divorced from the indelible American genre that so often yields such macho iconography. Many actors who carried themselves as well as they carried their sidearm — the likes of Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson, Kurt Russell, Jack Palance, Mel Gibson — either did so in westerns or eventually made their way to the genre. (Even Gibson, who hit it big with “Lethal Weapon,” still has “Maverick” on his résumé.) But Ford the cowboy isn’t ingrained in our collective consciousness. Sure, he dabbled in TV shoot-em-ups before he made the A-list and later carried best-forgotten movies “The Frisco Kid” and “Cowboys & Aliens.” The latter even calls to mind Ford’s breakout stance — a little space western called “Star Wars” — but it’s not Han Solo’s vest or skills as a marksman that make him stand out.
At the risk of stating the obvious, there’s something about his face. Eastwood and Russell may emit a striking sneer or wrathful tremble when gripping their respective barrels, but Ford tells us so much about his characters in the way his eyes bulge or lips curl when he picks up a gun. Debates over whether Han shot first (and the historical rewriting that ensued) can be traced back to our ability to believe either option: How could this guy shoot first? How could this guy not? Over the years, Ford shaped and reshaped that iconic image, every time rooting his expressions in character, while still bringing fresh dimensions to our understanding of the actor, the star, the person making them.
When he inevitably draws his six-shooter in “1923,” Ford’s face doesn’t change. He doesn’t blink. His posture doesn’t even shift. His irritated livestock commissioner, Jacob Dutton, is so focused on a cocky little troublemaker that when Jacob turns around, walks up to him, and sticks a gun under his chin, it’s as though the revolver is an extension of his body — as casually unsheathed as a hand from its coat pocket. It’s also one of the few times in the pilot episode where Ford’s expression isn’t affixed in an indignant scowl. “1923,” the second “Yellowstone” prequel from writer and creator Taylor Sheridan, grounds itself in violence — violence on animals, like the cattle plagued by locusts; violence on the land, which isn’t producing enough nourishment for the animals, and thus, their owners; and yes, violence on people, like the threat Ford is convincingly ready to carry out with his brandished firearm.
Through one episode, there’s little to say definitively about the purpose of all this violence, or “1923” in general. A familiar voiceover opens the episode with a bit of blunt exposition that still required many minutes of internet sleuthing to make sense of; Helen Mirren, as Jacob’s Irish immigrant wife Cara, is the first to fire a weapon, in a scene that’s equally indecipherable; two storylines — one in Africa and the other at a government-run boarding school — feel like they belong in different shows (but hey, at least one involves repeated, vicious beatings for the only person-of-color in the cast); and because I fear the wrath of the “Yellowstone” faithful, I won’t be sharing any closely guarded revelations about the Dutton family tree. After all, figuring out who’s who and how they relate to “1883” or present-day characters is requisite homework for anyone tuning in for anything other than the iconic leads. (Mirren, so far, gets to have all the fun.)
One would hope Jacob’s disgust with his adversaries (who he calls “bullies whining about the consequences of the rules they broke”) and exhaustion over ranching’s continued hardships would lead the aging cowboy toward grace; that he’d want better for the future Dutton generations we know will inherit his “crumbling empire.” But remembering Sheridan’s penchant for juxtaposing mankind’s ugliest antics with magnificent natural vistas, it seems just as likely that “1923” will only match Jacob’s grimace with a perpetually grim tone.
At least Ford — and Mirren — will make finding out as gratifying as possible.
“1923” premieres Sunday, December 18 on Paramount+. New episodes will be released weekly.