‘1883’: How Sam Elliott’s Shea Brennan is Breaking the Western Leading Man’s Mold

by Jon D. B.
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1883 is the latest in a long line of high-profile Westerns for Sam Elliott, but his Shea Brennan is a character unlike any other.

How often do we see a Civil War general crying over the loss of his soldiers on-screen?

When’s the last time a Western showcased a fierce, capable man who’s equally comfortable crying over the loss of kin and strangers alike? Sam Elliott is certainly not the first emotionally available Western leading man, but he may be the most vulnerable. And having the most bankable actor the genre knows today embody Shea Brennan is proving 1883‘s masterstroke.

Through exceptional dialogue crafted by series creator Taylor Sheridan, 1883 gives us some of the best characters of 21st-century television. Civil War veteran and Pinkerton agent Shea Brennan exemplifies this (as does his partner, LaMonica Garrett’s equally brilliant Thomas). Both storied men have experienced the worst atrocities of mankind firsthand. But there’s no bottling it up. Instead, they express themselves eloquently as they shepherd a wagon train of 100 immigrants from Texas to Oregon – losing more than half along the way.

“He has great compassion for these people. That said, at the same time he’ll shoot a guy for stealing something,” Elliott told Bleeding Cool in a recent interview. “He’s a complex character.”

That Shea is. An episode doesn’t pass where Brennan isn’t as equally vulnerable as he is stalwart. Vulnerability is strength, especially in eras like the 19th century or our modern political climate where men are expected to stand tall and never fall short.

An Actor’s Best Friend: The Dialogue of ‘1883’

Shea’s dialogue gives audiences a window directly into this man’s tortured soul. It feels a duality, but in truth, it paints a fully fleshed-out human being. And Sam Elliott’s delivery brings both to the forefront in equally impactful ways.

“Take three steps to the right… So I don’t kill the women standing behind you.”

“I miss them every morning… We’re making too many widows, Thomas. Too many orphans.”

In film, characters (male or female) are all too often given either the first or second flavor of dialogue above. Rarely do we hear the same character utter both.

“I played these kinds of characters before, but there’s a lot more going on in Shea’s head than there have been in other cowboys that I’ve played,” Elliott adds of 1883. “Number one, he’s a veteran of the Civil War. Number two, he loses his family right off the top in the first episode, and number three, he’s got this contingent of immigrants that he’s taken care of showing them the way guarding along the way, and he’s sensitive to those losses.”

A Man of War: Grappling with PTSD

1883 also deals with the realities of wartime PTSD in a time long before the condition was recognized for what it was. Thankfully, modern cinema has come a long way in depicting the mental health of soldiers, but the turmoil of PTSD continues to be portrayed as a consequence of immediate self-trauma.

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Pictured: Sam Elliott as Shea of the Paramount+ original series 1883. Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2021 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

In other words, we often see veterans suffering over their own horrifying experiences in the trenches; the direct consequences of war on the immediate self. Yet it’s exceptionally rare to see a Captain losing sleep over the loss of his beloved men. Especially in a period-correct Western.

“He suffers from PTSD,” Elliott told 1883‘s production crew for their behind-the-scenes episode. “He loses his family and I think that’s the biggest burden that he carries with him. Yeah, he’s hard-handed, but I think he deeply cares on some level.”

Shea’s heavy heart leads him to nearly commit suicide in the premiere episode. But through the strength his close bond with Thomas gives him, he chooses life. Yet after the sister of Margaret Dutton (Faith Hill), Claire (Dawn Olivieri) chooses to take her own life, he’s on hand to honor her “courage.”

“That wasn’t courage,” James Dutton (Tim McGraw) tells him.

Yes it was,” Shea retorts.

Through 1883‘s trials, Sam Elliott delivers us a Western leading man who knows the worth of his fellow man; one who would be lost without them and strives to return that strength to others every chance he gets. And as 1883 continues, we can’t wait to see where it leads.

Outsider.com