Who Does Tim McGraw Play in ‘1883’? What to Know About His Character

by Courtney Blackann
Photo Cr: Emerson Miller/Paramount+ © 2022 MTV Entertainment Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Tim McGraw powerfully captures the essence of the Dutton family name with his portrayal of James Dutton in “1883.” But his character is much more of a foundation to the Western tale than most fans realize. James’ stoic demeanor is something handed down through generations of Duttons leading up to “Yellowstone.”

So who is the character really? And how does he set the tone for the multi-generational tale? Let’s break it down.

‘1883’s Establishment of James Dutton

Firstly, let’s establish the family connection between McGraw’s James Dutton to Kevin Costner’s John Dutton. James is the father of John Dutton Sr. This means he’s the great-great-grandfather to John Dutton of “Yellowstone.” Though the two presumably never meet each other, they exhibit some similar qualities.

McGraw poignantly portrays the powerful character. James is a decision-maker. He’s not someone to back down easily. And when he sets his mind to something, he follows it through to the end. Of course, James couldn’t be who he is without his wife Margaret Dutton (Faith Hill) and his two children, Elsa and John. They ground him. They keep him persevering in a post-Civil War era of change.

Tim McGraw Explains James Dutton’s Civil War Past

But James also has a past. And it’s an unsettling one full of darkness and trauma. After fighting in the Civil War, which is one of the most bloody and gruesome wars fought on American soil, James is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Tim McGraw discussed this of his character.

“You get a sense of who James is because of the flashbacks in the second episode, during the Civil War,” McGraw explains. “In my mind, when I’m developing my character and thinking about who James is and what drives him, to me, James didn’t want to be in that war. He didn’t believe in what the cause was, and he was forced to be in it. And then he goes into a battle and loses a thousand men. And to me, James is PTSD. I mean, that’s clearly part of his character, clearly part of his psyche.”

Escaping Society As They Know It

James’ experiences in the war leave him with a dream for something greater. He wants to escape the tragedy and also embark on something fresh. James has a vision for what his family should be surrounded with as they grow up.

In doing so, he ventures out on the Great Frontier. Along with Margaret, Elsa and John, James agrees to help lead a crew of immigrant travels out west. He does this along with Captain Shea Brennan (Sam Elliott) and Thomas (Lamonica Garrett).

Throughout the journey, there are plenty of obstacles. Death at every turn. Harsh terrain and the seemingly endless road of flatlands and rivers. But through it all, James remains optimistic he’s leading his family somewhere promising.

James Dutton Leads the Charge Into the Unknown

“I don’t think it was in the Dutton genetics to turn around and stop,” McGraw said. “Certainly there was doubt every day about what he had gotten his family into, and you read it in his eyes a lot of the time when things were going badly… He’s a tough guy, but he cared a lot about everybody that was on that trip. He may not have shown it, but you could see by his actions, he put his life on the line for everybody, constantly.”

Further, what drives James aside from his vision for a better future, is the hope for a new chapter in history. Establishing a home out west was the promise of opportunities. And for the Duttons, opportunity is everything.

“His [James’] venture west is a complete rejection of the society that he lived in,” McGraw says plainly. “It’s a refusal to even be a part of it anymore. So, he went to a place society didn’t exist.”

The journey is the story of “1883.” But the vision of a set destination is James’ driving force in leaving Texas – and all the tragedy there – behind.

“I think probably after the war,” McGraw said to the Official Yellowstone Podcast. “During reconstruction, and the devastation that it wrought. I think James’ motivation was to get his family to an untainted part of the world. That’s really what he wanted to do. And he was trying to outrun ghosts. He was trying to get past some of the ghosts that he had in his life, and I don’t think he’s ever going to get past that.”

‘1883’ Humanizes James Dutton

Though he would suffer another great tragedy in losing his only daughter, Elsa, James Dutton set out to finish what he began. His family stayed where Elsa perished. In the hills of Montana. And thus, a new chapter of the Dutton’s story begins.

In the end, James is a new version of himself. He’s still loyal, trustworthy and a force to be reckoned with. But he’s learned a hard lesson about love. And there’s something tender inside him that he acknowledges where he once couldn’t. So who is James Dutton, really? He’s human.