‘Centennial’

September 10th, 2014 by Christopher Robinson

Centennial   Centennial poster 01 88x120 western romance reviews drama action Directors: Virgil W. Vogel, Paul Krasny, Harry Falk and Bernard McEveety
Writers:
Charles Larson, James A. Michener, John Wilder and Jerry Ziegman
Release year:
1978

American History-‘Michner’d’

Pioneers, Indians, ranchers, cattlemen, lawmen, farmers, soldiers and outlaws blaze a trail through a new world in a one-of-a kind mini-series as big and rugged as the very landscape it covers. Across a vast frame of time, the people who shaped a nation fire their brand on a changing America as they struggle to get the fruits of their labors into the hands of a next generation. A town is created before our eyes and although the years pass, the founders’ descendents find that many of the same age-old questions could remain unanswered.

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(Spoilers follow…)

‘Centennial’ opens in the 18th Century Rocky Mountains with the daring exploits of trapper and pelt trader, Pasquinel (Robert Conrad). A French Canadian of the Daniel Boone variety, he is the first white man the Arapaho Indians have ever encountered and plays a crucial role in early white/Indian relations. He lives in two worlds, taking a wife in St. Louis as well as an Arapaho one. His Indian wife, Clay Basket (Barbara Carerra) bears him two ‘half-breed’ sons who eventually choose the ways of the Arapaho. It is in that world that they quickly become feared leaders of their people. Pasquinel, trusted by the Pawnee among others, saves a Scottish trapper, McKeag (Richard Chamberlain) from barbaric death in their camp. The two form a partnership and McKeag even marries Clay Basket after Pasquinel is killed by the Pawnee when he locates a source of gold he has long searched for. McKeag, Clay Basket – couldn’t they call her “C.B.” or something? – and her daughter, Lucinda (Cristina Raines), take a wagon train trek to Colorado to begin a new life. Joining them are Levi (Gregory Harrison), a shunned Mennonite from Pennsylvania and his pregnant wife, Elly (Stephanie Zimbalist). Along the way hardships prove insurmountable as Elly is killed by a rattlesnake and Levi retires to the mountains to live as a hermit. Later, he joins into a new partnership with McKeag, building a trading post and marries Lucinda.

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The tribes of the Great Plains begin clashing with one another and raiding white settlements as troops are sent east once the Civil War breaks out. Levi, McKeag and others try to appeal to the Pasquinel Brothers to make peace but a war soon erupts. A determined militia leader, Skimmerhorn (Richard Crenna), who once lost his family in an Indian raid, kills both Pasquinels out of vengeful hatred, reversing public sympathy in favor of the Indians.

After a dangerous but successful longhorn cattle drive, Seccombe (Timothy Dalton), an English writer who journeyed west with Levi and the McKeags, starts a cattle ranch backed by British investors in the newly annexed state where a town is being built and christened “Centennial”. One of the town’s founders is its leading farmer, Brumbaugh (Alex Karras), who decides he should farm potatoes, declaring himself “Potatoes Brumbaugh” (Why couldn’t his name have been au Gratin?). Seccombe marries Charlotte (Lynn Redgrave), a British backer’s daughter while a range war breaks out among cattlemen and sheep herders. Fraud and corruption undo Seccombe’s empire and he eventually takes his own life in front of Charlotte and Levi.

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Centennial soon thrives, bringing in many new travelers. One such newcomer is a con man named Wendell (Anthony Zerbe), who arrives with his wife and son. They make a name as entertainers but begin scheming their way to greater fortune until they end up killing a wealthy man in an unplanned struggle. It is their young son who devises a secret method of hiding the body enabling them to prosper despite the mounting suspicions of Sheriff Dumire (Brian Keith), who after a gunfight, dies bemoaning the unsolved killing.

As the Great Depression begins, we find Wendell rich from land selling schemes as a real estate mogul while the farmers and ranchers suffer in the ruins of poverty and unrelenting dust storms. Time jumps ahead once more into the contemporary era of 1979, where Paul (David Janssen), a descendant of Charlotte’s, and Morgan (Robert Vaughn), a descendant of Wendell’s, go toe-to-toe over ongoing debates on conservation vs. progress, culminating in a high-profile election. As this is happening, Professor Vernor (Andy Griffith) arrives in town to write a book on the town’s history. One of the first things he witnesses is Morgan relinquishing a skeleton from the location where his ancestors were thought to hide a body some 90 years earlier. This singular moment will seemingly re-open the investigation or at least sway public opinion against Morgan’s candidacy and lead to the re-examination of a town’s very identity.

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Adapted from a sprawling 900 page novel by James A. Michener, ‘Centennial’ is as ambitious as a mini-series could strive to be, taking the similarly themed mythic adventure of television’s ‘How the West Was Won’ (1978-1979) to further reaches and owing a little to ‘Giant’ (1956) and other films in the process. A balance of historical significance and traditional cinematic elements is measured to achieve a striking combination. Some may note the absence of certain critical events in lieu of more arcane ones and this in no way reduces the overall scope. Major conflicts like the Civil War are depicted in passing to better paint a personal picture of a central group of characters who remain increasingly geographically static as the story unfolds. Some events unrelated to their corner of the country such as Custer’s Indian campaigns are given an allegorical treatment.

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The fine details within Michener’s broad brush strokes inspire the compelling quality in ‘Centennial’. Everyone interacts and reappears, often in the slightest fashion. Casual observation might blur these connections that are so vital to its appeal. Perhaps this explains the need to rehash earlier scenes and relationships via flashback, particularly in the latter half of the story. Tuning in weekly, viewers could easily find themselves ‘missing something’ as opposed to being simply confused. At one point, a flashback annoyingly occurs twice in a short period. It is also in the final two parts where the series suffers most as we speed into the 20th Century, courting new characters with little or no time to appreciate their triumphs, trials and losses. As Professor Vernor, played by Andy Griffith, arrives in Centennial in 1979, it promises to be a fittingly exciting finale. That soon falls apart, however, when David Janssen begins a preachy diatribe that doesn’t end until the cows come home. Acting as narrator up to this point, he must have become stuck in that mode by the time he was given an actual role. Making matters worse, too much is left unresolved and the perplexing addition of Merle Haggard becomes the conclusion’s real unsolved mystery. He serves as much purpose here as a mirror ball dangling from the timber rafters at Fort Laramie.

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On the whole, it’s a thrilling journey with much to take in, a rousing score and some laudable performances. What fascinates most in Centennial is how it prompts us to uncover our own regional lore. Sure… Why not? Your town undoubtedly has its own story, its own myths, legends and heroes. It has most likely seen similar days of exploration, development, crisis, war, scandal and renewal. Best of all, it’s probably waiting right now… to be ‘Michner’d’.


Rating: Centennial   star western romance reviews drama action Centennial   star western romance reviews drama action Centennial   star western romance reviews drama action Centennial   star western romance reviews drama action Centennial   blankstar western romance reviews drama action

 

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