Release Date: July 29, 2008
3 ½ ½
Starring: (In order of appearance) Michael Ansara, Robert Conrad, Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Carrera, Sally Kellerman, Stephen McHattie, Kario Salem, Gregory Harrison, Stephanie Zimbalist, Timothy Dalton, Chad Everett, Cristina Raines, Alex Karras, Mark Harmon, Richard Crenna, Cliff De Young, Dennis Weaver, Rafael Campos, William Atherton, Brian Keith, Lynn Redgrave, Anthony Zerbe, Lois Nettleton, Doug McKeon, A. Martinez, Claude Jarman, Jr., Julie Sommars, Andy Griffith, Robert Vaughn, Sharon Gless, Merle Haggard and David Janssen
Based on the Novel By: James A. Michener
Adapted & Executive Produced by: John Wilder
Directed by: Virgil W. Vogel, Paul Krasny, Harry Falk, Bernard McEveety
Centennial is a 6-disc DVD set containing the entire 12 part miniseries from 1978, as aired on network television. The miniseries is a “novel for television” in the same mode as earlier works like Roots. In this case, the show is adapted from an epic historical novel by James Michener and covers over 200 years of material. In the same mode as other Michener sagas such as Hawaii, Texas and Chesapeake, this piece covers the history of Colorado from the 18th century up to the present day. The miniseries is a truly sprawling work, covering a multitude of historical eras (from the mountain men through the cowboys to the modern world) and a multitude of film styles (from an almost spare beginning through a wagon train story through a cattle drive and beyond). Given the length, the miniseries manages to preserve an admirable amount of the characters and story from the book, all presented quite faithfully. However, it must also be noted that the show definitely shows its age with its focus – a decidedly ecological perspective on Colorado and its history. As a result, many characters deliver lengthy monologues about preserving the Earth and the environment, and some graphic examples are shown of environmental abuse, particularly in the final chapters. (This isn’t to denigrate environmentalism – just to note that the miniseries was produced at a time when ecology was just becoming a popular and trendy subject – its inclusion in the backbone of the show, although endorsed by James Michener, is a specific frame that pins the proceedings to the specific time in which it was made.) Regardless of the monologues, this miniseries is breathtaking in its scope, and can grab the viewer regardless of which chapter you watch.
The DVD set contains two of the twelve chapters per disc, with unlisted chapter stops, along with a single featurette and some previews for other television DVDs. The transfer appears to be the same as the master for the VHS release of this miniseries over ten years ago. Thus, the print quality is visibly dated and the sound is a simple 2.0 mono track. This is disappointing, but the inherent quality of the show merits a look by anyone interested in historical epics or the lost art of the great American network TV miniseries.
At the same time, I must confess additional disappointment that the only extra feature provided here is a simple featurette on the second disc. While I’m happy to see this miniseries finally available on disc, some tremendous opportunities were lost here to provide context and background. A show of this scope deserves a greater depth of examination. I had hoped to hear commentaries on some or all of the episodes, to discuss the massive effort to make the shows and the historical background behind the stories. But no such analysis is present – just a quick series of interview snippets with three of the cast members. While I’m grateful to see the show on DVD, I wish we could have seen a bit more care put into this presentation.
I will take the discs in order, detailing what chapters can be found on each. THERE ARE SPOILERS HERE, in the interest of letting fans of the show know where they can see key developments.
When inserted, the disc plays full frame previews for DVD releases of Law & Order and House. After that, the regular menu comes up. I note again that the episodes are simply presented in their entirety. There is no chapter menu – although there certainly are several chapter stops in every hour.
This disc contains the first two episodes of the miniseries:
“Only the Rocks Live Forever” – The first part of the story begins with an introduction by James Michener, who immediately sets the tone by announcing that he wrote the book to focus attention on the environment and what is happening to it. The story proper then begins, with David Janssen providing narration over most of the scenes without dialogue. We start with an Arapaho tribe in Colorado in 1756, eventually led by Chief Lame Beaver (Michael Ansara). By the time he’s the chief, the story has already shifted to 1795 and introduced a French trapper named Pasquinel (Robert Conrad). The opening instalment focuses on Pasquinel’s voyages into the Colorado area to trade with the local tribes for beaver pelts. In one of his trips, he rescues a young Scotsman named McKeag (Richard Chamberlain) and trains him to become a trapper in his own right. By the end of the first chapter, the 19th century has begun and Pasquinel has married two women – one in St. Louis, the other being Lame Beaver’s daughter Clay Basket (played by a young Barbara Carrera). As in the book, the show makes clear that Pasquinel doesn’t really care about Clay Basket, but McKeag is in love with her. The storytelling here is spare and unsympathetic in many ways, but also includes some boldly colourful moments, such as a wistful encounter in a green field between McKeag and Clay Basket. (Some fans of the series find the first two chapters of the miniseries to be the strongest ones.)
“The Yellow Apron” – The second part of the miniseries spans from the first few years of the 19th century to the 1830s. We see the characters age and grow apart, particularly as Pasquinel alternately embraces each wife (and his children by her) and neglects the others. Pasquinel’s obsession with a gold vein once discovered by Lame Beaver also plays a part. The breaking point for McKeag comes from Pasquinel’s half-Arapaho sons from Clay Basket. They’re both fairly bitter, but the anger of the eldest son leads to bloodshed between him and McKeag. The title of the episode (also the title of the chapter in the book that covers this story) refers to a conciliation dance done together by Pasquinel and McKeag at a Rendezvous of mountain men in the Rockies. The close of this part illustrates the difference between the novel and the miniseries: in the novel, the final part of Pasquinel’s life is only told after the fact; in the miniseries, we are with him when he finally achieves his life’s ambition and when that moment is cruelly ended.
The second disc contains the third and fourth parts of the story:
“The Wagon and The Elephant” – With this part, the story moves ahead to 1845 and focuses on young Levi Zendt (Gregory Harrison), an unjustly shunned Mennonite from Pennsylvania who decides to join a wagon train west with his young bride. As the wagon train starts, the couple encounters a young British writer named Oliver Seccombe (Timothy Dalton) and a military officer named Maxwell Mercy (Chad Everett). (I should also note here the disreputable trail guide played by Donald Pleasance.) This entire episode is practically a separate movie in itself, focusing on the adventures of a wagon train moving toward Oregon. Zendt makes it as far as Colorado, where he encounters an aged McKeag (now married to an aged Clay Basket) and decides to partner with him in a trading post. Unfortunately for Zendt, tragedy strikes his new family in a scene directly lifted from the novel, and this part ends not in triumph but sadness.
“For as Long as the Waters Flow” – The fourth part of the story begins with the aftermath of Zendt’s tragedy in 1846 and then moves ahead in time with him as he partners with McKeag and marries his adopted daughter (actually Pasquinel’s daughter) Lucinda (Cristina Raines). As the story continues, the plot focuses on the treaties being struck between the growing United States and the nations of Indians. The title refers to a convocation of thousands of Indians at Fort Laramie in 1851 where vast promises were made. The show then shifts ahead nearly ten years to let us see that the treaties are already being rewritten or ignored and that the Indians are realizing how bad of a situation they have. (As Pasquinel’s half-Arapaho son Jake yells at the time, “You want it all! That’s it, isn’t it? You want IT ALL!”) At the same time, we are introduced to a German gold digger named Hans Brumbaugh (an effective Alex Karras) whose shifty partner is trying to find Lame Beaver’s gold by any means.
The second disc also includes the only special features of the set:
Memories of Centennial - (17:39, Full Frame) – Three of the actors from the show are interviewed, with intercuts of clips from the show. Robert Conrad, Barbara Carrera and William Atherton all weigh in with their recollections about the shoot. And it’s interesting material – Atherton discusses a handy way to use cigarettes to hold a cowboy hat on your head while riding, and admits that the actors wore a tremendous amount of makeup due to the massive amount of light being pounded onto the set. Carrera talks about the extreme age range she plays in the series (from about 16 or 17 all the way up to 90) and the extreme cold she sometimes endured. Conrad simply refers to the part of Pasquinel as having been his favourite, and tells a slightly tall tale about carrying 200 pounds of beaver pelts on his head for a shot.
There is also a “Previews” menu, which brings up non-anamorphic trailers for the season sets for Battlestar: Galactica, Coach, Crossing Jordan, Eureka, House, The Incredible Hulk, Murder She Wrote, and Quantum Leap, along with a combined trailer for The A Team, Knight Rider and Miami Vice.
“The Massacre” – This episode is where the situation for the tribes in Colorado goes from push to shove, culminating in the title event. While our established characters deal with the escalating conflict between the Indians and the settlers, Richard Crenna plays Frank Skimmerhorn, a scary volunteer militia colonel who arrives to pour gasoline on the fire. A zealot on a mission, he takes over the local militia and is responsible for the deaths of most of the Indians still in that part of Colorado, including almost everyone left from Pasquinel’s Indian family. (A major difference between the book and the miniseries pops up here – in the book, Skimmerhorn is popular throughout his time in the area, and the Indian sympathizers are treated brutally. In the miniseries, Skimmerhorn loses his popularity once he shoots a surrendering man in the back, thus ending his reign and establishing that the local weren’t THAT bad.) By the end of this episode, it’s 1865 (we are told that the Civil War is over and Lincoln has been killed), and the last remnants of the once-great Arapaho Nation are in tatters. A side story shows Brumbaugh learning the hard way that he isn’t much interested in the bloody business of gold digging. After that epiphany, a middle-aged Levi Zendt gives him some riverside property to start a potato farm, which Brumbaugh turns into a success. The episode concludes with Zendt rebuilding his trading post as the center of a new town. Just as we see that, Oliver Seccombe returnes with a new plan to bring cattle to the area with a minimum of investment. The ever-helpful Zendt is happy to participate, just as he was with Brumbaugh’s farm. Ominously, Seccombe suggests that Brumbaugh sell him his land and Brumbaugh firmly refuses.
“The Longhorns” – The sixth part of the miniseries is a movie in its own right, with the simple plot of “a boy joins a cattle drive and learns to be a man.” In the year 1868, John Skimmerhorn (Cliff de Young, playing the virtuous son of Crenna’s character) organizes Seccombe’s cattle drive from Texas to Zendt’s Farm in Colorado. This episode follows Skimmerhorn as he recruits trail boss R.J. Poteet (Dennis Weaver in fine form), a Mexican cook named Nacho (Rafael Campos) and a bunch of local Texas cowboys including a 16 year old boy named Jim Lloyd. Their passage from Texas to the north includes the all the usual events, including raids by the outlaw Pettis Boys and by renegade Indians. (It is interesting to juxtapose the treatment of Indians from parts 5 and 6, where they are seen in completely different lights. In part 5, we mourn the massacre of women and children. In part 6, the Indians we see are bandits - and a big part of Jim Lloyd becoming a man is when he shoots the Indian Chief riding down on him.) As a side note, more material is included along the way about how farmers near Zendt's Farm are being intimidated into selling their land or are killed when they refuse. Another confrontation between Seccombe and Brumbaugh clarifies this issue, with Brumbaugh forcefully telling the rancher to back off. (In the book, this episode is titled “The Cowboys”.)
“The Shepherds” – The story moves forward in time to the 1880s, and the town has been renamed Centennial, in honor of the nation’s hundredth birthday and Colorado’s nickname. (Episodes 7 through 10 are a mini-saga of the typical western town in the 1880s, peppered with what new surprises can arrive with the latest train.) The cattle ranch, called the Venneford after the Earl who sponsored it, has become almost as large as the state of Vermont, and a range war breaks out between Seccombe and the local farmers, represented here by Brumbaugh. The situation is further inflamed by the arrival of shepherd Messmore Garrett and his flock, who receive some aid from the now 60 year-old Levi Zendt. When Seccombe sanctions the Pettis Boys to eliminate his problems (leading to Brumbaugh’s farm being burned and some cowhands-turned-shepherds being murdered), three unlikely partners– new shepherd Amos Calendar, Brumbaugh, and the adult Jim Lloyd (William Atherton) – take action against the outlaws. The episode ends with Sheriff Axel Dumire (a strong Brian Keith) intoning heavily against the cost of murder and revenge.
“The Storm” – The title event in the eighth episode is a massive blizzard that wipes out many of Seccombe’s cattle (possibly saving him from a ruinous fraud investigation by the accountant hired by Seccombe’s English bosses and investors). Another story in this part deals with the return of the aged Levi Zendt to his home community in Pennsylvania, which only shows him he has very little in common with his original family and community. Zendt ends his part of this saga having learned he’s in a better place out west in Colorado than he may have realized. This episode also sees the arrival of the Wendell family, an acting troupe of Mervin and Maude (Anthony Zerbe and Lois Nettleton) and their son Philip (Doug McKeon). We quickly see that the Wendells are also practiced con artists, something smelled right away by Sheriff Dumire. Dumire’s attempt to keep them from conning anyone in town unfortunately results in them being trapped in the town for the foreseeable future.
“The Crime” – In the wake of the events of the prior episode, Seccombe ends his association with the ranch and the land, leaving his wife Charlotte (Lynn Redgrave) to pick up the pieces. Potato farmer Brumbaugh branches out into beets and hires a Japanese family to farm his land, only to find they’re a lot better at it than he is. The crime of the title refers to the Wendells’ application of an adultery con called “The Badger Game”, which nets them first a reverend’s house and then a travelling agent’s bag of cash – and his corpse when the con goes bad. Young Philip, who idolizes Sheriff Dumire, is presented with the choice of helping his parents cover up the killing or helping the Sheriff possibly execute his parents.
“The Winds of Fortune” – The final gasp of the 1880s mostly deals with the ramifications of Philip’s choice, which become more and more difficult until the surviving Pettis Boys return for their own revenge. Other stories here include Brumbaugh turning to Mexican labor – specifically Nacho’s nephew Tranquilino (A. Martinez) who faces vicious racism when he leaves town. The title refers to Charlotte Seccombe’s courting of Jim Lloyd, which results in the former Texan becoming the head of the Venneford Ranch.
“The Winds of Death” – The penultimate episode is a self-contained epic tragedy, covering the years from the early 1900s through the Great Depression. The primary focus of the episode is the efforts of the Grebe family (Claude Jarman, Jr. and Julie Sommars) to farm worthless land sold them by the Wendells. After some successful years, the situation turns ugly for most of the young families, and as the town becomes a giant dust bowl, the situation leads to madness and death. (And in the wake of this, the Wendells simply become richer) Several characters from the prior episodes return here at a very old age, including Brumbaugh and Lloyd. The issue of prejudice against the Mexicans is again dealt with here, only in a more direct fashion, with both Charlotte and Jim Lloyd getting involved on their own. The episode ends with Charlotte lecturing her young grandnephew Paul Garrett about the importance of respecting and protecting the land as they stand in a snowy field.
“The Scream of Eagles” – The final episode brings the story to 1978, the year the miniseries originally aired. Seen through the eyes of visiting professor/writer Lew Vernor (Andy Griffith), the history of Centennial is retold to him by veteran cattleman and owner of the Venneford Paul Garrett (David Janssen). Garrett is the one surviving member of the Pasquinel family tree, and it’s appropriate that it has been his voice narrating all the prior parts. The story here has to do with the effort of businessman Morgan Wendell (Robert Vaughn) to win a state environmental office for his own aggrandizement, and Garrett’s choice to run against him. (This whole story is a departure from the book, where the modern Wendell is presented as a pragmatic and common sense-minded politician who successfully recruits Garrett to help him and who confesses the nearly century-old murder to Vernor after being confronted about the contents of a riverbank hollow that accidentally gets unearthed. In the miniseries, the modern Wendell is just as craven as his grandparents, and Garrett – who gets all the good lines Wendell had in the book – runs against him on principle.) The themes regarding threats to the environment and racism against Indians and Mexicans are revisited here. After Garrett’s quiet elegy by the railroad tracks at night, the minseries ends with Merle Haggard singing a nice take on “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” as images of the various major characters over the years are presented again in order.
VIDEO QUALITY: 2/5
Centennial is presented in the same full frame transfer used for the videotape set ten years ago. While it’s not in terrible condition, the transfer is far from stellar. Colors are inconsistent - muddy and smeared in some areas, while others are reasonably sharp. Darker scenes and blacks do not hold up especially well. Flesh tones are variable, and the whole enterprise is showing its age. This is likely as good as anyone saw it in 1978, but it looks like what it is – a digital copy of a videotape transfer from over ten years ago.
AUDIO QUALITY: 2 ½/5 ½
Centennial is presented in an English 2.0 mono audio track. While the dialogue is intelligible and the music still soars, there is no excitement in this audio track. It’s serviceable enough, but it sounds like what it is – a mono mix with no frills.
The various episodes each have a few chapter stops, but there is no chapter menu. Subtitles are available in English on the episodes.
IN THE END...
Centennial is a welcome addition to Universal’s collection of television on DVD, with an epic story and cast on parade through its 12 parts. One wishes that a bit more care would have been taken in its presentation (if ever there was a show that cried out for commentaries, this would be the one), but it’s still a great show. And it’s a great piece of history – both as a recounting of the lives of Colorado and as a time capsule of how those lives were seen in 1978. In spite of the limitations of this set, it’s wonderful to get to see the show again.
July 26, 2008