Saturday, July 21, 2012

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Twelve "The Scream of Eagles" Commentary






"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Twelve "The Scream of Eagles" Commentary

In my article about the penultimate episode of "CENTENNIAL", I briefly commented on my displeasure at the idea of watching the miniseries finale, "The Scream of Eagles". And after watching this episode, it is clear to me that it could have been an interesting and entertaining ninety minutes or so. But producer and screenwriter John Wilder made it impossible.

"The Scream of Eagles" picked up over forty (40) years after "The Winds of Death" in the late 1970s. A history professor named Lew Vernor has been hired by a magazine to examine the studies and work of a historian named Carol Endermann, whom they had earlier hired to research Centennial's history for an article. During his visit to Centennial, Vernor is given a tour of the region by Paul Garrett, the current owner of the Venneford Ranch. Not only does he become aware of the area's history, Vernor also becomes interested in a growing political showdown between Garrett and local landowner Morgan Wendell for the position of Colorado's new Commissioner of Resources, a position designed to balance the state's economic growth with environmental and historical preservation.

I realize that my memories of "The Scream of Eagles" was not as bad as I had remembered. The episode had the potential to be an interesting look at Northern Colorado during the late 20th century. More importantly, the political showdown between Garrett and Wendell, two men who have known each other since childhood, proved to be a lot more interesting than I remembered. Even an incident regarding the shooting of an American eagle by a character named Floyd Calendar - an act that Garrett opposed - played a part in the Garrett/Wendell election. There was no political rivalry between the literary Garrett and Wendell. The latter had already been elected for the position and Garrett had agreed to be his principal deputy. I can only assume that Wilder added the political rivalry to add some heat to the miniseries' final chapter. And it would have worked if it were not for one major problem . . . flashbacks.

Flashbacks first began making its annoying presence in the eighth episode, "The Storm". More flashbacks appeared in the ninth and tenth episodes. But flashbacks came back with a vengeance in this episode. Thanks to Wilder's script, "The Scream of Eagles" featured flashbacks from nearly every major incident or story arc featured in the saga - especially Levi Zendt's trek west and the Skimmerhorn cattle drive. I could not help but wonder if they were added to flesh out this last episode. After all, "CENTENNIAL" began with a two-and-a-half hour episode - "Only the Rocks Live Forever". Wilder probably felt it should end with an episode of the same length. "The Scream of Eagles" would have aired with a running time of at least 97 minutes without those flashbacks. And honestly, I feel the episode would have been a lot better without them.

"The Scream of Eagles" was also marred by its portrayal of Paul Garrett and Nate Pearson's family backgrounds. Wilder's script revealed that Garrett was the great-grandson of Jim and Charlotte Lloyd. This completely contradicted the fact that "The Winds of Death" skipped a generation in the Garrett-Lloyd family line, by naming Jim and Charlotte as Garrett's grandparents. Very confusing. But this was nothing in compare to the ancestry of local barber, Nate Pearson. Audiences are told in this episode that Nate was the grandson of Skimmerhorn Trail veteran and former slave, Nate Pearson from "The Longhorns" and "The Shepherds". Frankly, I found this impossible. The first Nate Pearson was at least 30 years old, with children between the ages of at least five and ten in 1868. Nate Pearson II was at least in his early 40s in this last episode set around 1977-78. I find it very hard to believe that one of Nate Pearson I's sons had conceived a child in the mid-to-late 1930s. That son would have been in his mid-to-late 70s at the time of Nate II's conception. This is truly sloppy writing.

The episode featured some solid acting from the likes of Andy Griffith and Sharon Gless, who portrayed Lew Vernor and Carol Endermann - the two outsiders researching Centennial's past. It also featured a very entertaining performance from James Best (who was less than a year away from CBS's "THE DUKES OF HAZZARD") as a helicopter pilot serving as a witness at Floyd Calendar's eagle poaching trial. Robert DoQui (known from "ROBOCOP") gave an emotional, yet slightly theatrical performance as local barber, Nate Pearson. Merle Haggard displayed his talent as a singer, while portraying another singer Cisco Calendar. Unfortunately, he was never given a chance to display any talent as an actor.

David Janssen, who had served as the miniseries' narrator in the previous eleven episodes, finally had his chance to shine as the episode's main character, Paul Garrett. However, I had a problem with the Garrett character. Janssen was not to blame. Wilder was. I found the Garrett character to be a little too ideal for my tastes. And I am no longer a major fan of ideal fictional characters. I felt that the best performance came from Robert Vaughan, who portrayed Garrett's rival, Morgan Wendell. Ever since the 1968 movie, "BULLITT", Vaughan has become increasingly known for his villainous or unpleasant roles. One could say that Morgan Wendell (son of Philip Wendell) was another one of his unlikable roles. The curious thing is that Vaughan portrayed Wendell as a charming and manipulative personality - a real politician. Morgan Wendell proved to be one of the most subtle and seductive villains he has ever portrayed. After watching the Paul Garrett/Morgan Wendell political debate, I realized that I found Wendell's arguments a lot more persuasive. Interesting.

In the end, "The Scream of Eagles" proved to be a lot more interesting than I remembered, thanks to the story arc featuring the political rivalry between Paul Garrett and Morgan Wendell. But it still could have been a lot better if Wilder had been a little more consistent and accurate with two of the characters' family bloodlines. And it could have been a lot less bloated without those damn flashbacks.



R.I.P. Andy Griffith (1926-2012)

1 comment:

Eric Martin said...

Excellent review of a very-flawed finish to an excellent series. It was hard enough for them to maintain narrative drive after the cowboys had their episode, but they managed, even with the tragedies of the winter storm and then the dustbowl.

But this episode was a near collapse into endless, often sanctimonious speechifying by a now heavily-dated character (Paul Garrett) and as you said, way too many flashbacks.

Personally I would have dumped all the flasbacks, cut the Garrett character's time down, and perhaps even done something sly like bring back Robert Conrad for a mysterious cameo...just he and Garrett, ruminating by the tracks about the great history of the region. Oh well...instead we sat around for election results we never received.