Wednesday, October 18, 2017
"THE CHISHOLMS" (1979): Chapter II Commentary
"THE CHISHOLMS" (1979): CHAPTER II Commentary
The first episode of the 1979 miniseries, "THE CHISHOLMS" - otherwise known as Chapter I had focused on the Chisholm family's last year at their western Virginia farm. The episode also explored the circumstances that led to patriarch Hadley Chisholm's decision to move the family west to California during the spring of 1844 and their journey as far as Evansville, Indiana. This second episode focused on the next stage of their journey.
This new episode or Chapter II focused on a short period of the Chisholms' migration to California. It covered their journey from southeastern Illinois to Independence, Missouri. Due to the addition of a guide named Lester Hackett, who had agreed to accompany them as far as Missouri, the Chisholm family experienced its first crisis - one that led to a temporary split within the family ranks. The family's journey seemed to be smooth sailing at first. They managed to become used to the routine of wagon train traveling. Lester proved to be an agreeable companion who helped with both hunting for game and cooking. He even managed to save Bonnie Sue Chisholm, who briefly found herself trapped in the family's wagon being pulled away by their pair of skittish mules. Eventually, Bonnie Sue and Lester began expressing romantic interest in each other.
But alas, the family's luck began to fade. A lone rider began trailing the Chisholm party. Lester discovered that he was a friend of someone named James Peabody, who believes Lester was responsible for the theft of some valuables that include a pair of Spanish pistols . . . the same pistols that Lester had claimed he lost in a poker match in Louisville. He and Bonnie Sue enjoyed a night of intimacy together before he abandoned the Chisholms . . . while riding Will Chisholm's horse. Around the same time, Hadley's violent encounter with a drunken Native American at a local tavern fully revealed his deep-seated bigotry towards all Native Americans and foreshadowed the problems it will cause. Then Hadley made one of the worst decisions of his life by allowing Will and middle son Gideon to pursue Lester to Iowa and recover the former's stolen horse.
Upon their arrival in Iowa, Will made an equally disastrous decision. Instead of requesting information and help from the local sheriff, he and Gideon appeared at the Hackett farm, asking for Lester's whereabouts. The two brothers ended up being arrested for the theft of chicken eggs and trespassing. Although the charges of theft were dropped, Will and Gideon were convicted of trespassing and ordered to serve on a prison work gang for a month. This left the rest of the family to continue on to Independence, Missouri - the jump-off point for all westbound wagon trains. During their journey through Missouri, the Chisholms joined with the Comyns, a family from Baltimore. Upon their arrival in Independence, the Chisholms and the Comyns discover that most of the wagons trains had already departed. However, they managed to form a wagon party with a plainsman named Timothy Oates and his Pawnee wife, Youngest Daughter. Unaware that Will and Gideon have been sentenced to a prison work gang, and aware that they are already behind schedule, the Chisholms have no choice but to head west into the wilderness.
For an episode that began in a light-hearted manner, Chapter II ended on a rather ominous note. You know, I have seen this production so many times. Yet, it never really occurred until recently how the turmoil caused by Lester Hackett in this episode, ended up causing so much turmoil for the family. What makes this ironic is that it all began with the sexual attraction that had sprung up between him and Bonnie Sue Chisholm back in Louisville. The first sign of this turmoil manifested in Lester's abandonment of the family and especially, his theft of Will Chisholm's horse. The horse theft led to the separation of the family at a time when it would have been more imperative for them to be together as a unit.
Hadley did not help matters by allowing Will and Gideon to search for Lester in Iowa. And the two brothers made the situation worse by failing to immediately contact the local sheriff before appearing at the Hackett farm - an act that led them to be sentenced one month on a prison work gang. Will and Gideon's situation made it impossible for them to catch up with the rest of the family on the trail. And as Beau Chisholm had pointed out to Hadley in Independence, they were not in a position to wait for the other two. The Chisholms had no choice but to leave with two other westbound parties - the Comyns from Baltimore and the frontiersman Timothy Oates and his wife, Youngest Daughter. Two families and a couple does not seem large enough for a safe journey on the overland trail. But considering they were all behind schedule, they could either take the risk continue west or hang around Independence until the next year.
But I did notice that despite all of this turmoil, the light-hearted atmosphere of the episode's beginning seemed to have persisted. More importantly, Chapter II seemed to be marked by a good deal of humor. The episode included humorous moments like Hadley's negative comments about the Illinois and Missouri landscapes, Will and Lester's lively debate over using mules or oxen to pull wagon overland, Lester's attempts to win over the family - especially Minerva, and especially his sexy courtship of Bonnie Sue.
Once Lester had abandoned the family near St. Louis, the humor continued. Will and Gideon's experiences in Iowa were marked with a good deal of sardonic humor. That same humor marked Hadley and Minerva's low opinion of the Comyn family. Even Hadley's quarrel with the Independence saloon owner permeated with humor and theatricality. Looking back on Chapter II, I can only think of two moments that really emphasized the gravitas of the Chisholms' situation - Hadley's violent encounter with the Native American inside an Illinois tavern and that final moment when the family continued west into the wilderness without Will and Gideon.
When the Chisholms left Virginia in Chapter I, their journey was marked with a good number of interesting settings. That episode featured a detailed re-creation of Louisville and travel along the Ohio River. There seemed to be no such unusual settings for Chapter II. The entire episode focused on the family's journey through Illinois, Iowa and Missouri. Not once did the episode featured the family in St. Louis. And a few set pieces (or buildings) served as Independence, Missouri circa 1844.
The performances from Chapter I held up very well. Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris, as usual, gave excellent performances as the family's heads - Hadley and Minerva Chisholm. I was especially impressed by Preston's performance in the scene involving Hadley's encounter with the intoxicated Native American. In it, the actor did a superb job in conveying both Hadley's racism toward all Native Americans and his poignant regret over the tragic circumstances (Allen Chisholm had been killed by a Native American in a drunken fight over a slave woman from the Bailey plantation) behind his toxic attitude. Both Ben Murphy and Brian Kerwin clicked rather well during those scenes that involved Will and Gideon Chisholm's search for Lester. The episode also featured solid performances from James Van Patten, Susan Swift, Katie Hanley (as the amusingly mild-mannered Mrs. Comyn) and David Heyward (as Timothy Oates). Veteran character actor Jerry Hardin gave an excellent performance the slightly proud, yet finicky Mr. Comyn, who seemed to run his life by his pocketwatch.
But if I must be honest, this episode belonged to Stacy Nelkin and Charles Frank, who did superb jobs in conveying Bonnie Sue Chisholm and Lester Hackett's burgeoning romance. I was impressed by how both of them developed Bonnie Sue and Lester's relationship from sexual attraction to playful flirtations and finally, to a genuine romance that was sadly cut short by Lester's need for self-preservation from a charge of theft.
Overall, I enjoyed Chapter II. In a way, it seemed to be the calm before the storm that threatens to overwhelm the Chisholm family on their trek to California. The episode seemed to be filled with a good deal of humor and romance. On the other hand, Lester Hackett's past and current choices in this episode seemed to hint an ominous future for the family by the end of the episode.