Showing posts with label gregory harrison. Show all posts
Showing posts with label gregory harrison. Show all posts

Monday, March 26, 2012

"WESTWARD HO!": Part Three - "CENTENNIAL" (1978-79)


centennial 3.1

Below is Part Three to my article about Hollywood's depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon "", the third episode of the 1978-79 television miniseries, "CENTENNIAL":


"WESTWARD HO!": Part Three - "CENTENNIAL" (1978-79)

I. Introduction

Between the fall of 1978 and the winter of 1979, NBC aired an adaptation of James Michner's 1973 novel, "Centennial". The twelve-part miniseries spanned 180 years in the history of a fictional town in Northern Colorado called Centennial. Episode Three, titled "The Wagon and the Elephant", revealed the experiences of a Pennsylvania Mennonite from Lancaster named Levi Zendt and his bride, Elly, during their overland journey to the west.

In the early spring of 1845 (1844 in the novel), Levi found himself shunned by his conservative family after being falsely accused of attempted rape by a local Mennonite girl named . Apparently, Miss Stoltzfus did not want the community to know about her attempts to tease Levi. Only two other people knew the truth, two 17 year-olds at the local orphanage - Elly Zahm and Laura Lou Booker. Levi eventually befriends Elly. And when he decides to leave Lancaster, he asks Elly to accompany him to Oregon as his bride.

Since "CENTENNIAL" was about the history of a Northern Colorado town, one would easily assume that Levi and Elly never made it to Oregon. Instead, a few mishaps that included Elly nearly being raped by their wagon master named Sam Purchas and a bad wagon wheel, convinced the Zendts to turn around and return to Fort Laramie. There, they teamed with former mountain man Alexander McKeag and his family to head toward Northern Colorado and establish a trading post.

"The Wagon and the Elephant" is my favorite episode of "CENTENNIAL". One of the reasons I love it so much is well . . . I love the story. And aside from one of two quibbles, I believe the episode gave a very effective portrayal of life for an emigrant traveling by wagon train.


II. History vs. Hollywood

From a historical perspective, I believe producer John Wilder made only one major blooper in the production. The fault may have originated with writer James Michner's novel. Before leaving Lancaster, Levi Zendt purchased a large Conestoga wagon from a teamster named Amos Boemer. As I have stated in the Introduction, a Conestoga wagon was a heavy, large wagon used for hauling freight along the East Coast. It was considered too big for mules or oxen to be hauling across the continent. Which meant that the Zendts' Conestoga was too heavy for their journey to Oregon.

The wagon eventually proved to be troublesome for Levi and Elly. Yet, according to the episode's transcript and Michner's novel, the fault laid with a faulty left wheel, not the wagon's impact upon the animals hauling it. In St. Louis, both Army captain Maxwell Mercy and wagonmaster Sam Purchas had advised Levi to get rid of his teams of gray horses, claiming they would not survive the journey west. Levi refused to heed their warning and Purchase swapped the horses for oxen behind his back. This was a smart move by Purchas. Unfortunately, neither the wagonmaster or Captain Mercy bothered to suggest that Levi rid himself of the Conestoga wagon. Since the miniseries said nothing about the size of the Zendts' wagon, it did not comment on the amount of contents carried by the couple and other emigrants in the wagon party.

But I must congratulate both Michner and the episode's writer, Jerry Ziegman, for at least pointing out the disadvantages of using horses to pull a wagon across the continent. "The Wagon and the Elephant" also made it clear that the Zendts were traveling along the Oregon Trail, by allowing their wagon party to stop at Fort Laramie. The miniseries called it Fort John, which was another name for the establishment. Before it became a military outpost, the fort was known officially as "Fort John on the Laramie".

The miniseries' depiction of the emigrants' encounter with Native Americans was not exaggerated for the sake of Hollywood drama . . . thank goodness. The Zendts, Oliver Seccombe and other emigrants encountered a small band of Arapahos led by the mixed-blood sons of a French-Canadian trapper named Pasquinel. Levi, who was on guard at the time, became aware of Jacques and Michel Pasquinel's presence and immediately alerted his fellow emigrants. A great deal about this encounter reeked with realism. The emigrants were obviously well armed. The Pasquinels and the other Arapaho only consisted of a small band of riders. More importantly, no violence erupted between the two parties, despite Sam Purchas' obvious hostility. Due to Paul Krasny's direction, the entire encounter was tense, brief and polite. The miniseries also conveyed a realistic depiction of whites like Purchas to randomly murder an individual brave or two out of sheer spite or hatred.

Thanks to the episode, "The Wagon and the Elephant", "CENTENNIAL" provided a brief, yet realistic portrait of westward emigration in the mid 19th century. The miniseries was historically inaccurate in one regard - the Conestoga wagon that Levi and Elly Zendt used for their journey west. But in the end, this episode provided a injection of history, without allowing Hollywood exaggeration to get in the way.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Eight "The Storm" Commentary




"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Eight "The Storm" Commentary

The eighth episode of "CENTENNIAL" is a bit of a conundrum for me. Of the eight episodes so far, it seemed to be the only one in which the time span struck me as rather confusing. Which is a pity, because I found it rather interesting.

"The Storm" had the potential to be one of the better episodes of the miniseries. Unfortunately, it seemed marred by a good deal of mistakes that left the time span rather confusing. The previous episode, "The Shepherds" ended with Levi Zendt leaving Centennial to visit his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And since the episode opened with Levi's arrival in Lancaster, I can only assume that the episode began in the fall of 1881. Levi did not return to Centennial until the onset of winter. And this led me to assume that the episode spanned a few months around the late fall and early winter of 1881. However, certain aspect in the episode seemed to hint that several years, instead of a few months, had passed between Levi’s arrival in Lancaster and the winter storm that finally struck Centennial.

Charles Larson's screenplay made it clear that Levi's visit to Pennsylvania did not last that long. In fact, his wife Lucinda and his son, Martin, expressed surprise that he had returned home to Centennial before the winter. And considering that it took seven days to journey by rail from the West Coast to the East Coast; Levi's journey from Colorado to Pennsylvania should have taken less than seven days. In total, his entire trip should have lasted less than a month. And yet . . . there were signs in the episode that several years had passed since the end of "The Shepherds". One, the character of Amos Calendar seemed to have aged by a decade. Seriously. While Levi was in Pennsylvania, the Findlay Perkins character had arrived in Centennial. Around the time of his arrival, Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe were behaving like a couple that had been married for several years, instead of honeymooners. More importantly, a semi-manor made of brick (or stones) had replaced the clapboard ranch house that served as Venneford Ranch's main house. I doubt very much that Seccombe was able erect a small manor house within a month or two. Also, the winter storm that struck the Western Plains occurred in 1886-1887. Levi's journey to Pennsylvania should have occurred five years later. Larson's handling of the episode's time span seemed so sloppy that I could only shake my head in disbelief.

But the episode's time span was not the only thing that troubled me. The first thirty minutes of "The Storm" featured a number of flashbacks I have not seen since "Only the Rocks Live Forever". The flashbacks in that first episode made sense. It was the only episode that featured the character of Lame Beaver in the main narrative, yet at the same time, allowed viewers access to the character's past. Because "The Storm" featured the deaths of Levi Zendt and Mule Canby, viewers were subjected to flashbacks featuring Levi's journey to the West in "" and the Skimmerhorn cattle drive in "The Longhorns". Instead of providing background to the characters of Levi and Mule, these flashbacks only dragged the episode's first half hour.

Thankfully, "The Storm" was not a complete waste of time. It featured some first-rate drama and performances. The episode marked the first appearances of the Wendell family. So far, the family has managed to charm most of Centennial's citizens with their good manners, verbal skills and acting talent. They have also attracted the suspicion of one Sheriff Axel Dumire. As I had stated earlier, the character of Mule Canby, last seen wounded and hauled to a military fort by R.J. Poteet in "The Longhorns". He has become a trick shot artist for a circus, with Nacho Gomez as his assistant. Their reunion with former members of the Skimmerhorn drive - Jim Lloyd, John Skimmerhorn and Amos Calendar - provided the episode with a very warm and emotional moment before Canby's tragic death in a tent fire.

There were two story arcs in "The Storm" that proved to be the highlights of the episodes. One story arc featured Levi and Lucinda's frustrations with their younger offspring, the unhappy and unstable Clemma. Following his return to Centennial, Levi was surprised by the appearance of his daughter, who was supposed to be going to school in St. Louis. Instead, the couple learned of their wayward daughter's lurid exploits that included prostitution, jail time and marriage to a bigamist. In a memorable speech, Levi reminded Lucinda that despite the disappointments and unhappy times, they had also experienced many positive things in their lives - including their marriage and the growth of Centennial. Unfortunately, this poignant moment was spoiled by Clemma's decision to leave town on the first available eastbound train - a decision that led to Levi's death near the rail tracks during the winter storm.

The storm also featured in a tense plot arc that spelled the possible doom of Oliver Seccombe's career as a rancher. His handling of the Venneford Ranch's accounts had led his London bosses to send a Scottish accountant named Findlay Perkins to check the books. Both John Skimmerhorn and Jim Lloyd tried to explain to the accountant that the region's method of free-range cattle ranching made it impossible to precisely account for every cow or bull on the ranch. Being a very perceptive man, Findlay was still able to discover that Seccombe had been mishandling the ranch's profits in order to build the new house for his wife, Charlotte. Before Findlay could return to Britain, the storm struck the region, forcing him to remain at Venneford. One of the episode's highlights proved to be the tense scenes between Findlay and the Seccombes, as they waited out the storm.


The episode's biggest virtue proved to be the outstanding performances by the cast. Just about everyone in this episode gave top-notch performances. But there were a few I would consider to be the best. One of them came from Gregory Harrison, who made his last appearance as former emigrant-turned-merchant, Levi Zendt. Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave were superb as the besieged Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe, anxious over their future with Venneford Ranch and forced to deal with the likes of Findlay Perkins. Clive Revill gave an excellent performance as the Scottish accountant. And his scenes with Dalton and Redgrave were filled with delicious tension and humor. It was nice to see Greg Mullavey as the always gregarious Mule Canby. And I truly enjoyed the tensions between Brian Keith's suspcious Sheriff Axel Dumire and the wonderfully scheming Wendells, portrayed by Anthony Zerbe, Lois Nettleton and Doug McKeon. But the stand-out performance came from Adrienne LaRussa's excellent portrayal of the sad and conflicted Clemma Zendt. LaRussa was superb in conveying all aspects of Clemma's personality, which included her spiteful teasing of Jim Lloyd, and her insecurities. But she gave an Emmy worthy performance in the scene in which she conveyed Clemma's pathetic life back East to the Zendts.

It is a pity that "The Storm" was marred by a questionable time span and unnecessary flashbacks. The episode had the potential to be one of the best in the 12-part miniseries. It marked the death of a major character and also a change in Centennial's history with the end of free-range ranching and the Wendells' arrival. But some outstanding performances and the winter storm featured still made it one of the more interesting episodes, in the end.


Friday, November 18, 2011

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Seven "The Shepherds" Commentary




"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Seven "The Shepherds" Commentary

The seventh episode of "CENTENNIAL" is set thirteen years after Episode Six. And it is a doozy. Although I would not consider this episode to be the best of the miniseries, I definitely believe it is one of the better ones.

Some of the events of the last two episodes end up having major consequences in this episode, set in 1881. The feud between farmer Hans Brumbaugh and the English rancher Oliver Seccombe spill out in an ugly range war between the region's farmers and the ranchers, led by Seccombe. Acting as the ranchers' hired guns are members from the Pettis gang, the same outlaws that had attacked the Skimmerhorn/Poteet cattle drive, in the last episode. After killing several farmers, whose land Seccombe managed to purchase, the Pettis boys set their sights on Brumbaugh's farm. However, they encounter stiff resistance from Hans, his family and two men from the Venneford Ranch - John Skimmerhorn, who is now ranch foreman; and Jim Lloyd, now a strapping 27 year-old ranch hand.

Brumbaugh turns to Centennial's sheriff for justice, but Axel Dumire is reluctant to move against the Pettis boys, claiming that no one could identify them as the attackers. However, the ranchers' focus upon the farmers transfer to a new enemy, with the arrival of one Messmore Garrett. The latter decides to settle near Centennial in order to raise sheep - something that cattle ranchers find abhorrent. Three men from the previous cattle drive end up working for Garrett - Nate Pearson, Bufe Coker (who was a former Venneford ranch hand) and Amos Calendar. The feud between Garrett and the ranchers spill into an ugly shootout that leaves Pearson, Coker and the latter's lady love, a former Cheyenne prostitute named Fat Laura, dead. As the only surviving shepherd, Calendar recruits his former fellow cowhand, Jim Lloyd and Brumbaugh to seek vengeance against the Pettis boys.

More personal matters also loomed large in this episode. Levi Zendt, just barely into his sixties, receive a visit from his Lancaster nephew, Christian Zendt, and gives him a tour of Centennial. Christian's visit leads Levi to visit his hometown in Pennsylvania one last time. Brumbaugh's struggles to find decent farmhands leads him to hire a family of Japanese immigrants named Takemoto. Love also hits Centennial in this episode. Jim Lloyd falls in love with Levi and Lucinda's wayward daughter, Clemma; who feels no affection towards him whatsoever. And Oliver Seccombe meets two visitors from England - a British investor named Claude Richards and Charlotte Buckland, the daughter of another investor - and ends falling in love and marrying the latter.

Screenwriter Charles Larson and director Virgil W. Vogel really did an outstanding job with this episode. I thought they did a great job in balancing the various storylines - including the romances, Levi Zendt's memories of the past via a visit from his nephew, and Brumbaugh's labor problems. But the episode's pièce de résistance were the range wars that threatened to overwhelm the region surrounding Centennial. It is believed that James Michner had based this particular chapter on the infamous Johnson County War in 1892. This was very apparent in three brutal action scenes featuring the attack on the Brumbaugh farm (shot at night), the attack on Bufe Coker and Fat Laura's homestead, and the vigilante attack on the Pettis gang.

The amount of violence featured in this episode seemed to contrast rather well with the more dramatic scenes directed beautifully by Vogel. I was especially taken by the romantic scenes between Seccombe and Charlotte, Brumbaugh's meeting with the Takemoto family, and Amos Calendar's heartfelt speech about the bonds of brotherhood, as he convinces Jim to seek vengeance against the Pettis boys. Apparently, those bonds formed during the Skimmerhorn cattle drive had failed to disappear, despite the brutal range wars. But the one scene that brought tears to my eyes turned out to be Levi and Lucinda's emotional parting, as he prepares to board an eastbound train for Pennsylvania.

If "The Shepherds" had one fault, it was its running time. A great deal of narrative and characterization occurred in this particular episode. And not all of it was focused around the range wars inflamed Centennial. Some of the story arcs - including the visit by Claude Richards and Charlotte Buckland, Levi Zendt's visit to Pennsylvania, and Hans Brumbaugh's labor problems - served as introductions to the main plots for the next two or three episodes. The episode started out well paced. But when Messmore Garrett's character was introduced into the story, I got the feeling that the pacing increased in order to include the entire plot within ninety minutes. In all honesty, "The Shepherds required a longer running time of at least two hours and fifteen minutes.

But I cannot deny that the performances featured in the episode were outstanding. Timothy Dalton continued his excellent work of conveying the ambiguous nature of Oliver Seccombe, whether the latter was plotting the destruction of Messmore Garrett and the shepherds or allowing himself to be wooed by Charlotte Buckland. "The Shepherds" served as the introduction of Lynn Redgrave as part of the main cast. She did a solid job in this episode, but her time to shine will appear in the next two to three episodes. I could say the same for Brian Keith, who gave a remarkable performance as the ambiguous and frustrating sheriff, Axel Dumire. Alex Karras was superb, as always, in his portrayal of Hans Brumbaugh. Both Mark Neely and Adrienne Larussa were excellent as Levi and Lucinda's children, Martin and Clemma. The two did a great job in conveying how their characters dealt with the stigma of being mixed blood. Gregory Harrison and Christina Raines shone once more in the wonderful and poignant scene that featured Levi's departure from Centennial by train.

William Atherton stepped into the role of Jim Lloyd for the first time and did a great job, especially in a scene that featured his desperate attempt to convince Amos Calendar to give up working for Garrett. Speaking of Amos Calendar, I thought Jesse Vint gave one of the better performances in this episode in a scene in which he convinces Jim to seek revenge for Nate and Bufe's deaths. While watching Glenn Turman and Les Lannom portray Nate Pearson and Bufe Coker for the last time, it occurred to me that their characters had come a long way since setting eyes upon each other for the first time in "The Longhorns". And both gave beautiful performances, as their characters prepared to meet death during the shootout with Pettis boys.

The running time for "The Shepherds" was very frustrating for me. I believe the episode's transcript would have been better served with a longer running time. But as far as I am concerned, this was the only drawback to the episode. I believe it is still one of the more exciting and fascinating episodes in "CENTENNIAL", thanks to director Virgil Vogel and screenwriter Charles Larson.


Saturday, August 6, 2011

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Five "The Massacre" Commentary




"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Five "The Massacre" Commentary

The fifth episode of "CENTENNIAL", "The Massacre", proved to be a difficult episode for me to watch. In fact, many other fans of the 1978-79 miniseries seemed to harbor the same feeling. This episode marked the culmination of many conflicts between the Native Americans featured in James Michner's saga and the growing number of whites that make their appearances in the story. It is a culmination that ends in tragedy and frustration.

I am a little confused over exactly when the "The Massacre" begins. I can only assume that it begins days or even hours after the last episode, "For as Long as the River Flows". The episode picks up with German-Russian immigrant Hans Brumbaugh successfully panning for gold, when he is accosted by his former comrade, the gold-obsessed Larkin. The story eventually moves into the meat of the story - the outbreak of violence between white settlers, the military and Native Americans resisting the encroachment of the whites upon their lands, culminating in the arrival of a former Minnesota settler named Frank Skimmerhorn and the massacre he ordered against a peaceful village of Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne, led by one Lost Eagle from the previous two episodes.

Personally, I consider "The Massacre" to be one of the miniseries' finer episodes. One of the reasons why I consider it among the best of "CENTENNIAL" was due to its graphic and unsentimental look at how the American government and settlers either drove away or nearly exterminated the Native American inhabitants in the Colorado region. Along with screenwriters John Wilder and Charles Larson, director Paul Krasny pulled no punches in depicting the violence and manipulation used to finally defeat the Arapaho and especially Jacques and Marcel Pasquinnel. Frankly, I found the whole episode rather depressing to watch.

Most viewers would pinpoint Frank Skimmerhorn, the former Minnesota settler-turned militia commander as the villain of the piece. And it would be easy to do so. Using his political connections, he managed to usurp the authority of U.S. Army General Asher; declare Major Maxwell Mercy as a traitor for the latter's futile attempts to maintain peace; order the death of poor Clay Basket, who tried to sneak away from her son-in-law's trading post in order to warn her sons of future danger; and place Levi Zendt's trading post off limits to military personnel. And he did all of this before committing the episode's centerpiece - namely the massacre of Lost Eagle's peaceful village.

The massacre was a fascinating, yet horrifying event to watch. More disgusting is the fact that it was based upon an actual event that occurred in Colorado in November 1864 - the Sand Creek Massacre. Not only was the massacre featured in this episode based upon an actual event, the Frank Skimmerhorn character was based upon a real person - John Chivington, who led the Sand Creek massacre. Unlike Chivington, Skimmerhorn was a survivor of the 1862 Dakota Sioux War in Minnesota, who had witnessed the near slaughter of his family. This family tragedy is what triggered Skimmerhorn's obsessive hatred toward Native Americans. Mark Harmon returned in this episode as Captain John McIntosh, the regular Army officer who found himself under Skimmerhorn's command. Like Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Crame at Sand Creek, McIntosh refused to lead his men into the attack and allowed several unarmed Arapaho women, children and old men to escape. The one scene that really nauseated me featured the murder of two Arapaho children by militia troopers.

Another aspects of this episode that both horrified and fascinated me was the American citizens' reaction to Skimmerhorn's "victory". It made me realize that despite Skimmerhorn's crimes and obsession with exterminating the Arapaho in the region, these citizens, the military and the government wholeheartedly supported his actions . . . when they were useful to them. But it took one incident - Skimmerhorn's murder of the surrendering Marcel Pasquinnel - to express horror and turn their collective backs on him. And the odd thing is that Skimmerhorn was never legally prosecuted for shooting Marcel in the back, just ostracized.

In retaliation for the massacre of Lost Eagle's village, Jacques and Marcel Pasquinnel went on the rampage, attacking American emigrants and military personnel with Cheyenne leader, Broken Thumb. But their retaliation did not last long against the overwhelming odds against them. Jacques ended up lynched by the Colorado militia and U.S. Army. Michel was shot in the back and murdered by Skimmerhorn. Some have argued that the Pasquinnels - especially the hot-tempered Jacques - paid the price for their violence against American settlers. Personally, I suspect they would have been doomed, regardless of any path they had chosen. They could have followed Lost Eagle's path and capitulate to the U.S. government's terms. But Lost Eagle's choice only led to most of his followers being decimated by Skimmerhorn and his militia. I believe the Arapaho and Cheyenne were simply in a no-win situation.

Despite my high opinion of "The Massacre", I realized that it was not perfect. As I had hinted earlier, the time factor in the episode's first half hour struck me as a bit wonky. The episode obviously began in 1860, with Brumbaugh's final encounter with Larkin. Yet, it is not long before Frank Skimmerhorn makes his first appearance. If Skimmerhorn was supposed to be a fictionalized version of John Chivington, screenwriters John Wilder and Charles Larson failed to realize that the real life militia leader did not make his appearance in the Colorado Territory until 1863 or 1864. To this day, I am confused about the year in which Skimmerhorn arrived in the Colorado Territory. And I also had trouble with a scene featuring a duel between Maxwell Mercy and Frank Skimmerhorn, following Michel Pasquinnel's death. I can understand that as a West Point graduate, Mercy would be an experienced swordsman. But how on earth did Skimmerhorn, a farmer/minister-turned militia commander would know anything about sword fighting? Because of this, I found the duel between the two men rather ludicrous. I also noticed that Barbara Carrera's character, Clay Basket, seemed to have become forgotten not long after her character's death. Characters such as Pasquinnel, Alexander McKeag and even Elly Zendt (who was mentioned in this episode) seemed to resonate long after their deaths. But not poor Clay Basket.

Because of the first-rate nature of the episode, "The Massacre" featured some excellent performances. Gregory Harrison and Christina Raines gave solid performances as Levi and Lucinda Zendt, as they tried keep their lives together, while Skimmerhorn wreaked havoc on their worlds. Both Stephen McHattie and Kario Salem were both passionate and poignant as the doomed Pasquinnel brothers. And Mark Harmon had his moment in the sun in a scene that featured his character Captain McIntosh's dignified refusal to participate in Skimmerhorn's massacre. Cliff De Young gave a subtle performance as Skimmerhorn's only surviving family member, John, who becomes increasingly repelled by his father's murderous and maniacal behavior. Alex Karras continued his excellent performance as German-Russian immigrant Hans Brumbaugh. But the performances that really impressed me came from Chad Everett, Nick Ramus and Richard Crenna. Chad Everett gave one of his best performances as the well-meaning Maxwell Mercy, forced to witness the destruction of his hopes of peace between the Americans and the Arapaho. Nick Ramus was beautifully poignant as the peaceful Lost Eagle, who witnessed the massacre of the people he had led for so long. And Richard Crenna was both terrifying and pitiful as the malignant Skimmerhorn, who allowed a family tragedy to send him along a dark path toward victory, adulation and eventually rejection.

The episode's epilogue picked up three years following Skimmerhorn's departure from the Colorado Territory. The new town of Centennial is being built and Oliver Seccombe (Timothy Dalton), the Englishman whom Levi had first befriended back in "The Wagon and the Elephant", makes his reappearance in the story. Only this time, Seccombe will make a bigger impact, as he reveals his plans to create a cattle ranch for a British investor named Lord Venneford. And judging from Brumbaugh's reaction to Olivier's news, the epilogue sets up a new conflict that will have an impact upon the new Centennial community for at least two decades.


Wednesday, May 4, 2011

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Four "For as Long as the Water Flows" Commentary




"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Four "For as Long as the Water Flows" Commentary

The fourth episode of "CENTENNIAL", "For as Long as the Water Flows", strikes as an enigma in the episode. Well . . . not exactly an enigma. But I found it rather strange. As far as I know, it is the only episode in the 1978-79 miniseries that is based upon two chapters in James Michner’s novel.

"For as Long as the Water Flows" picked up some seven months following the end of the last episode. The story found Levi Zendt still mourning over the death of his bride, Elly, while isolating himself at the very cabin that Alexander McKeag was snowbound back in the second episode. Both McKeag and his wife, Clay Basket, have also become alarmed over their daughter Lucinda’s growing friendship with various mountain men and trappers at Fort Laramie. Clay Basket instructs McKeag to send Lucinda to Levi, in order to help the Lancaster man overcome his grief. In the end, Clay Basket’s plans come to fruition, when Levi and Lucinda fall in love. However, Levi suggests that Lucinda spends at least a half a year in St. Louis in order to become educated and learn Christianity before he marries. This suggestion nearly costs Levi his new love, when Lucinda falls for a young U.S. Army officer named John McIntosh. However, Lucinda remains in love with Levi and decides it would be best to be the wife of a pioneer and future storekeeper, than an Army officer’s wife.

The second half of the episode, which is based upon another episode, jumps another four years later to 1851. Major Maxwell Mercy has been instructed by the U.S. Army to facilitate a treaty between many of the Plains tribes and the U.S. government, regarding territorial claims between the tribes and guarantees of safe passage for westbound emigrants to Oregon or California. Although men like Jacques Pasquinel expresses doubt, the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) is signed and ratified. The event also featured a family reunion between three of Pasquinel’s children – Jacques, Marcel and their older sister, Lisette Pasquinel Mercy. The story jumps another nine years to 1860, when Northern Colorado is experiencing the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush (1858-1861). One of the potential gold seekers turns out to be the saga’s next major character, Hans Brumbaugh, a Russian-born farmer of German descent. He meets three other gold seekers, including an overeagerly man named Spade Larkin, who had somehow learned about the gold nugget discovered by Lame Beaver in ”Only the Rocks Live Forever”, thanks to an article written about Lucinda during her stay in St. Louis. But most of the second half of the episode focused upon the Laramie treaty and its eventual breakdown, as the number of westbound emigrants increased due to the gold rushes in California and Colorado.

I am going to be honest. ”For as Long as the River Flows” is not one of my favorite episodes in the miniseries. In fact, I consider it to be inferior, in compare to the other episodes in the first half of ”CENTENNIAL”. But I must admit that it featured a good number of powerful scenes and moments:

*Lucinda’s success in helping Levi recover from Elly’s death

*Clay Basket and Lise Pasquinel meet for the first time, thanks to Alexander McKeag

*Levi and Lucinda’s wedding/McKeag’s death

*Levi and Michel Pasquinel’s discussion about the American claim over tribal lands

*Jacques Pasquinel’s prophecy over the American government’s inability to maintain their promises to the tribes and the latter’s future

*Hans Brumbaugh’s angry reaction to the murder of two braves by Spade Larkin’s companions

*Lucinda’s brief reunion with her former flame, John McIntosh, at Zendt’s fort

*Lucinda and Martin Zendt’s brief, yet violent encounter with Spade Larkin

*General Asher’s revelation that the Fort Laramie Treaty has been considered null and void by the American government, reducing the tribes’ claims on the land

Of the scenes featured above, at least three of them stood out for me. One of them featured Levi Zendt and Lucinda McKeag’s wedding, which ended with Alexander McKeag’s death. Watching Clay Basket mourn her second husband not only brought tears to my eyes, it made me realize how much she truly loved him. I do not recall Clay Basket mourning Pasquinel with such deep-seated grief. I was also impressed by Jacques Pasquinel’s arguments against the tribes signing a treaty with the United States. Jacques has always been an ambiguous character. He has a bad temper that can be murderous at times. And he nurses resentments like no other fictional character I have seen (his relationship with McKeag is a prime example). But after watching this episode recently, I must admit that he was a very intelligent man, who pretty much saw the dark future for the Plains tribes. Other leaders such as Lost Eagle and Broken Thumb were willing to make peace with the Americans. Lost Eagle was willing, due to Maxwell Mercy’s participation in the talks; and Broken Thumb saw no other way for his people – the Cheyenne – to survive. But Jacques knew that any peace with the Americans was bound to fail and that the latter would stab them in the back to gain their land. And when one consider how the American government managed to decimate or push away tribes that had resided in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys some fifteen to twenty earlier, how could Lost Eagle, Broken Thumb and Maxwell Mercy even bother facilitating a treaty that was doomed to fail? And the treaty did fail by the end of the episode, in a powerful scene in which the tribal leaders were informed that they would have to be pushed onto land that would not sustain them. Watching that scene, I found myself feeling disturbed, frustrated and filled with contempt toward characters such as General Asher and the government he represented.

Despite those powerful scenes that I had mentioned, I still found myself feeling less than impressed by ”For as Long as the River Flows”. Quite frankly, it struck me as contradictory. At times, I thought I was watching two completely different storylines that had no business being part of the same episode. I realize that producer John Wilder wanted to begin and end the miniseries with an episode that was at least 150 minutes long. However, I wish that Wilder had allowed both ”The Wagon and the Elephant” (Levi Zendt’s introduction to the West) and the next episode, ”The Massacre” (the final decline of the Native Americans in the Northern Colorado region) to have a longer running time. After all, both episodes were based upon two consecutive chapters in Michner’s novel. And considering the importance of each storyline, both episodes would have deserved it. Instead, Wilder and his screenwriter Jerry Ziegman took the last third of Levi’s story and the first third of the storyline about the conflict between the Native Americans and the Americans . . . and meshed both together in a single episode. And in my opinion, it did not work. This reshuffling made ”For as Long as the River Flows” look and feel schizophrenic.

I must admit that ”For as Long as the River Flows” featured some first-rate performances. I was especially impressed by Stephen McHattie’s portrayal of the intelligent, yet belligerent Jacques Pasquinel. He conveyed an interesting mixture of intensity, anger and intelligence into his performance that allowed his character to become one of the best in the miniseries. Another outstanding performance came from Chad Everett as the idealistic Army officer, Maxwell Mercy. Everett did an excellent job in generating admiration of his character’s tolerance and idealism . . . and at the same time, allow audiences to ponder over his lack of realism. I cannot count the number of times in which Everett’s Maxwell Mercy expressed some delusional belief that one man can generate piece between the encroaching Americans and the Native tribes.

This episode featured Richard Chamberlain’s last major appearance in the miniseries as Alexander McKeag. And as usual, he was superb and poignant as the aging mountain man, who found peace with himself, before his untimely death. Barbara Carrera gave one of her better performances in this episode, as the older and wiser Clay Basket who set in motion emotional salvation for both Levi and Lucinda; and whose grief over her second husband’s death provided the miniseries with one of its most poignant moments. I also enjoyed her only scene with Sally Kellerman, in which Pasquinel’s two wives got to meet for the first and only time. Both women gave intelligent and poignant performances that allowed their scene to be one of the better ones in the episode. I have never harbored a high opinion of Christina Raines as an actress, but I must admit that this episode featured one of her best performances. I was referring to the above mentioned scene in which she finally helped Levi deal with his grief over Elly’s death. And she managed to create a strong chemistry with both Gregory Harrison and Mark Harmon (her future co-star in the short-lived ”FLAMINGO ROAD”).

Pernell Roberts (Harrison’s future co-star in ”TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.”) was superb as the arrogant, yet ignorant General Asher, who seemed determined to ignore the tribes’ plight at being driven from their lands. Kario Salem gave a poignant performance in a scene in which his character, Michel Pasquinel, discusses the meaning of land and its theft by the Americans with future brother-in-law, Levi. And I also have to mention veteran character actor James Sloyan whose portrayal of the obsessive gold seeker Spade Larkin struck me as both mesmerizing and rather frightening.

There is a lot to admire about ”For as Long as the River Flows”. It is filled with some powerful moments. And it can boast some first-rate performances from the likes of Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Carrera and especially Stephen McHattie and Chad Everett. Unfortunately, the episode also featured two major storylines that made it seem conflicting . . . almost schizophrenic. Pity.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Three "The Wagon and the Elephant" Commentary




"CENTENNIAL" (1978-79) - Episode Three "The Wagon and the Elephant" Commentary

The third episode of "CENTENNIAL", "The Wagon and the Elephant", picks up at least fifteen to sixteen years after the last episode ended. This episode also shifted its focus upon a new central character; a young Mennonite from Lancaster, Pennsylvania named Levi Zendt.

The story begins in the early spring of 1845, in which young Levi Zendt irritates his more conservative family by forgetting to appear on time for Sunday supper with a local minister. This infraction proved to be nothing in compare what follows. Encouraged by the flirtations of a local Mennonite girl named Rebecca Stolfitz, Levi kisses her after they deliver market scrapings to a local orphanage. Unfortunately, Rebecca becomes aware that the orphanage’s head mistress is observing them and accuses Levi of attempted rape. The accusation not only leads Levi to be shunned by the Mennonite community, but also by his older brothers – include Mahlon, who had plans to marry Rebecca. The only people who know the truth are two late adolescent girls – Elly Zahm and Laura Lou Booker. After befriending Elly, Levi decides to leave Lancaster and head west to Oregon. He also makes a surprise visit at the orphanage and asks Elly to accompany him on the journey west, as his bride. During their journey west, Levi and Elly quickly fall in love. Upon their arrival in St. Louis, they meet three other men who will play major roles in their future – Oliver Seccombe, an Englishman with plans to write a book about the American West; Army Major Maxwell Mercy, the husband of Lisette Pasquinel, who has been assigned to find and establish an Army fort on the Plains; and the venal mountain man Sam Purchas, who acts as a guide to the wagon train that the Zendts accompany.

"The Wagon and the Elephant" is without a doubt, my favorite of all the twelve episodes featured in "CENTENNIAL". I love it. I am not saying that it is perfect. But I love it. I do have a few quibbles about the episode. One, I was not that impressed by Helen Colvig’s costumes for the female characters. I am willing to give leeway to the costumes worn by Stephanie Zembalist, Barbara Carrera and Christina Raines; considering their characters’ social positions. But the costumes worn by actress Karen Carlson and numerous female extras portraying middle and upper-class females seemed a bit . . . cheap. It seemed as if Colvig failed to put much effort into their costumes, in compare to the female costumes featured in "Only the Rocks Live Forever" and "The Yellow Apron". Another complaint I have is the presence of white families in the sequence that featured Major Mercy and McKeag’s efforts to negotiate with various tribes for help in establishing an Army fort. This particular incident occurred after the Zendts, Oliver Seccombe, Sam Purchas and the rest of the wagon train continued its journey west. Which meant that Mercy and McKeag’s meeting with the Pasquinel brothers and other tribal leaders must have occurred in mid-to-late August. Any westbound white emigrants still at Fort Laramie (Fort John) during that time of the year, had probably left western Missouri a good deal later than any emigrant with common sense would. The presence of those white families at Laramie in that particular sequence made not only lacked any logic, but was also historically incorrect.

But these are minor quibbles in what I otherwise consider to be a superb episode. I have admitted in past reviews of my love for tales featuring long distance traveling. This theme was featured in "The Wagon and the Elephant" in a manner that more than satisfied me. The episode covered the Zendts journey from Pennsylvania to (present day) Northern Colorado with plenty of drama and action that left me breathless. Although this chapter in James Michner’s saga was set in 1844 in the novel, producer-writer John Wilder had decided to set it one year later. Why? Who knows? And frankly, who cares? After all, this minor change did no harm to the story. But I never understood why he made the change in the first place. Another aspect about this episode is that after watching it, I realized that it served as the first half of a two-part tale that introduced Levi Zendt into the saga. The incidents in "The Wagon and the Elephant" severed Levi from everything that was familiar to him in Pennsylvania – family, home, and all of his assets. By the end of the episode, McKeag spoke of how Levi’s losses and upheavals brought him to a crossroad in his life.

After watching "The Wagon and the Elephant", I was amazed at the number of memorable moments featured in it. Those moments included:

*A tardy Levi and the rest of the Zendt family entertain the Reverend Fenstermacher for Sunday supper

*Rebecca Stolfitz falsely accuses Levi of attempted rape

*The elderly Mrs. Zendt encourage Levi to leave Lancaster and head west

*Levi and Elly meet Oliver Seccombe for the first time

*Oliver introduce Sam Purchas to the Zendts and Major Mercy

*Purchas exchange the Zendts’ team of gray horses for oxen

*Levi’s conversation with Sergeant Lykes about "seeing the elephant"

*The wagon trains’ encounter with Jacques and Michel Pasquinel

*Maxwell Mercy introduce himself to McKeag, Clay Basket and Lucinda as Pasquinel’s son-in-law at Fort Laramie

*Mercy and McKeag’s meeting with the Pasquinel brothers, Broken Thumb, Lost Eagle and other tribal leaders

*Purchas’ attempted rape of Elly

*The Zendts’ decision to part from the wagon train and return east

*McKeag and Levi form a trading partnership

*Elly’s encounter with a rattlesnake

I could go into detail on the scenes mentioned above, but that would require an entire article on its own. The fact that this episode featured so many memorable scenes made it a favorite of mine. However, there are two or three scenes that I had failed to mention. Two of them featured private and intimate discussions between Levi and Elly, conveying their deepening love for one another. But my favorite scene featured Levi’s arrival at the local orphanage to ask Elly for her hand in marriage and to accompany him on his journey to Oregon. With John Addison’s score and the first-rate performances by Gregory Harrison, Stephanie Zimbalist and Leslie Winston; director Paul Krasny created a magical and emotionally satisfying scene that still makes my skin tingle . . . and tears fall.

But it was not only Krasny’s direction and Jerry Ziegman’s script that made this episode so memorable. "The Wagon and the Elephant" also featured some superb performances. They came from the likes of Richard Jaeckel, who was given a chance to shine in his “seeing the elephant” speech; John Bennett Perry, who effectively portrayed Levi's overbearing older brother, Mahlon Zendt; Leslie Winston, who shone in two scenes as Elly's vivacious best friend, Laura Lou Booker; Stephen McHattie, who gave a first hint of his brilliant portrayal of the mercurial Jacques Pasquinel; Chad Everrett, who provided a great deal of strength as Major Maxwell Mercy; and Irene Tedrow, who gave a very warm portrayal of the compassionate Mrs. Zendt. Before portraying Sam Purchas in this episode, Donald Pleasence had portrayed a mountain man in the 1965 comedy, "THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL". In "CENTENNIAL", he ended up portraying a very unpleasant frontiersman, namely the venal Sam Purchas. Although Pleasence’s Purchas was not what I would call a complex character, I must admit that he was memorable and the British actor portrayed him with a great deal of relish. Richard Chamberlain continued his role as Alexander McKeag in this episode. Although his role had been diminished, he still continued his superb portrayal of the character. And Timothy Dalton made his first appearance as Oliver Seccombe, the Englishman that ended up falling in love with the West . . . for better or worse. Even in "The Wagon and the Elephant", Dalton would skillfully provide a great deal of charm and moral ambiguity in what I believe turned out to be one of his best roles ever.

However, "The Wagon and the Elephant" truly belonged to Gregory Harrison and Stephanie Zimbalist as Levi and Elly Zendt. Years ago, I had learned that these two had worked together at least four times. It seemed a pity that they did not work more often together, because these two were magic. They took a couple that seemed unrequited (at least from Elly’s point of view) at the beginning of their marriage and created one of the most loving and believable romances in the entire miniseries. They really were quite wonderful. I wish I could say more about their excellent performances . . . but I suspect that I have said enough.

In fact, I believe I have said enough about "The Wagon and the Elephant". I mean . . . what else can I say? Producer John Wilder took a first rate script written by Jerry Ziegman, an excellent cast led by Gregory Harrison and Stephanie Zimbalist and one of my favorite themes – long distance travel – to create what has become my favorite episode in "CENTENNIAL".