How the TV Movie “Centennial” Brought Me and My Wife Together

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Today is the birthday of James Michener (1907-1997).

I am astounded to discover today that I hadn’t blogged about Centennial before. I feel like I must have posted something about it somewhere…but cannot find anything. So I guess I didn’t.

At any rate, when my wife and I were first dating, almost as a kind of test, or dare, or trial by fire, we binge watched this 26 1/2 hour long mini-series, which was based on Michener’s eponymous 1974 novel. It originally aired on NBC from October 1978 through February 1979. We had both watched the show with our families as kids, and long about 2011 had a kind of morbid curiosity about taking a second look. And it really was a kind of early pissing contest between us: “Do you have what it takes? I can sit through this if you can.” And we both could. I’m not saying that watching Centennial was what made us know we were right for each other. Let us say, rather, doing a LOT of things LIKE watching Centennial together CONSTANTLY was what made us know we were right for each other. We’re both that sick. And we both need a partner as compulsively sick as we are. If we start watching some thing that turns out to be 1,000 hours long and is cast completely with department store mannequins and sea lions — only a weak sister would turn back and not go all the way to the top of the mountain. And so after Centennial we were both like: “You know what? You’re all right. That was a lot of bad shit just now and you matched me — hour after hour, enduring  sore eyeballs and affronts to taste and dignity that would lay lesser mortals to waste.”

Like How the West Was Won (1962), Centennial is a kind of super-western. Its broadcast (a year after the similarly epic Roots, and six months after Holocaust), was a major event, THE major television event of the season. Like all such projects, it is wildly uneven. Michener and his original writing are occasionally great (as well as occasionally embarrassing and occasionally incoherent) in the middlebrow tradition of Edna Ferber. But the direction is insipid in the network television tradition and the big name cast ranges from decent stage and film actors…to preposterous television ones…to still more ludicrous personalities like former football player Alex Karras.

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The story cleaves to the template established by Roots…following several generations of characters over a couple of centuries, like a relay race, from the 1700s to the present day. Robert Conrad and Richard Chamberlain are a couple of trappers with cartoonish, vaudeville accents (French and Scots, respectively). Barbara Carerra is the squaw they split between them. Sally Kellerman as Conrad’s other wife (a German fraulein)  and Raymond Burr his financial backer and father in law.

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Then Gregory Harrison enters as a Pennsylvania Dutch pioneer who ends up founding the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado. His young wife Stephanie Zimbalist dies right away. Coming west with them are Timothy Dalton (who later will become a major cattle rancher), scout Donald Pleasance (who’s practically wild himself) and army officer Chad Everett who is looking to build a fort. Everett becomes a major advocate for peace with the Indians, struggling with a bellicose general (Pernell Roberts) and an insane local militiaman (Richard Crenna) who massacres a bunch of women and children, as well as two of the Indian leaders (Stephen McHattie and Karion Salem) who happen to be the half-breed sons of Robert Conrad. The question of extermination becomes moot as the Indians are gradually done away with anyway.

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Then we move to a big cattle drive headed up by Dennis Weaver. This episode has all the usual cowboy story elements—rustlers, ill weather, other privations. Many of the characters bond and will figure into the story later. The next episode features the inevitable battle between the cattlemen and the sheepmen. Michener seems determined to put every typical western theme (or cliché) into the tale, so next we have a story involving the law man (Brian Keith).  Anthony Zwerbe comes to town with his family as an itinerant actor and con man. They accidentally kill a passing rube and steal his $5000. We get a very nice story with a cat and mouse game between the sheriff and the son of the con artists (which eventually goes nowhere).

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Then another nugget from the old western melodramas—an embezzling story involving rancher Timothy Dalton, and his subsequent suicide. Lynn Redgrave plays his resourceful wife.

Later, there’s a Depression story—did the Dust Bowl reach Colorado? Well, no matter. This story seems atypical for the region, but it has the usual clichés—a farmwife goes mad in the dust storm and kills her family. The dust storm is spectacular!

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The mini-series wraps up with the stuff that begins Michener’s book (I also read the book)…Andy Griffith is a professor sent to research the history of Centennial; Robert Vaughn is a descendant of the con artists who finds a skeleton proving the murder that took place years ago; David Jansen is the heir of the big cattle ranch who runs against Vaughn in a state election for some weird position of resource conservator. Vaughn represents business and capitalism and “progress”; Jansen, to modern eyes, merely seems like a reactionary…a sort of right wing environmentalist and preservationist, who wants no change (and seems to be the hero). Endless, ENDLESS recaps of what came before mar the entire series and especially the last episode. Much fast forwarding is in order. Also Merle Haggard plays a famous country singer who lives in the town for some reason and keeps singing an original country song about Colorado.

Who’d I miss? Michael Ansara as (of course) a Native American. Cliff De Young is a cowboy. Mark Harmon is an idealistic young army officer. And Alex Karras is a lummox who grows potatoes. I think that’s most of them. Nah, I still missed a few.

Two things particularly amused us when we were watching the series. One is the framing device at the top of every episode that talks about all these fictional characters as though they are real, historical people. With very little effort you could probably gaslight some poor soul into thinking it’s a true story — it comes that close to being hoax-worthy. The other thing — whenever old frontier men dance in the story, it’s a sure sign that they’re a goner. They’ll kick their heels and flap their arms to the fiddle music, then clutch their hearts, gasp, and keel over: “Ack!”. It happens like three times in the series. So we got where we were like, “No! Don’t do it! Don’t dance, old man!”

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One comment

  1. The Dust Bowl did come to Colorado. Eastern Colorado is an extension of the plains of Kansas and Nebraska, an area semi-arid in the best of times. My mother remembers as a little girl visiting her father’s people in eastern Colorado, with dust over everything in the house — and in the mouth. Dusting did little good, so they draped cloth over things, especially the food, and hoped for the best.

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