Sunday, September 29, 2013

2013: Part Nine: Cinematherapy 6: Centennial Special

When first broadcast in 1978-9, Centennial was a 26-hour television mini-series (with commercials; on DVD, it runs 21 hours), which must rank as some sort of record. I was fortunate enough to view most of the episodes, often with my mother, a fan of James A Michener, whose novel of the same name the mini-series was based upon (my mother always preferred Michener's Hawaii to Centennial; I begged to differ). I read Michener's novel after seeing the mini-series, and the novel Centennial was a rich and engrossing experience. As was the television adaptation, despite some minor alterations in some of the structure of the story and the genealogies of the central characters, which essentially make up one long extended family, spanning about six generations.
This genealogical angle is perfect, as Centennial the series (not to as much an extent as the book) spans millenia in the history of one spot in Colorado, specifically the Platte River area. The film traces the molten upheavals and shaping of the land, much as in the novel, but the TV version doesn't trifle with dinosaurs or tarry long on prehistory as in the book. Instead, the television adaptation first focuses on the Arapaho Indian Lame Beaver, from his youth in the 1750s, following his family and the history of the land from then until the 1970s (1973 in the novel; 1978 in the TV version). Along the way, we meet Lame Beaver's daughter Clay Basket; a Scottish trapper named Alexander McKeag; and, most importantly, the first white man to traverse the Platte River and trade with the Arapaho - the French-Canadian adventurer Pasquinel.
After many years, McKeag becomes like a brother to the diminutive and hot-headed Pasquinel, who maintains at least two wives. Pasquinel moves in two worlds - wed to a German girl, Lise, and to Clay Basket, who gives birth to their third child shortly before Pasquinel meets his fate. This child is raised as McKeag's own, as Lucinda McKeag, who plays a key role in Lame Beaver's family line when she marries Levi Zendt, a widowed westward explorer who hails from a repressive religious background. Zendt, with Alexander's aid, builds the first store in the area. This store for traders makes the Platte a hub of commerce, and the store serves as the foundation of Centennial, which becomes an official town 100 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, hence the name Centennial.

From there we follow various characters drawn to the area, from cowboys to con men, and trace the family lineage of Lame Beaver's descendants, all the way down to 1978, when the series' end takes place. At that point, all bloodlines have converged in Paul Garrett, a man descended from all the noteworthy characters in the earlier episodes of the series ("Damn near incestuous", says Paul of his family tree). Paul is a reluctant torchbearer of the  legacy of his family and of the town, but he feels he must win a local election to see that his family's values are upheld and that the conservation of the land, sacred to his ancestors, is ensured.

Even this overlong synopsis is truncated and omits scores of key characters and events, and the mini-series in turn omits much from the novel that would have made more sense if it had been included in the TV film. But then, Centennial would've been even more sprawling. It'd make an ideal cable series these days (but please, no remakes...).
I admit it's easy to get carried away with the story, and not stop to appreciate the fine actors featured in this production. Robert Conrad (Wild Wild West) steals the show as Pasquinel, though Richard Chamberlain (The Thorn Birds) is amazing as Alexander McKeag. Michael Ansara gets a more dignified role than usual as the pivotal character Lame Beaver, and Barbara Carrerra is wonderful, and looks great, as Clay Basket. The present day character of Paul Garrett is perfectly embodied by a grizzled David Janssen (The Fugitive), who also serves as the series' narrator. I've always assumed this was Paul telling the story to writer Lew Vernor, portrayed by Andy Griffith, which is odd as the novel is written from the POV of Vernor, so I wondered why Griffith didn't narrate. Regardless, Janssen's voice-overs are excellent. Other performers stand out in my mind but this blog needn't be too long-winded, so I'll just close with a partial list of onscreen talent that stood out to me: William Atherton, Chad Everett, Gregory Harrison, Christina Raines, Sally Kellerman, Stephen McHattie, Lynn Redgrave, Timothy Dalton, Dennis Weaver, Glynn Turman, A Martinez, and many more, I'm sure.  

So although I usually chronicle indie, underground, cult, foreign, and genre fare, I had to make a huge exception and spill a profuse amount of electronic ink on this rather sublime and (at the time anyway) historic storytelling event, all 21 hours of it. Centennial is a compelling saga of epic proportions, yet it never feels overlong or pretentious (though there are some utterly unnecessary flashbacks in later episodes of earlier scenes that drove me crazy; the show's running time could've been clipped about an hour without those). If anyone is interesting in tracing the family trees of fictional characters (and in the Wold Newton community I belong to, this desire is common), and/ or if someone craves solid historical drama and has the patience, I highly recommend Centennial (all 21 hours are available rather affordably on DVD now).

Next: 2013 Part Ten: a trio of Japanese goodies... finally.

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