This ambitious effort, based on the James Michener novel of the same name, attempts to cover the history of the state of Colorado, from the days of the Native Americans to the political/environmental dealings of modern times. Clocking in at 24 hours, it's probably safe to say that rarely has so much effort been put into the television medium. Unfortunately, "Centennial" would have been better served to cut it's running time in half.
The first five episodes of "Centennial," dealing with the settling of the American frontier and the eventual clash between pioneers and Native Americans, are some of the finest hours ever produced for television. This 1978 miniseries provides an early sympathetic view of the Native American, from the appealing chief Lame Beaver, played convincingly by Michael Ansara, to his daughter Clay Basket sympathetically played by Barbara Carrera. Throw into this mix the stormy relationship of trappers Pasquinel (Robert Conrad) and McKeag (Richard Chamberlain), and you have great drama on the untamed frontier. Their lives, and the rustic, changing world in which they live, makes for terrific historical fireworks.
Of course, Conrad's performance as Pasquinel, a colorful and memorable character if ever there was one, is one of the finest of his erratic career. As soon as his character leaves the film, there is an emptiness to the drama which is never quite replaced. And this emptiness damages the overall memory of this western epic.
Episode five, which details the disturbing true-life incident of the Sand Creek Massacre, in which hundreds of Native Americans were brutally murdered, is probably the last hurrah of "Centennial." The film soon switches gears to detail ranching life, farming struggles and the Depression. But the sense of wonder and awe seems to disappear, as the film wallows in a series of cliches (Brian Keith as the town sheriff is almost laughably bad) which resembles poor soap opera. The characters are not as multi-dimensional, and certainly not as inspiring.
"Centennial" rebounds somewhat during the twelth and final episode in which the valid question is raised as to what type of industry is best for the state of Colorado -- living off the land as our ancestors did, or mining the countryside for its resources. David Janssen is superb as a ranch owner and descendent of Pasquinel. His brooding intensity practically washes away the bad taste left from the frustrating boredom of the previous four episodes.
"Centennial" boasts one of the most extraordinary casts ever assembled for a motion picture. Almost too many to mention, some nods of respect must be given to Conrad, Chamberlain, Janssen, Chad Everett, Richard Crenna (in a particularly villainous role), Carrera, Lynn Redgrave, Gregory Harrison and Dennis Weaver (absolutely terrific as trail boss R.J. Poteet).
Appropriate kudos must be given to the beautiful cinemaphotography and the exciting musical score of John Addison.
"Centennial," essentially is a television history of the United States, from the early settlers to modern times. No stone is left unturned in this epic journey, and if the ambition was a bit more than these filmmakers could actually achieve given the restraints of the budget and the limitations of its marathon length, one can forgive these starry-eyed dreamers for losing steam during the final episodes.
Based on the first five episodes (11 hours) alone, "Centennial" is one of the finest works in television history. As a whole, the film sputters to a three-star rating. But for patient viewers, there are many diamonds to discover in the rough, unforgiving land known as "Centennial."