on September 8, 2001
The mammoth western epic "Centennial" has always deserved a storied place in television history.
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."
This is a rerelease of the ground breaking TV series from America that was originally shown in 1978. It was a really faithful adaptation of the best selling book of the same name by James A. Michener, who actually does an introduction. It tells of the story of the founding of a town that is the Centennial in the title and in so doing to tell in microcosm some of the events that helped shaped his nation.
It charts over 200 years of American history using the many characters to tell the story through their experiences. Starting in the late Eighteenth Century we first meet Pasquinelle, a French trapper who started trading with various Indian tribes like the Arapaho. He uses brawn, brain and guts to overcome the many barriers he must face and also marries one of his new Native American friends - Clay basket (great name) and saves a Scottish Trapper McKeeg (Richard Chamberlain doing a worse Scots accent than Mr Gibson did in `Braveheart') . What follows from the progeny is a tale of love from the daughters and hate from the half breed sons, who follow the Indian path which ultimately leads to war in a futile attempt to protect their land from the ever encroaching and greedy white settlers.
This is a 26 hour long production set in 12 episodes which are all in fact self contained films in their own right, and I found them to be ruddy addictive. With a cast of thousands that includes Raymond Burr, Donald Pleasance, Lynne Redgrave, Timothy Dalton, Dennis Weaver, Robert Vaughn, Sharon Gless, and a very young George Clooney who I actually missed, and has over 100 speaking parts this was a massive undertaking they had four directors and five cinematographers, which often can be seen as in `How The West Was Won', but this is completely intact, the style and narrative flow beautifully until we hit the twentieth Century where things sort of speed up.
On the way we get massacres, revolution, search for gold, inter racial marriage, bible bashing, cattle drives, Indian attacks, night rider attacks, sheep droving, darned farmers putting up fences and the brutal story of a nations progress with the concomitant shame that comes from a misplaced population. There is even a bar room brawl and a Wild West show as well as the tragedy of the dust bowl. This then is what the word epic was coined for, and it keeps the action coming as fast as both the joys and tragedy, to be anything other than impressed is to be bordering on churlish.
But hey ho I am going to point out some of the flaws - small though they are we still have them and that is that this is a faithful reprint from the original series and as such we get the full titles for every episode and they last for over three minutes. The sound quality varies in places requiring the remote to be handy, the make up for the ageing process of some of the characters was a bit am dram and the most annoying is the clip show element that appears in the last few episodes. That is where people stand around reminiscing and we get treated to often a lengthy clip from one or more previous episodes. This device was used in `Roots' a lot too and can become really annoying, but as these were often shown a week apart it was probably needed to remind the viewer of what had transpired.
That said it wears its educational, ecological and humanitarian heart on its sleeve, the issues and associated values are still valid today, whether it be the displaced Indian Nations, the slaughter of natures bounty or the greed that destroys everything - the land included. Because of the above issues I was going to award 4 stars but I absolutely loved this and it was only towards the end that I realised I had seen it first time round ( I remembered `The Winds of Death') but it has not lost any of its power. I can not recommend highly enough, so it gets the full 5 stars.
on January 18, 2009
Centennial is one of the best TV series ever made. It is up there with I Claudius, Shogun & Roots. The caracters are unforgettable. It does not have the nastiness of I Claudius, the dull moment of Shogun or the cruelty of Roots. Robert Conrad played his best role as Pasquinel, the coureur-des-bois, the first white man to meet and trade with indians, the caracter like all the other caracters is based loosely on real people. His french takes time to get used to but his singing down the river is one of highlights of this serie. The natural scenery is a plus for this serie, where series like I Claudius feels like theater in a box, Centennial was filmed on location, or close by... Richard Chamberlain as Alexander McKeag is probably the best couple of hours you will have watching TV, he is better in that role than he was playing Blackthorne, his gradual understanding of the Indians is what makes this serie a classic. And now for the piece-of-resistance Barbara Carrera as Clear Basket is unforgettable, her love for two men is well played. As for the rest of the cast everybody is excellent, from Michael Ansara (Lame Beaver) to Brian Keith (Axel Dumire) to Lynn Redgrave (Charlotte Buckland) this is a serie where actors shine. One of my favorite is Stephanie Zimbalist (Elly Zendt), she is so young and she went so desperatly to make a home, her last smile will stay with you even after you finish watching the serie. Only drawback is the final episode, a bit too long with all the flashbacks, and not enough interraction between Andy Griffith, David Janssen and Robert Vaughn. But than the last scene is a surprise that few series this long finish with... Merle Haggard inviting us in one of his song to visit the Beloved Colorado... About the special feature, interview with the cast, too short! A few minutes with the man behind this sweeping saga would have been nice... James A Michener (1907-1997)... and a commentary track with specialist for each period would have been appreciated...
on May 4, 2011
We finally were able to purchase Centennial and we were shocked that a television mini-series developed in 1978 could still be as powerful and relevant as if it were made yesterday. Centennial is long but the story is a classic generational narrative and each character's story is as interesting as his/her parent's. James Michener fashioned a series of stories with characters, Pasquinel, Lame Beaver, McKeag, Levi Zendt, Oliver Seccombe, J. R. Poti who are unforgettable and varied. Each provides us with a sense of how passionate he/she felt about the land that they explored, settled and exploited. Despite using non-native actors Michener's portrayal of and sympathy for native cultures is compelling. As well, there is a strong environmental theme stretching from the buffalo to the eagle and cattle farming to ploughing responsibly. This is a long series, a series which is more compelling at the beginning. Near the end there is too much re-telling of the early narrative as though the producers understood that the power of the story resided in the exploration of the land and the moral conflict created when greed meets development. Despite this Centennial is a wonderful story of the development of the west, and the themes are as compelling today as they were in 1978. Wonderful.
on December 28, 1998
The story of the American West doesn't get any better than this! As a middle school social studies instructor, I can say that Americana is on display in its most enticing format here! The acting is as superb as the actors are familiar! Star after star makes us forget whatever role they played on televison, and remember them for their characterization in Centennial! This is the highest compliment to a film-maker's casting director and producer!
The cast IS exceptional--especially Conrad, Chamberlain, and that old Detroit lineman Alex 'Brumbaugh' Karas! Honestly, having seen this epic four times, I have often wanted to just sit right through all 20+ hours consecutively; it really does grow on you! I can never forget the 'Wendells' every time I hear 'Whispering Hope', and just watching that last half hour's flashback sequence accompanied by 'Guess He'd Rather be in Colorado' still gives me goose bumps! I enjoyed this epic so much in fact, that while in Colorado in 1993, I tried to locate the town of Centennial. I noticed many familiar landmarks, crossed the Platte River, but of course, found no Centennial town--only the cafe.
I can only say that if one loves the history and drama of the American West and has not seen this chronicle from Robert Conrad's trip downstream at the beginning, to David Janson's reflective retrospection by the lonely railroad tracks at the consclusion, one has NOT fully seized upon all that Hollywood can contribute to learning about our great country.
Thank you Clay Basket, Levi Zendt, Hans Brumbaugh, R.J. Poteet, Lame Beaver...though fictitious, you made learning come alive for us! And a special thanks to the production company of 'Centennial'!
"...only the rocks live forever".
on July 30, 1999
I add my agreement to the other previous reviews. I think Centennial was the best programming ever on television, or in movies for that matter. I think it is a disgrace that this spectacle did not receive any awards. I think the closest it got was a nomination for Richard Chamberlain for the role of McKeag.
As for the music, I also have conducted brief searches for the soundtrack, but have found nothing. I wouldn't rule it out, but I doubt if such a soundtrack exists. Too bad, because I would buy it in a flash. If anyone knows how to get it, please let us know.
The casting for Centennial was remarkable. The characters spring to life because of the cast. Levi Zendt is my favorite character, but almost every actor/actress does a splendid job.
The story line follows the book closely, and the changes that are made do not detract from the heart of the plots. In fact, I think the TV series is better than Michener's book in some ways.
The only criticism I can think of the book and video series is that sometimes the story engages in some rather extreme historical revisionism. Yes, we now know that the Native Americans were exploited and the victims of genocide by insensitive and selfish whites. But at times, the sins of the whites and the purity of the Native Americans and Mexicans are exaggerated and oversimplified. The actual facts of history are more complex. For example, while some white Americans used distortions of Christianity to excuse the mistreatment of the American Indian (e.g., in Centennial, Frank Skimmerhorn), the mainstream of Christian thought would not justify the extermination of "savages" so whites could fulfill "Manifest Destiny."
I also wish the closing episode was a little stronger, but oh well...Maybe I was just sad the epic was coming to an end.
The adjectives other reviewers have chosen to laud Centennial are not exaggerations. It is enthralling, magnificent, and gripping for a lifetime.
The potential would have existed to create a television series after the miniseries was completed (imagine a weekly program with the adventures of Levi and Lucinda Zendt, McKeag, the Pasquinels, Brumbaugh, and Mercy). Well, that will never happen now.
I have read the book twice and seen the miniseries five times now, three times since ordering the videos a couple of years ago. I would highly recommend Centennial to anyone who loves American history and cares about it's greatest lesson--that we are responsible to be good stewards of the land and its resources in order to leave a legacy of care for future generations of human and animal life. The question is: will we be keepers or takers?
on July 2, 2001
Even after 23 years since it was first broadcast, Centennial is a grand, entertaining miniseries. I think it is one of the best adaptations ever of a Michener book. Its length allows a more thorough telling of the histories of its characters. Historically fairly accurate, it can move you to tears in the telling of the plight of Native Americans (Arapahoe, Shoshone, Cheyenne). I found the first two-thirds of the series' 12 videos of more interest than the final third because they are about how Colorado came to be -- the stories are more external, about the land and the people, some who honored the land, others who exploited it. The viewer will see nomadic Native Americans, fur-trappers, gold-seekers, Oregon Trail pioneers, cowboys, ranchers, farmers, town founders and citizens (both upright and not so), all in the crossroads of what becomes Centennial, Colorado.
I liked most of the acting (although some of the aging makeup and gray-haired wigs were a little obvious)and it's entertaining to see so many well-known actors. I especially enjoyed Robert Conrad as the French trapper Pasquinel who begins the saga, Stephen McHattie as his son, Gregory Harrison and Stephanie Zimbalist as Levi and Elly Zendt, Dennis Weaver as Poteet, William Atherton as Jim Lloyd, and my favorite TV villain, Anthony Zerbe as Wendell. There are many other familiar faces.
The hardest part was to ration viewing Centennial over several summer weekends!
on March 29, 2001
As a longtime fan of James Michener I have enjoyed many of his works but none of them has been so well represented on film as Centennial. The book was super but was erratically paced and jumped back and forth in history. The miniseries, however, is wonderful. The casting of the characters was right on in both the main and supporting roles. Robert Conrad gave his best performance as the complicated French trapper Pasquinel. Richard Chamberlain was the perfect Alexander McKeag and Gregory Harrison did a terrific job in his ability to cope with his character's aging from a inexperienced farm boy to a likable everyman to an aging hero. Michener's story explores the discovery of the west and shows us heroism and cowardice, greatness and pettiness and is a superb history lesson which everyone will enjoy. The series presents this story in the form of characters you will grow to like, admire, love, hate and remember. People I've watched the series with have shown deep emotion and cried through the depiction of the Indian massacre (actually the Sand Creek Massacre but renamed for the story). They came to admire Dennis Weaver as the cattle drive boss R.J. Poteet and the young cowboys he helped turn into men. You will see characters grow and change. You will identify with many and feel sad as they age and die. Throughout, however, you will be entertained and you will have a greater appreciation of the people who framed the American West.
on September 19, 2003
I remember watching this series as a kid and I thought it was one of the best series on TV. The story and acting are fantastic. The scenery is incredible. The fact that its roughly based on the history of the area is even more amazing considering some of the fare that makes it way to TV these days. It is probably safe to say that we will not see an effort like this again.
This series is based on the book of the same name. It is set roughly in Colorado and spans the history of that area from the time of the earliest French traders to roughly the mid 1970's. It mostly deals with the effects of westward expansion on the Native Americans, but there are various other issues as well. To film it, a powerhouse cast was assembled and it spans over 12 episodes. The cool thing about it is that each of the characters are somewhat interrelated and things that happen in early episodes come back in later episodes. The other cool thing is that the characters are easily related too.
With all the crap they are putting on DVD these days, it would be really nice if they would re-release this series. Not only is it entertaining but you can use it to learn stuff about the history of this great nation.
on May 23, 2003
I'm not exactly sure whether or not I have it in me to describe just how superb and inspirational this film series is, but I do love it. I adore history, and learning about what it was like in this area of the US is an added plus by watching these films.
I know that the characters in this film are fictitous but I also know that there were people like them. French-Canadian traders like Pasquinel, strong and proud Native Americans like Lame Beaver, Clay Basket, Blue Leaf, Marcel, and Jacques, immigrants and emigrants like Alexander McKeage, Levi Zendt, Hans Brumbaugh, Herman Bockweiss, Elly Zendt, & Nacho, as well as others. There were swindlers, ranchers, cowboys, and farmers, there was really a massacre like the one depicted in this film. Like this film depicts Centennial, our country has been rather like a salad. Not exactly a melting pot. Each element is necessary, and all work together and create a delicious flavor regardless of the fact that they remain a little different.
Centennial is truly a memorable film, especially the first few episodes (which remain my favorites.) If you love westerns, epics, Colorado, or just enjoy a good film series then this is definitely for you. :)