One of television's finest achievements, the sprawling 12-part miniseries Centennial, adapted from author James A. Michener's novel of the same name, often feels like a museum exhibit come to life -- in a good way. The series premiered on October 1, 1978 on NBC and continued through February 4, 1979, cost several million dollars ($25 million, in fact, by most estimates), used four different directors (Harry Falk, Paul Krasny, Bernard McEveety and Virgil Vogel), four different cinematographers (Charles W. Short, Duke Callaghan, Jacques Marquette and Ronald W. Browne) and included over 100 speaking parts in 26 hours of broadcast time -- sans commercials, Centennial runs closer to 21 hours. By every measure, Centennial is a towering achievement, but if it were not for the (mostly) consistent quality of the episodes, all that expenditure of time and talent would be meaningless.
While historical dramas and especially TV films have the potential to be deadly earnest or overly consumed with facts, there's very little dry or uninteresting in what's been assembled in this look at the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado from the formation of the Earth through to the then-present days of the 1970s. The opening -- "Only the Rocks Live Forever" -- and the closing -- "The Scream of Eagles" -- of Centennial are both feature-length episodes, running in excess of two hours.
The remaining 10 episodes are a more manageable hour in length, but like all good artistic endeavors, you never feel it. Sitting down to watch Centennial (having, uh, missed it the first time around owing to my not existing yet), I'd braced myself for a long, infrequently enjoyable slog and was pleasantly surprised when the hours melted away.
Some of the enjoyment stems from the cavalcade of stars that pop up over the course of Centennial: Richard Chamberlain, Dennis Weaver, Raymond Burr, Lynn Redgrave, Sharon Gless, Mark Harmon, Timothy Dalton, Andy Griffith and Robert Conrad are just a few of the bold-faced names that make an appearance at some point during these 12 episodes and, to each actor's credit, no one undermines the overall goal of telling this historical, epic tale (narrated in sonorous tones by David Janssen) that tries to encapsulate no less than the sum of 200 years of American history.
What follows are overviews of the events of each episode. There may be minor spoilers, so those who have not experienced Centennial are hereby warned.
Chapter 1: "Only the Rocks Live Forever": After a brief set-up which includes no less than the very formation of Earth itself, the story picks up with French fur trapper Pasquinel (Robert Conrad), as he befriends Scottish trapper McKeag (Richard Chamberlain). The two men tangle with the Arapaho, Pasquinel marries into the German Bockweiss family and soon, Pasquinel and McKeag are scouting for gold.
Chapter 2: "The Yellow Apron": Tensions are becoming heightened as Native Americans and the white settlers begin to encroach upon each other's territories, as both Pasquinel and McKeag must wrestle with emotions for Native American women. After a tragedy befalls Pasquinel, McKeag elects to open a trading post.
Chapter 3: "The Wagon and the Elephant": Young Mennonite Levi Zendt (Gregory Harrison) is accused of rape and forced to flee West with teenage orphan Elly Zahm (Stephanie Zimbalist) in tow. The pair join up with a wagon train headed for Oregon, but stop off at McKeag's trading post before becoming stymied in the Rocky Mountains and deciding to stay put in Colorado, setting up a farm and in essence, sowing the seeds of the town of Centennial.
Chapter 4: "For as Long as the Waters Flow": Reeling from Elly's sudden death from a rattlesnake bite, Levi seals himself off in McKeag's old mountain cabin, but is lured out by McKeag's daughter Lucinda (Cristina Raines). German immigrant Hans Brumbaugh (Alex Karras) arrives in town to mine the vein of gold discovered by Pasquinel, but a murderous turn of events causes him to quickly abandon the town.
Chapter 5: "The Massacre": The Civil War has flared up across the continent, leaving not even Centennial untouched. The Pasquinel brothers -- Jacques (Stephen McHattie) and Marcel (Kario Salem) -- find themselves embroiled in battles, as the Native American population engages in raids on the white settlers, aiming to even the score for crimes committed previously. Settler Frank Skimmerhorn (Richard Crenna) forms a loose militia to combat the Native American insurgency, going so far as to murder a group of non-threatening Native Americans.
Chapter 6: "The Longhorns": British ranch investor Oliver Seccombe (Timothy Dalton) arrives in Centennial, which sets in motion the rise of the ranching business and cattle driving in the Colorado town. John Skimmerhorn (Cliff De Young) is dispatched to Texas to secure cattle for use in Centennial and enlists the help of Jim Lloyd (Michael LeClair as a teen; William Atherton as an adult).
Chapter 7: "The Shepherds": Just as livestock-driven prosperity begins to trickle into Centennial, violence breaks out between cattle ranchers and sheep ranchers, as new sheriff Axel Dumire (Brian Keith) struggles in vain to keep the peace.
Chapter 8: "The Storm": Con man Mervin Wendell (Anthony Zerbe) and his family arrive in Centennial, in an effort to stay slightly ahead of the authorities. The fortunes of the mighty Venneford ranch also take a hit when Scottish accountant Finlay Perkin (Clive Revill) reviews the books.
Chapter 9: "The Crime": Once traveling salesman Soren Sorenson (Sandy McPeak) threatens to expose the Wendell family's chicanery, the Wendells murder Sorenson, steal the cash on his person and stash his corpse in a cave. Charlotte Seccombe (Lynn Redgrave) returns to try and restore the good name of the Venneford ranch.
Chapter 10: "The Winds of Fortune": Violence once again rears its ugly head and shocks the town of Centennial, as a nasty gang makes its way to Colorado. Meanwhile, Japanese laborers attempt to forge their own paths and start up farms of their own.
Chapter 11: "The Winds of Death": The Dust Bowl threatens to tear apart the very town itself, even as families in search of refuge continue to pour into Centennial. Mexican residents of the town begin to find their rights slowly being eradicated.
Chapter 12: "The Scream of Eagles": A pair of political candidates -- Morgan Wendell (Robert Vaughn) and Paul Garrett (David Janssen) -- face for the newly created, statewide office of Commissioner of Resources, resorting to some ugly tactics. Writer Sidney Enderman (Sharon Gless) and professor Lew Vernor (Andy Griffith) set out to document the extensive history of the town of Centennial.
The broadcast networks simply don't make miniseries like Centennial anymore -- earnest, well-funded projects that have aims beyond merely jacking up the ratings -- and often, viewers are forced to turn to pay cable to experience anything remotely close to what Centennial accomplishes. Take HBO's acclaimed John Adams or its excellent, ongoing miniseries Generation Kill -- these are luxurious, involving works of art that pull viewers in like great novels, allowing characters to breathe and a sweeping tapestry to unfurl. Centennial is a reminder of a bolder, more adventurous time -- and I'm not simply talking about the pioneers blazing a trail on the frontier.
Long awaited on DVD, Universal has finally released Centennial in this very handsomely packaged six-disc set that will allow fans to retire their worn-out VHS sets. The 12 episodes are spread across the six discs, with two episodes per disc. The discs are housed in a three-panel fold-out tray, with two discs per panel. In addition, episode summaries are provided. More information on the supplements can be found below.
Presented as originally broadcast, the 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer looks remarkably vivid and clean, considering its age and the likelihood that NBC wasn't exactly keeping this in mind as some kind of prestige presentation on DVD. Nevertheless, Centennial looks great throughout, although there is a bit of softness here and there, evident in a lot of '70s TV product. If there are any quibbles, it's that so much of this series is so beautifully filmed that one wishes it had been presented in widescreen, so those breathtaking wilderness vistas could be seen in stunning, panoramic glory.
Again, as originally broadcast, Centennial makes its debut on DVD with a perfectly adequate Dolby 2.0 stereo track that sometimes sounds tinny or slightly harsh, but conveys most dialogue with no drop-out or glaring distortion. The score also occasionally suffers from a bit of flutter, but it's rare over these 20 hours that any truly unforgivable audio hiccups occur. Optional English subtitles are included.
Tragically, there are hardly any bonus features to speak of -- only one 17 minute, 40 second retrospective featurette "Memories of Centennial" (presented in fullscreen), which is found on the second disc. Those interviewed are actors Robert Conrad (who plays the role of Pasquinel), Barbara Carrera (who plays the role of Clay Basket) and William Atherton (who plays the role of Jim Lloyd); none of the three really offer any penetrating insight into the film or its source material, but really spend their time on-camera reminiscing about the impact the film had on their careers. Perhaps none of the directors are still alive or maybe Universal didn't have the notion to round up some academics to dissect Michener's work, but the slight nature of the featurette is a let-down.
The broadcast networks simply don't make miniseries like Centennial anymore -- earnest, well-funded projects that have aims beyond merely jacking up the ratings -- and often, viewers are forced to turn to pay cable to experience anything remotely close to what Centennial accomplishes. Centennial is a reminder of a bolder, more adventurous time -- and I'm not simply talking about the pioneers blazing a trail on the frontier. While more supplements would be welcome, one of the most anticipated miniseries on DVD doesn't disappoint in its debut (although some substantial supplements would've been nice). Highly recommended.