“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Four “For as Long as the Water Flows” Commentary
The fourth episode of “CENTENNIAL”, “For as Long as the Water Flows”, strikes as an enigma in the episode. Well . . . not exactly an enigma. But I found it rather strange. As far as I know, it is the only episode in the 1978-79 miniseries that is based upon two chapters in James Michner’s novel.
“For as Long as the Water Flows” picked up some seven months following the end of the last episode. The story found Levi Zendt still mourning over the death of his bride, Elly, while isolating himself at the very cabin that Alexander McKeag was snowbound back in the second episode. Both McKeag and his wife, Clay Basket, have also become alarmed over their daughter Lucinda’s growing friendship with various mountain men and trappers at Fort Laramie. Clay Basket instructs McKeag to send Lucinda to Levi, in order to help the Lancaster man overcome his grief. In the end, Clay Basket’s plans come to fruition, when Levi and Lucinda fall in love. However, Levi suggests that Lucinda spends at least a half a year in St. Louis in order to become educated and learn Christianity before he marries. This suggestion nearly costs Levi his new love, when Lucinda falls for a young U.S. Army officer named John McIntosh. However, Lucinda remains in love with Levi and decides it would be best to be the wife of a pioneer and future storekeeper, than an Army officer’s wife.
The second half of the episode, which is based upon another episode, jumps another four years later to 1851. Major Maxwell Mercy has been instructed by the U.S. Army to facilitate a treaty between many of the Plains tribes and the U.S. government, regarding territorial claims between the tribes and guarantees of safe passage for westbound emigrants to Oregon or California. Although men like Jacques Pasquinel expresses doubt, the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) is signed and ratified. The event also featured a family reunion between three of Pasquinel’s children – Jacques, Marcel and their older sister, Lisette Pasquinel Mercy. The story jumps another nine years to 1860, when Northern Colorado is experiencing the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush (1858-1861). One of the potential gold seekers turns out to be the saga’s next major character, Hans Brumbaugh, a Russian-born farmer of German descent. He meets three other gold seekers, including an overeagerly man named Spade Larkin, who had somehow learned about the gold nugget discovered by Lame Beaver in ”Only the Rocks Live Forever”, thanks to an article written about Lucinda during her stay in St. Louis. But most of the second half of the episode focused upon the Laramie treaty and its eventual breakdown, as the number of westbound emigrants increased due to the gold rushes in California and Colorado.
I am going to be honest. ”For as Long as the River Flows” is not one of my favorite episodes in the miniseries. In fact, I consider it to be inferior, in compare to the other episodes in the first half of ”CENTENNIAL”. But I must admit that it featured a good number of powerful scenes and moments:
*Lucinda’s success in helping Levi recover from Elly’s death
*Clay Basket and Lise Pasquinel meet for the first time, thanks to Alexander McKeag
*Levi and Lucinda’s wedding/McKeag’s death
*Levi and Michel Pasquinel’s discussion about the American claim over tribal lands
*Jacques Pasquinel’s prophecy over the American government’s inability to maintain their promises to the tribes and the latter’s future
*Hans Brumbaugh’s angry reaction to the murder of two braves by Spade Larkin’s companions
*Lucinda’s brief reunion with her former flame, John McIntosh, at Zendt’s fort
*Lucinda and Martin Zendt’s brief, yet violent encounter with Spade Larkin
*General Asher’s revelation that the Fort Laramie Treaty has been considered null and void by the American government, reducing the tribes’ claims on the land
Of the scenes featured above, at least three of them stood out for me. One of them featured Levi Zendt and Lucinda McKeag’s wedding, which ended with Alexander McKeag’s death. Watching Clay Basket mourn her second husband not only brought tears to my eyes, it made me realize how much she truly loved him. I do not recall Clay Basket mourning Pasquinel with such deep-seated grief. I was also impressed by Jacques Pasquinel’s arguments against the tribes signing a treaty with the United States. Jacques has always been an ambiguous character. He has a bad temper that can be murderous at times. And he nurses resentments like no other fictional character I have seen (his relationship with McKeag is a prime example). But after watching this episode recently, I must admit that he was a very intelligent man, who pretty much saw the dark future for the Plains tribes. Other leaders such as Lost Eagle and Broken Thumb were willing to make peace with the Americans. Lost Eagle was willing, due to Maxwell Mercy’s participation in the talks; and Broken Thumb saw no other way for his people – the Cheyenne – to survive. But Jacques knew that any peace with the Americans was bound to fail and that the latter would stab them in the back to gain their land. And when one consider how the American government managed to decimate or push away tribes that had resided in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys some fifteen to twenty earlier, how could Lost Eagle, Broken Thumb and Maxwell Mercy even bother facilitating a treaty that was doomed to fail? And the treaty did fail by the end of the episode, in a powerful scene in which the tribal leaders were informed that they would have to be pushed onto land that would not sustain them. Watching that scene, I found myself feeling disturbed, frustrated and filled with contempt toward characters such as General Asher and the government he represented.
Despite those powerful scenes that I had mentioned, I still found myself feeling less than impressed by ”For as Long as the River Flows”. Quite frankly, it struck me as contradictory. At times, I thought I was watching two completely different storylines that had no business being part of the same episode. I realize that producer John Wilder wanted to begin and end the miniseries with an episode that was at least 150 minutes long. However, I wish that Wilder had allowed both ”The Wagon and the Elephant” (Levi Zendt’s introduction to the West) and the next episode, ”The Massacre” (the final decline of the Native Americans in the Northern Colorado region) to have a longer running time. After all, both episodes were based upon two consecutive chapters in Michner’s novel. And considering the importance of each storyline, both episodes would have deserved it. Instead, Wilder and his screenwriter Jerry Ziegman took the last third of Levi’s story and the first third of the storyline about the conflict between the Native Americans and the Americans . . . and meshed both together in a single episode. And in my opinion, it did not work. This reshuffling made”For as Long as the River Flows” look and feel schizophrenic.
I must admit that ”For as Long as the River Flows” featured some first-rate performances. I was especially impressed by Stephen McHattie’s portrayal of the intelligent, yet belligerent Jacques Pasquinel. He conveyed an interesting mixture of intensity, anger and intelligence into his performance that allowed his character to become one of the best in the miniseries. Another outstanding performance came from Chad Everett as the idealistic Army officer, Maxwell Mercy. Everett did an excellent job in generating admiration of his character’s tolerance and idealism . . . and at the same time, allow audiences to ponder over his lack of realism. I cannot count the number of times in which Everett’s Maxwell Mercy expressed some delusional belief that one man can generate piece between the encroaching Americans and the Native tribes.
This episode featured Richard Chamberlain’s last major appearance in the miniseries as Alexander McKeag. And as usual, he was superb and poignant as the aging mountain man, who found peace with himself, before his untimely death. Barbara Carrera gave one of her better performances in this episode, as the older and wiser Clay Basket who set in motion emotional salvation for both Levi and Lucinda; and whose grief over her second husband’s death provided the miniseries with one of its most poignant moments. I also enjoyed her only scene with Sally Kellerman, in which Pasquinel’s two wives got to meet for the first and only time. Both women gave intelligent and poignant performances that allowed their scene to be one of the better ones in the episode. I have never harbored a high opinion of Christina Raines as an actress, but I must admit that this episode featured one of her best performances. I was referring to the above mentioned scene in which she finally helped Levi deal with his grief over Elly’s death. And she managed to create a strong chemistry with both Gregory Harrison and Mark Harmon (her future co-star in the short-lived ”FLAMINGO ROAD”).
Pernell Roberts (Harrison’s future co-star in ”TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.”) was superb as the arrogant, yet ignorant General Asher, who seemed determined to ignore the tribes’ plight at being driven from their lands. Kario Salem gave a poignant performance in a scene in which his character, Michel Pasquinel, discusses the meaning of land and its theft by the Americans with future brother-in-law, Levi. And I also have to mention veteran character actor James Sloyan whose portrayal of the obsessive gold seeker Spade Larkin struck me as both mesmerizing and rather frightening.
There is a lot to admire about ”For as Long as the River Flows”. It is filled with some powerful moments. And it can boast some first-rate performances from the likes of Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Carrera and especially Stephen McHattie and Chad Everett. Unfortunately, the episode also featured two major storylines that made it seem conflicting . . . almost schizophrenic. Pity.
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