“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter III Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER III Commentary

Chapter II of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” focused on the second leg of the western Virginia family’s westbound journey to California in 1844. This last episode focused on their journey through Illinois and Missouri, culminating in their arrival in Independence, Missouri. Chapter III focused on the family’s trek along the eastern half of the Oregon Trail, culminating with an unwanted encounter on the plains.

A great deal had happened to the Chisholm family in Chapter II. Their traveling companion, Lester Hackett, managed to seduce Hadley and Minerva Chisholm’s older daughter Bonnie Sue and later, steal Will Chisholm’s horse in an effort to evade a group of men who suspected him of stealing some items of their friend. Will and the family’s second son, Gideon broke away from the family outside St. Louis and headed for Lester’s family farm in Iowa. The pair was eventually arrested for trespassing on the Hackett farm and forced to spend one month on a prison work gang. The other members of the Chisholm family encountered a family from Baltimore, Maryland named Comyns and formed a wagon party with them. Following their arrival in Independence, the family discovered that most of the wagon trains had set out on the Oregon Trail over a month ago. The two families encountered a former Army scout named Timothy Oates, who asked if he and his Pawnee wife could accompany them as far as present-day Nebraska. Unaware that Will and Gideon had been detained in Iowa, the Chisholms and their traveling companions continued their western trek.

Despite being a month behind and two missing members of the family, the Chisholms’ western trek seemed to be going well. For once, Hadley has managed to contain his prejudice against Native Americans and regard Timothy’s Pawnee wife, Youngest Daughter, in an affable light. The youngest member of the Chisholm family, Annabel, has managed to click rather well with the Oates. However, it was not long before the travelers encountered their first barrier on the trail. After their first river crossing (possibly the Wakarusa River), they encounter a family named Hutchinson. When the family’s patriarch informed the travelers that he and his family were returning east due to a mysterious fever striking their wagon party, Mr. Comyns decided to do the same. The youngest member of his family happened to be an infant and he did not want to risk the child becoming sick. The Chisholm family continued their western trek in the company of Timothy and Youngest Daughter Oates. They first encountered the very wagon train that the Hutchinson family had abandoned. Unfortunately, members of that wagon train were still stricken by the fever. The traveling party then encountered two Kansa couples traveling on foot, with whom they traded coffee for butter. Timothy hid his wife inside the Chisholms’ wagon, due to the Pawnee and the Kansa being at war. Eventually, the Chisholms said good-bye to Timothy and Youngest Daughter, who continued on to the latter’s Pawnee village. And the Chisholms continued their California-bound trek.

Ten or fifteen minutes into the episode, Will and Gideon were finally released from the prison work gang after thirty days. The pair stumbled across a ramshackle cabin in Missouri, where they found dead bodies, a wrecked interior and a traumatized Native American woman who seemed to have been assaulted. Will managed to convince her to accompany them as far as Independence for medical attention. The Chisholm brothers finally discovered the tavern where Hadley and Beau had first met Timothy Oates. The bartender informed them that the other Chisholms had already continued west. The pair also learned that their traveling companion was named Keewedinok and she wanted to accompany the two brothers on their journey. Meanwhile, back on the trail, Beau managed to shoot a buffalo, allowing the Chisholms to enjoy a meal with bison meat for the first time. Unbeknownst to them, a Pawnee warrior had spotted them and raced back to his companions to report their presence. The Pawnees hold a campfire before deciding to raid the Chisholm camp for the family’s mules and the women. The episode ended with Bonnie Sue becoming the first family member targeted by the Pawnee raiders.

I felt as if I experiencing an oncoming train wreck, while watching Chapter III. This is no negative reflection on the miniseries’ writing. The train wreck I was referring to were the series of decisions and bad luck that led to the episode’s last moment – the Pawnee raiders’ attack upon the Chisholms. To be honest, this series of bad luck and questionable decisions began when the family discovered they had set out for California a month late in Chapter I and continued in Chapter II. But the series of small disasters that the Chisholms experienced in Chapter III seemed to form a crescendo, until it ended with a pay off that culminated in a disaster.

Although the previous two episodes featured decisions made by Hadley Chisholm that led to that disastrous moment in the final scene of Chapter III, screenwriter David Dortort did a great job in building up to that moment with a series of memorable scenes. For me, the one most dramatic scenes included the Chisholms’ encounter with the fever-infected wagon train. This led to Hadley and Minerva’s last quarrel over whether they should continue west to California or turn back. I also enjoyed the Chisholms and the Oates’ encounter with the two Kansa couples. It featured an interesting mixture of comedy surrounding the Chisholms’ efforts to trade with the two couples; and dramatic tension over Timothy’s effort to Younger Daughter from the Kansa, due to a war between the two tribes.

Viewers got a chance to experience the beginning of Will and Gideon’s adventures on the road as they struggle to catch up with their family, following their release from the prison work gang. The miniseries never really indicated on whether they had met the widowed Keewedinok in Iowa or Missouri. But I cannot deny that Dortort did a great job in detailing the brothers’ budding relationship with her. I especially enjoyed how the pair, especially Will, went out of his way reassure Keewedinok that he and Gideon will not harm her with a soothing manner. Another interesting aspect about this scene was the brothers’ discussion on who was behind the attack on the cabin. When Will speculated on the idea of hostile Native Americans in that part of the world (Iowa or Missouri, circa 1844), Gideon responded with an even more interesting suggestion that whites may have been behind the attack that left a traumatized Keewedinok as the sole survivor. Although Will managed to convince Keewedinok to accompany him and Gideon, she barely spoke a word during their journey. She finally spoke up at an Independence saloon, where she revealed her name and asked Will if she could accompany the brothers further west.

One of the most interesting scenes in both this episode and the entire miniseries proved to be the conference between the four (or three) Pawnee braves who had targeted the Chisholms for a raid. Frankly, it happened to be one of the funniest scenes in the series as the Pawnees debated over the Chisholms’ valuable belongings. They also debated over who would lead the prayer for a successful raid. One particular brave seemed to be rather annoyed when the youngest Pawnee kept erroneously praying for horses, when it had already been established that the Virginia family only had mules. It seems odd to think that this rather humorous scene occurred right before they made their first strike at the end of the episode.

As usual, the performances featured in this episode of “THE CHISHOLMS” were top-notch. Solid performances from the likes of Stacy Nelkin, James Van Patten and Susan Swift, who portrayed the younger members of the Chisholm family. The episode also featured solid performances from the likes of Silvana Gallardo (whom I remembered from NBC’s “CENTENNIAL”), Tenaya Torres, Joe “Running Fox” Garcia, Ronald G. Joseph, Don Shanks and Jerry Hardin. I rather enjoyed Geno Silva’s entertaining performance as an Osage man named Ferocious Storm, who proved to be quite a canny trader when the Chisholms and the Oates made their river crossing. Another performance that caught my eye came from none other than Billy Drago, who portrayed Teetonkah, the leader of the four Pawnee raiders. Eight years before his appearance in the 1987 movie, “THE UNTOUCHABLES”, Drago made it clear in this production that he would become a screen presence that many would not forget. David Hayward proved to be both solid and charismatic as the dependable former Army scout, Timothy Oates. Hayward did a great job in conveying Timothy’s competence as a guide . . . to the point that his departure from the story was clearly felt when the character and the latter’s wife parted from the Chisholms on the Nebraska plains.

Both Ben Murphy and Brian Kerwin finally got the chance to develop a solid screen chemistry when their two characters – brothers Will and Gideon Chisholm – were released from the prison work gang. I especially enjoyed their performances in one scene that featured Will and Gideon’s discovery of the traumatized Keewedinok and their speculation on whether Native Americans or whites were responsible for assaulting her and killing the ransacked cabin’s other inhabitants. Speaking of Keewedinok, I thought Sandra Griego gave an excellent portrayal of a woman dealing with the trauma of being assaulted. Griego managed to perfectly convey Keewedinok’s state of mind without any acting histronics. She also formed a very good chemistry with Murphy. As for the miniseries’ two leads – Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris – they were outstanding as usual. However, there were two scenes featuring the veterans in which I thought they truly shined. The first was a small scene that featured Hadley and Minerva enjoy a brief private conversation together (which included Minerva’s astonishment at the different languages spoken by various Plains tribes) that led to more intimate nocturnal activities. Both Preston and Harris were at their most charming in this scene. I also enjoyed their acting in another scene that featured a brief quarrel between the couple over whether to continue west or not, following the family’s encounter with the fever-induced wagon train.

I did have a few quibbles regarding Chapter III. One, the passage of time struck me as rather vague. In fact, the passage of time for this production has been vague since the last half hour of Chapter I. The miniseries revealed that the Chisholms had arrived in Louisville, Kentucky in mid-May 1844. As of the end of Chapter III, I have no idea how much time had passed since their departure from Louisville. All I know is that Will and Gideon are probably a little over a month behind the rest of the family, thanks to their month long sentence on an Iowa prison work gang. I also had two problems regarding the episode’s photography. For some reason, cinematographer Jacques R. Marquette thought it was necessary to film this episode in earth tones, due to the Chisholms traveling west of Independence. I found this unnecessary, considering that the landscape in eastern Kansas and Nebraska is green and the Chisholms had yet to travel that far west. Also, unlike the production’s first two chapters, I noticed that this chapter’s photography not only did not seem that colorful, but also not that sharp. I get the feeling that whoever transferred this miniseries to DVD did not bother improve the visuals for this episode.

Quibbles or not, Chapter III of “THE CHISHOLMS” proved to be both entertaining and very interesting. The episode featured a major shift in the Chisholms’ western journey, the addition of new characters and dangers. Chapter III also featured some excellent performances, especially by the leads Robert Preston, Rosemary Harris and Ben Murphy and a series of interesting scenes that led to the episode’s cliffhanger.