“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Nine “The Crime” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Nine “The Crime” Commentary

The ninth episode of “CENTENNIAL” proved to be an improvement over the last installment. Picking up a few months after “The Storm”, “The Crime” proved to be an intriguing episode that featured a blossoming romance, psychological warfare and two shocking events.

“The Crime” begins during the spring of 1888, which finds Oliver Seccombe at the end of his reign as manager of Venneford Ranch. Unable to face a future in disgraced and unemployed, Seccombe commits suicide to end his misery. His widow, Charlotte Seccombe returns to England to grieve. After a conversation with her dying uncle, the Earl of Venneford, she becomes the sole owner of the Colorado ranch. Upon her return to Centennial, Charlotte becomes attracted to ranch hand-turned-foreman, Jim Lloyd, and sets out to woo him in her subtle way.

Hans Brumbaugh’s efforts to find permanent farm hands continue to frustrate him. Using John Skimmerhorn as an intermediary, he contacts Ignacio “Nacho” Gomez to recruit future farm hands from Mexico. “Nacho” tries to recruit his nephew,Tranquilino Marquez, into immigrating to the United States and Colorado. But the cynical younger man does not seem interested in leaving Mexico.  Brumbaugh, Jim and Amos Calendar are still threatened by gunfighters, hired by the remnants of the Petis gang, who want revenge for the deaths of Frank and Orvid Pettis in Episode Seven. Sheriff Axel Dumire was forced to arrest a hired gun in a tense moment at Centennial’s train station.

Speaking of Sheriff Dumire, he continues to harbor suspicions that the Wendell family are more than just actors and entertainers. He believes they are swindlers, who acquired a home by using the Badger Game on the town’s local pastor, Reverend Holly. Dumire’s suspicions create a surprising consequence – namely a burgeoning friendship with the Wendells’ only son, Philip. Although the young boy encourages the friendship to keep an eye on Dumire and vice versa, the two develop a liking for one another. Their friendship is tested when Maude and Mervin Wendell try to use the Badger Game on a Mr. Sorenson, a visiting businessman interested in purchasing land near Centennial. When the scam backfires, Sorenson attacks Mervin and Maude accidentally kills him with a blow to the head. Philip comes to his parents’ aid by hiding the man’s body in a nearby creek, Mervin discovers a great deal of money inside Sorenson’s satchel and Dumire begins to investigate the man’s disappearance.

“The Crime” proved to be one of the better episodes from the miniseries’ second half, thanks to Charles Larson’s screenplay and Virgil Vogel’s direction. It proved to be a well-balanced mixture of character study, psychological warfare and romance. The consequences from “The Shepherd” continue to cast a shadow on the lives of Hans Brumbaugh, Jim Lloyd and Amos Calendar. Oliver Seccombe’s suicide proved to be a sad and poignant affair, thanks to Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave’s performances. The surprising consequence to Seccombe’s death proved to be a burgeoning romance between two unlikely people – Charlotte and ranch hand, Jim Lloyd. On paper, the idea of a romance between a British aristocrat and a cowboy from Texas seemed so unlikely . . . and even a little clumsy. Yet, it worked thanks to Larson’s writing and subtle performances from Redgrave and William Atherton. Brumbaugh’s search for permanent ranch hands served to introduce a new character to the saga, future immigrant from Mexico, Tranquilino Marquez – a story that will continue with more detail in the following episodes.

But the episode’s pièce de résistance proved to be the cat-and-mouse game between Sheriff Axel Dumire and the Wendell family. The story line about the two antagonists began in “The Storm”, when Dumire tried to run the theatrical family out of Centennial. Their scam on Reverend Holly kept them in town. Two events threatened the Wendells’ increasingly popularity with the citizens of Centennial. One, young Philip and Dumire have developed a surprising friendship, despite their wariness of each other. And two, the Wendells’ use the Badger Game on the businessman, Mr. Sorenson not only backfired, but led to manslaughter, when Maude bashed him on the head. Eventually, the sheriff became aware of Mr. Sorenson’s disappearance and what followed was a delicious game of cat-and-mouse and some tense psychological warfare between Dumire and Philip. I really enjoyed it, thanks to some superb performances by Brian Keith, Doug McKeon, Lois Nettleton and Anthony Zerbe.

Although I had enjoyed “The Crime” in the past, I never really considered it as one of my favorite episodes from the miniseries. I have now changed my mind. Now that I am older, I feel as if I have developed a greater appreciation of the episode. And I also believe that it just might be one of the better ones of the miniseries.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eight “The Storm” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eight “The Storm” Commentary

The eighth episode of “CENTENNIAL” is a bit of a conundrum for me. Of the eight episodes so far, it seemed to be the only one in which the time span struck me as rather confusing. Which is a pity, because I found it rather interesting.

“The Storm” had the potential to be one of the better episodes of the miniseries. Unfortunately, it seemed marred by a good deal of mistakes that left the time span rather confusing. The previous episode, “The Shepherds” ended with Levi Zendt leaving Centennial to visit his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And since the episode opened with Levi’s arrival in Lancaster, I can only assume that the episode began in the fall of 1881. Levi did not return to Centennial until the onset of winter. And this led me to assume that the episode spanned a few months around the late fall and early winter of 1881. However, certain aspect in the episode seemed to hint that several years, instead of a few months, had passed between Levi’s arrival in Lancaster and the winter storm that finally struck Centennial.

Charles Larson’s screenplay made it clear that Levi’s visit to Pennsylvania did not last that long. In fact, his wife Lucinda and his son, Martin, expressed surprise that he had returned home to Centennial before the winter. And considering that it took seven days to journey by rail from the West Coast to the East Coast; Levi’s journey from Colorado to Pennsylvania should have taken less than seven days. In total, his entire trip should have lasted less than a month. And yet . . . there were signs in the episode that several years had passed since the end of “The Shepherds”. One, the character of Amos Calendar seemed to have aged by a decade. Seriously. While Levi was in Pennsylvania, the Findlay Perkins character had arrived in Centennial. Around the time of his arrival, Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe were behaving like a couple that had been married for several years, instead of honeymooners. More importantly, a semi-manor made of brick (or stones) had replaced the clapboard ranch house that served as Venneford Ranch’s main house. I doubt very much that Seccombe was able erect a small manor house within a month or two. Also, the winter storm that struck the Western Plains occurred in 1886-1887. Levi’s journey to Pennsylvania should have occurred five years later. Larson’s handling of the episode’s time span seemed so sloppy that I could only shake my head in disbelief.

But the episode’s time span was not the only thing that troubled me. The first thirty minutes of “The Storm” featured a number of flashbacks I have not seen since “Only the Rocks Live Forever”. The flashbacks in that first episode made sense. It was the only episode that featured the character of Lame Beaver in the main narrative, yet at the same time, allowed viewers access to the character’s past. Because “The Storm” featured the deaths of Levi Zendt and Mule Canby, viewers were subjected to flashbacks featuring Levi’s journey to the West “The Wagon and the Elephant”and the Skimmerhorn cattle drive in “The Longhorns”. Instead of providing background to the characters of Levi and Mule, these flashbacks only dragged the episode’s first half hour.

Thankfully, “The Storm” was not a complete waste of time. It featured some first-rate drama and performances. The episode marked the first appearances of the Wendell family. So far, the family has managed to charm most of Centennial’s citizens with their good manners, verbal skills and acting talent. They have also attracted the suspicion of one Sheriff Axel Dumire. As I had stated earlier, the character of Mule Canby, last seen wounded and hauled to a military fort by R.J. Poteet in “The Longhorns”. He has become a trick shot artist for a circus, with Nacho Gomez as his assistant. Their reunion with former members of the Skimmerhorn drive – Jim Lloyd, John Skimmerhorn and Amos Calendar – provided the episode with a very warm and emotional moment before Canby’s tragic death in a tent fire.

There were two story arcs in “The Storm” that proved to be the highlights of the episodes. One story arc featured Levi and Lucinda’s frustrations with their younger offspring, the unhappy and unstable Clemma. Following his return to Centennial, Levi was surprised by the appearance of his daughter, who was supposed to be going to school in St. Louis. Instead, the couple learned of their wayward daughter’s lurid exploits that included prostitution, jail time and marriage to a bigamist. In a memorable speech, Levi reminded Lucinda that despite the disappointments and unhappy times, they had also experienced many positive things in their lives – including their marriage and the growth of Centennial. Unfortunately, this poignant moment was spoiled by Clemma’s decision to leave town on the first available eastbound train – a decision that led to Levi’s death near the rail tracks during the winter storm.

The storm also featured in a tense plot arc that spelled the possible doom of Oliver Seccombe’s career as a rancher. His handling of the Venneford Ranch’s accounts had led his London bosses to send a Scottish accountant named Findlay Perkins to check the books. Both John Skimmerhorn and Jim Lloyd tried to explain to the accountant that the region’s method of free-range cattle ranching made it impossible to precisely account for every cow or bull on the ranch. Being a very perceptive man, Findlay was still able to discover that Seccombe had been mishandling the ranch’s profits in order to build the new house for his wife, Charlotte. Before Findlay could return to Britain, the storm struck the region, forcing him to remain at Venneford. One of the episode’s highlights proved to be the tense scenes between Findlay and the Seccombes, as they waited out the storm.

The episode’s biggest virtue proved to be the outstanding performances by the cast. Just about everyone in this episode gave top-notch performances. But there were a few I would consider to be the best. One of them came from Gregory Harrison, who made his last appearance as former emigrant-turned-merchant, Levi Zendt. Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave were superb as the besieged Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe, anxious over their future with Venneford Ranch and forced to deal with the likes of Findlay Perkins. Clive Revill gave an excellent performance as the Scottish accountant. And his scenes with Dalton and Redgrave were filled with delicious tension and humor. It was nice to see Greg Mullavey as the always gregarious Mule Canby. And I truly enjoyed the tensions between Brian Keith’s suspcious Sheriff Axel Dumire and the wonderfully scheming Wendells, portrayed by Anthony Zerbe, Lois Nettleton and Doug McKeon. But the stand-out performance came from Adrienne LaRussa’s excellent portrayal of the sad and conflicted Clemma Zendt. LaRussa was superb in conveying all aspects of Clemma’s personality, which included her spiteful teasing of Jim Lloyd, and her insecurities. But she gave an Emmy worthy performance in the scene in which she conveyed Clemma’s pathetic life back East to the Zendts.

It is a pity that “The Storm” was marred by a questionable time span and unnecessary flashbacks. The episode had the potential to be one of the best in the 12-part miniseries. It marked the death of a major character and also a change in Centennial’s history with the end of free-range ranching and the Wendells’ arrival. But some outstanding performances and the winter storm featured still made it one of the more interesting episodes, in the end.

Favorite Novels Set in the OLD WEST

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Below is a list of my favorite novels set in the Old West:

 

FAVORITE NOVELS SET IN THE OLD WEST

1 - Flashman and the Redskins

1. “Flashman and the Dragon” (1982) by George MacDonald Fraser – This seventh novel in George MacDonald Fraser’sFlashman Papers details British Army officer Harry Flashman’s experiences on the emigrant trail during the California Gold Rush and the Great Sioux War of 1876, some 26-27 years later.

2 - Centennial

2. “Centennial” (1974) by James A. Michener – This epic novel spans two centuries into the history of the northeastern plains of Colorado, which includes the fictional town of Centennial.

3 - The Furies

3. “The Furies” (1976) by John Jakes – This fourth novel in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of Amanda Kent’s experiences between 1836 and 1852, during the Battle of the Alamo in Texas, the California Gold Rush and the abolitionist movement in New York City.

4 - Ride the River

4. “Ride the River” (1983) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of 16 year-old Echo Sackett, who leaves her East Tennessee home to claim a family fortune and keep it out of the hands of murderous thieves throughout the Ohio River Valley.

5 - Heaven and Hell

5. “Heaven and Hell” (1987) by John Jakes – This third entry in John Jakes’ North and South Trilogy concludes the experiences of the Hazard and Main families, following the end of the Civil War. The novel mainly focuses on Madeline Main’s struggles during the early years of Reconstruction and Charles Main’s experiences with the U.S. Army in the West.

6 - Lonesome Dove

6. “Lonesome Dove” (1985) by Larry McMurty – This award-winning novel chronicles the adventures of several retired Texas Rangers, while driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana.

7 - The Warriors

7. “The Warriors” (1977) by John Jakes – This sixth entry in John Jakes’ Kent Family Chronicles tells the story of members of the Kent family during the Western Campaign of the Civil War in 1864, the construction of the transcontinental railroad and the Erie War and the rise of unions.

8 - True Grit

8. “True Grit” (1968) by Charles Portis – This highly acclaimed novel tells the story of 14 year-old Mattie Ross, who recruits U.S. Marshal Rooster Cogburn to help her seek retribution for the murder of her father by a scoundrel named Tom Chaney.

9 - Forgiving

9. “Forgiving” (1991) by LaVyrle Spencer – This romantic tale tells the story of a young St. Louis journalist, who arrives in 1876 Deadwood following the death of her father, to mend family ties with a younger sister who had ran away, five years ago. She ends up falling in love with the local sheriff and discovering a shocking secret about her family.

10 - The Daybreakers

10. “The Daybreakers” (1960) by Louis L’Amour – This addition to Louis L’Amour’s Sackett Family series tells the story of Tyrel and Orrin Sackett, who head west to flee a family feud in Eastern Tennessee.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Seven “The Shepherds” Commentary

 

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Seven “The Shepherds” Commentary

The seventh episode of “CENTENNIAL” is set thirteen years after Episode Six. And it is a doozy. Although I would not consider this episode to be the best of the miniseries, I definitely believe it is one of the better ones.

Some of the events of the last two episodes end up having major consequences in this episode, set in 1881. The feud between farmer Hans Brumbaugh and the English rancher Oliver Seccombe spill out in an ugly range war between the region’s farmers and the ranchers, led by Seccombe. Acting as the ranchers’ hired guns are members from the Pettis gang, the same outlaws that had attacked the Skimmerhorn/Poteet cattle drive, in the last episode. After killing several farmers, whose land Seccombe managed to purchase, the Pettis boys set their sights on Brumbaugh’s farm. However, they encounter stiff resistance from Hans, his family and two men from the Venneford Ranch – John Skimmerhorn, who is now ranch foreman; and Jim Lloyd, now a strapping 27 year-old ranch hand.

Brumbaugh turns to Centennial’s sheriff for justice, but Axel Dumire is reluctant to move against the Pettis boys, claiming that no one could identify them as the attackers. However, the ranchers’ focus upon the farmers transfer to a new enemy, with the arrival of one Messmore Garrett. The latter decides to settle near Centennial in order to raise sheep – something that cattle ranchers find abhorrent. Three men from the previous cattle drive end up working for Garrett – Nate Pearson, Bufe Coker (who was a former Venneford ranch hand) and Amos Calendar. The feud between Garrett and the ranchers spill into an ugly shootout that leaves Pearson, Coker and the latter’s lady love, a former Cheyenne prostitute named Fat Laura, dead. As the only surviving shepherd, Calendar recruits his former fellow cowhand, Jim Lloyd and Brumbaugh to seek vengeance against the Pettis boys.

More personal matters also loomed large in this episode. Levi Zendt, just barely into his sixties, receive a visit from his Lancaster nephew, Christian Zendt, and gives him a tour of Centennial. Christian’s visit leads Levi to visit his hometown in Pennsylvania one last time. Brumbaugh’s struggles to find decent farmhands leads him to hire a family of Japanese immigrants named Takemoto. Love also hits Centennial in this episode. Jim Lloyd falls in love with Levi and Lucinda’s wayward daughter, Clemma; who feels no affection towards him whatsoever. And Oliver Seccombe meets two visitors from England – a British investor named Claude Richards and Charlotte Buckland, the daughter of another investor – and ends falling in love and marrying the latter.

Screenwriter Charles Larson and director Virgil W. Vogel really did an outstanding job with this episode. I thought they did a great job in balancing the various storylines – including the romances, Levi Zendt’s memories of the past via a visit from his nephew, and Brumbaugh’s labor problems. But the episode’s pièce de résistance were the range wars that threatened to overwhelm the region surrounding Centennial. It is believed that James Michner had based this particular chapter on the infamous Johnson County War in 1892. This was very apparent in three brutal action scenes featuring the attack on the Brumbaugh farm (shot at night), the attack on Bufe Coker and Fat Laura’s homestead, and the vigilante attack on the Pettis gang.

The amount of violence featured in this episode seemed to contrast rather well with the more dramatic scenes directed beautifully by Vogel. I was especially taken by the romantic scenes between Seccombe and Charlotte, Brumbaugh’s meeting with the Takemoto family, and Amos Calendar’s heartfelt speech about the bonds of brotherhood, as he convinces Jim to seek vengeance against the Pettis boys. Apparently, those bonds formed during the Skimmerhorn cattle drive had failed to disappear, despite the brutal range wars. But the one scene that brought tears to my eyes turned out to be Levi and Lucinda’s emotional parting, as he prepares to board an eastbound train for Pennsylvania.

If “The Shepherds” had one fault, it was its running time. A great deal of narrative and characterization occurred in this particular episode. And not all of it was focused around the range wars inflamed Centennial. Some of the story arcs – including the visit by Claude Richards and Charlotte Buckland, Levi Zendt’s visit to Pennsylvania, and Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems – served as introductions to the main plots for the next two or three episodes. The episode started out well paced. But when Messmore Garrett’s character was introduced into the story, I got the feeling that the pacing increased in order to include the entire plot within ninety minutes. In all honesty, “The Shepherds required a longer running time of at least two hours and fifteen minutes.

But I cannot deny that the performances featured in the episode were outstanding. Timothy Dalton continued his excellent work of conveying the ambiguous nature of Oliver Seccombe, whether the latter was plotting the destruction of Messmore Garrett and the shepherds or allowing himself to be wooed by Charlotte Buckland. “The Shepherds” served as the introduction of Lynn Redgrave as part of the main cast. She did a solid job in this episode, but her time to shine will appear in the next two to three episodes. I could say the same for Brian Keith, who gave a remarkable performance as the ambiguous and frustrating sheriff, Axel Dumire. Alex Karras was superb, as always, in his portrayal of Hans Brumbaugh. Both Mark Neely and Adrienne Larussa were excellent as Levi and Lucinda’s children, Martin and Clemma. The two did a great job in conveying how their characters dealt with the stigma of being mixed blood. Gregory Harrison and Christina Raines shone once more in the wonderful and poignant scene that featured Levi’s departure from Centennial by train.

William Atherton stepped into the role of Jim Lloyd for the first time and did a great job, especially in a scene that featured his desperate attempt to convince Amos Calendar to give up working for Garrett. Speaking of Amos Calendar, I thought Jesse Vint gave one of the better performances in this episode in a scene in which he convinces Jim to seek revenge for Nate and Bufe’s deaths. While watching Glenn Turman and Les Lannom portray Nate Pearson and Bufe Coker for the last time, it occurred to me that their characters had come a long way since setting eyes upon each other for the first time in “The Longhorns”. And both gave beautiful performances, as their characters prepared to meet death during the shootout with Pettis boys.

The running time for “The Shepherds” was very frustrating for me. I believe the episode’s transcript would have been better served with a longer running time. But as far as I am concerned, this was the only drawback to the episode. I believe it is still one of the more exciting and fascinating episodes in “CENTENNIAL”, thanks to director Virgil Vogel and screenwriter Charles Larson.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

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Below is Part Five to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon “Manifest Destiny”, the second episode of the 2005 television miniseries, “INTO THE WEST”:

 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

I. Introduction

Steven Spielberg had served as executive producer for a miniseries about the history of the Old West, during a period that spanned from the mid-1820s to 1890-91. If this premise sounds familiar, it should. It bears a strong resemblance to the main plot for “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. Only the story for “INTO THE WEST” centered on two families – a family of wheelwrights from western Virginia and a family from the Lakota nation.

“INTO THE WEST” aired as a six-part miniseries during the summer of 2005. The second episode, “Manifest Destiny”, focused on wagon journey from Independence, Missouri to California in 1841. The first episode, “Wheel to the Stars”, introduced some of the saga’s main characters – such as Jacob Wheeler, the son and grandson of Virginia wheelwrights; Thunder Heart Woman, the Lakota woman with whom he will fall in love and marry; his younger brother Jethro Wheeler, who was too frightened to follow Jacob on the latter’s first journey to the West; and Thunder Heart Woman’s three brothers, Loved By the Buffalo, Dog Star and Running Fox. This episode ended with Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s marriage at her family’s village.

“Manifest Destiny” picked up seven to eight years later with Jacob’s return to Wheelerton, Virginia, with a pregnant Thunder Heart Woman and their four year-old daughter, Margaret Light Shines in two. With the exception of Jethro, the rest of the Wheeler family – including Jacob’s three cousins, Naomi, Rachel and Leah – greet Thunder Heart Woman and Margaret with a chilly intolerance. After the birth of Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s new son, Abraham High Wolf, Jacob learns of the death of the famous explorer and trapper Jedediah Smith.

Jacob realizes that Wheelerton is no longer home to him and decides to return to the West. This time, Jethro, Naomi, Rachel and Leah decide to accompany him and Thunder Heart Woman. The Wheelers spend at least three years traveling west, until they reach Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840. The family decides to travel to California and is forced to wait until the following spring of 1841 to start their journey. The Wheelers join a wagon party led by one Stephen Moxie. The Wheelers, along with their fellow emigrants experience bad weather, accidents, Native Americans, romance and tragedy during their journey to California.

 

II. History vs. Hollywood

With television miniseries like “CENTENNIAL” and “THE CHISHOLMS” as examples, one would think that Hollywood had finally learned to inject as much historical accuracy in its period dramas as possible. But “INTO THE WEST” – at least as far as “Manifest Destiny” is concerned – seemed to be an exception to the rule. Screenwriters William Mastrosimone and Cyrus Nowrasteh managed to toss historical facts to the wind, when they wrote this episode.

Mind you, Mastrosimone and Nowrasteh managed to begin the journey on the right note. The first known wagon party to attempt the journey to California (the Bartleson-Bidwell Party) did leave Westport, Missouri in 1841, the same year as the Wheelers’ departure. “Manifest Destiny” did an excellent job in conveying the day-to-day chores performed by the emigrants. The wagons used by the Wheelers and other members of the Moxie wagon party were, thankfully, not the lumbering Conestogas seen in old Hollywood films. The episode also included the use of buffalo meat, dangers of cholera on the trail, river crossings and an accident caused by difficult terrain like the Windlass Hill around Ash Hollow. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode’s portrayal of wagon train migration proved to have very little historical accuracy.

“Manifest Destiny” marked a return of an inaccurate portrayal of emigrant life that had not been seen for a while. Although none of the wagons featured in the episode are not Conestogas, all of them are being pulled by horses, instead of mules or oxen. I found it a miracle that none of the horses had dropped dead by the end of the episode. I also noticed that the emigrants in Moxie’s party had to pay at least $80.00 or provide some valuable service (in Jacob and Jethro’s case, provide wheelwright service) in order to join. However, I cannot say whether this is accurate or not. I have never come across such a thing during my studies of overland wagon travel. On the other hand, such transactions may have occurred.

One glance of the terrain featured in “Manifest Destiny” immediately alerted me to the fact that the episode had not been filmed anywhere near the locations from the actual Oregon and California trails. In fact, no famous landmarks from the two trails were shown in this episode. Not even a single fort. I discovered that the miniseries was either filmed in the Alberta Province of Canada and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. This does not surprised me. The actors in this episode spent a good deal of time wearing coats or cloaks. Since the wagon journey from Missouri to California usually spanned between mid-spring and early fall, I found the presence of outer wear unrealistic.

The Lakota characters featured in the six-part miniseries proved to be just as complex as the white characters. This is not surprising. After all, some of Jacob Wheeler’s in-laws were among the main characters – especially his three brothers-in-law. However, when it came to the Hoxie wagon party’s encounter with members of the Cheyenne nation, historical accuracy was once again tossed into the wind.

Among the travelers that joined the Moxie wagon party was a family of free blacks from Illinois named Jones. When Mrs. Jones died from cholera, they were forced to remain behind, until they could be certain that no one else in their party had contracted the disease. The Wheelers – with the exception of Naomi, who was traveling with her new husband – were forced to remain with the Jones, due to being the closest with the family. Soon, Jethro came down with cholera. But he managed to overcome his illness. After his recovery, Jacob rode ahead to find the wagon party. He discovered that the entire wagon train – except for Naomi, who was taken – had been killed by Native Americans. Jacob returned to the Wheeler and Jones wagons, which found themselves under attack by Cheyenne dog soldiers, the very party that wiped out the Moxie wagon train. In other words, the viewers were expected to believe that a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers were able to wipe out a fairly-sized and well-armed wagon party. Yet, the only damage they were able to inflict upon the Wheeler and Jones families was a lance through Jacob Wheeler’s shoulder. Ri-i-ii-i-ight! This was one the most ludicrous piece of historical inaccuracy I had ever encountered in a period drama.

There were other minor historical inaccuracies, which had nothing to do with the Moxie wagon party that I found in “Manifest Destiny”. One, Jedediah Smith did not die around 1836-37. He was killed in 1831. And according to Jacob, there were no battles or any real violence in California during the Mexican-American War. Wrong! A few months after the Americans had taken over the province, the Californios took up arms against their new rulers, resulting in a few battles mainly fought in Southern California.

It seems ironic that “Manifest Destiny” turned out to be the least historically accurate episode of “INTO THE WEST”. I say that it is ironic, because this episode happens to be my favorite from the entire miniseries. “Manifest Destiny” gave a fairly accurate picture of the daily activities of emigrants on the overland trails. But it turned out to be like many films from the past – more Hollywood than history.

 

III. Conclusion

This marks the end of my look at Hollywood’s depiction of emigrant wagon trains. The two movies and three miniseries were not the only productions to feature this setting. And if these articles have increased your interest in this subject, you might want to consider other movie and television productions about it.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Four – “THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

Below is Part Four to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon the 1979 CBS miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Four – “THE CHISHOLMS” (1979)

I. Introduction

The 1979 television miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS” began as an adaptation of Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel of the same title. It told the story of a Western Virginia family’s trek to California in the mid-1840s.

It began in 1843 with the wedding of Hadley and Minerva Hadley’s oldest child, Will. Life for the Chisholm family at their Appalachian farm seemed charmed, until the members suffer a series of misfortunes by the early spring of 1844. Will’s new wife died after giving birth to a stillborn child. Hadley managed to alienate the local plantation owner, known as “the Squire”, after he terrorized the local preacher for using the wrong Bible passage at his daughter-in-law’s funeral. And the family lost a valuable piece of land to an antagonistic neighbor, thanks to Hadley’s late older brother. Years earlier, the latter had abandoned the neighbor’s sister before a wedding could take place, and willed the land to her as compensation. Stuck with land unfit for farming, Hadley decides to move his family to California.

The Chisholms suffer a few more misfortunes during their trek to California. They discover from a Louisville merchant that they had began their westward trek at least a month too late. They made a second mistake by hiring an Illinois man named Lester Hackett to guide them west. The latter fell in love with Hadley and Minerva’s older daughter, Bonnie Sue and ended up getting her pregnant before abandoning the family near St. Louis. Will and middle son Gideon left the family to track Lester to Iowa and ended up serving on a prison work gang for a month, for “trespassing” on the farm of Lester’s mother. By the time the family reached the western plains, it suffered a major tragedy, which convinced them to end their journey at Fort Laramie, in present-day Wyoming.

II. History vs. Hollywood

Like “CENTENNIAL”“THE CHISHOLMS” managed to be that rare period drama that managed to be historically accurate . . . or at least 95% accurate. In fact, I was only able to find one topic that struck me as historically inaccurate. And it proved to be minor.

When the Chisholms began their journey from western Virginia to California in 1844, they had left their old cabin in mid-spring. After all, they reached Louisville, Kentucky by May 16 or 17. Most wagon parties usually left Independence, Missouri, the jump-off spot for the western trails by that period. Even the infamous Donner Party left western Missouri sometime between May 16 and May 20 (in 1846). At least two people remarked on their late departure – a Louisville merchant and a saloon keeper in Independence. Aside from Minerva and youngest daughter Annabel, the rest of the Chisholms decided to continue the trek west in the hope of encountering more wagons.

Aside from “CENTENNIAL”“THE CHISHOLMS” is the only production I know that covered a wagon journey east of Missouri. Most movies or television productions usually have wagon parties begin their journey in St. Louis or Independence. The Chisholms’ journey included a river journey down the Ohio River aboard a craft similar to the flatboat; the crossing of the Big Blue River; and passing famous landmarks such as Scott’s Bluff, Courthouse Rock and Chimney Rock.

Just prior to the Chisholms’ westward journey, they acquired a larger wagon through barely fair means (which is another story). Surprisingly, the new wagon proved to be a decent-sized farm wagon, suitable for overland trails and not the lumbering Hollywood favorite – the Conestoga. However, the family not only loaded their wagon with essential goods, but also with furnishings that may have proven to become a burden on the animals pulling it – including a grandfather clock. The Chisholms never dumped any of their non-essentials along the trail. However, Will, Gideon and an Objibwe woman named Kewedinok they had met in Missouri did find several furnishings that had been abandoned by previous emigrants along the trail. The Chisholms used mules to pull their wagon across the continent. However, a lively debate onmules vs. oxen sprung up between Will and Lester Hackett. The family’s mules also attracted the attention of a small group of young Pawnee braves, when the family traveled alone.

In the 1979 miniseries, the Chisholms’ westbound journey only took them as far as Fort Laramie. A brief, yet brutal encounter with the four Pawnee braves and a family tragedy convinced them to remain and settle on land near the fort. The miniseries’ depiction of the emigrants’ encounters with Native American seemed pretty realistic and balanced – except in regard to one matter. “THE CHISHOLMS” featured at least three violent encounters between family members and Native Americans. Family patriarch Hadley Chisholm brawled with a middle-aged Chickasaw man inside an Illinois tavern, which ended with the latter being nearly choked to death. And there were the four Pawnee braves who attacked the family (traveling alone) in order to take their mules and the women. A scene before the attack featured a rather funny conference between the four braves, in which they argued on whether or not to attack the family. The surviving brave of the attack discovered the Chisholms’ presence at Fort Laramie in the last episode, and convinced a few other braves to help him rob the family’s cabin.

But not all of the Chisholms’ encounters with Native Americans were violent. The miniseries revealed Kewedinok’s back story of how she became a widow, her violent encounter with white trappers in Western Missouri and her eventual meeting with Will and Gideon. The rest of the family became acquainted with former Army scout Timothy Oates and his Pawnee wife during the early leg of their journey, west of Independence. They also met two Kansa couples traveling eastward by foot in an encounter that led to some friendly trading. The same Kansa couples were later killed by whites, aside from one survivor who was found by Will, Gideon and Kewedinok.

I have only one major complaint about the miniseries’ depiction of Native Americans. Many white characters such as Hadley Chisholm, Timothy Oates, and the Fort Laramie trader Andrew Blake never hesitate to express concern about Native Americans consuming alcohol. Hadley was the first to claim that “Indians had no business drinking whiskey”. One could have easily dismissed Hadley’s words as prejudice on his part. But other white characters also expressed the necessity of denying Native Americans any alcohol. I will not deny that alcoholism has been a problem for many Native Americans. However, it has also been a problem for other ethnic groups, including white Americans of Anglo-Saxon, Scottish or Irish ancestry. This was certainly the case in 19th century America. For example, at least two-thirds of the U.S. Army’s officer corps were believed to be heavy drinkers. However, many white Americans (and perhaps other groups) tend to view certain certain groups – which included German and Irish immigrants, African-Americans and especially Native Americans – as naturally heavy drinkers, due to their own prejudices. The screenwriters could have been easily expressing the prejudices of these 19th century white men. But the gravity of Timothy Oates and Andrew Blake’s words seemed to hint that this particular prejudice still existed by the late 1970s, when this miniseries was made.

Like “CENTENNIAL”“THE CHISHOLMS” managed to adhere a lot closer to historical accuracy than the first two productions featured in this series. And like the 1978-79 miniseries, only one topic seemed to be the result of Hollywood fiction, instead of fact. In the case of “THE CHISHOLMS”, it failed to overcome the myth of Native Americans’ susceptibility to alcoholism. Otherwise, the mixture of historical fact and literary fiction proved to be well-balanced.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Six “The Longhorns” Commentary

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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Six “The Longhorns” Commentary

After the bleak narrative of “The Massacre”, the fifth episode of “CENTENNIAL”, the following episode is almost a joy to watch. I can state with absolute certainty that “The Longhorns” is one of my favorite episodes of the series. 

“The Massascre” ended with Englishman Oliver Seccombe’s return to the West and his declaration to start a ranch in Northern Colorado on behalf of a major British investor, one Earl Venneford of Wye. Upon Levi Zendt’s recommendation, Seccombe hires John Zimmerhorn, the son of the disgraced militia colonel, to acquire Longhorn cattle in Texas and drive them back to Colorado. Upon his arrival in Texas, John meets a Latino cook by the name of Ignacio “Nacho” Gomez, who recommends that he hired an experienced trail boss named R.J. Poteet to lead the cattle drive to Colorado. Poteet hires a few experienced hands such as ex-slave Nate Pearson, Mule Canby and an ex-thief named Mike Lassiter to serve as cowboys for the drive. He also hires a handful of inexperienced young hands that includes a sharpshooter named Amos Calendar and a former Confederate soldier from South Carolina named Bufe Coker. To avoid any encounters with Commanche raiders and ex-Confederate bandits from Kansas, Poteet suggests to John that they travel through a trail established by Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving that would take them through the Llano Estacado (Staked Plains) and New Mexico. Before leaving Texas, Poteet hires one last cowboy – one Jim Lloyd, who happens to be the 14 year-old son of his best friend who was killed during the Civil War.

One of things that I like about “The Longhorns” is that it is filled with characters trying to make a new start in life, following the chaos of war. Most, if not all, are outsiders. For example:

*Jim Lloyd is the only cowhand on the drive who is under the age of 16.

*John Skimmerhorn has to deal with the reverberations of his father’s murderous actions in the last episode.

*”Nacho” Gomez is the only Latino and has to constantly deal with comments about his use of beans in his cooking.

*Nate Pearson is the only African-American on the drive and a former slave.

*Mike Lassiter is a former thief who uses the drive to clear his name and start a new life of respectability.

*Bufe Coker is the only Easterner (from South Carolina) with very little experiences in dealing with the West.

The ironic thing about “The Longhorns” is that instead of constant conflict between the cowboys, all of them managed to form a strong bond during the long drive between Texas and the Colorado Territory. This strong bond is formed through a series of shared experiences – battling the environment, Native American raiders and Kansas bandits; along with humorous stories around a campfire and sensible wisdom from the experienced hands. One of the episode’s long-running joke are Lassiter and Canby’s recollections of an eccentric named O.D. Cleaver. The drive not only introduced one of the miniseries’ major characters, Jim Lloyd; but also the strong bond formed by the cowboys that would end up having consequences in future episodes.

If viewers are expecting “The Longhorns” to be a 90-minute version of the 1989 CBS miniseries, “LONESOME DOVE”, they will be in for a disappointment. “The Longhorns” is basically a contribution to the narrative and history of“CENTENNIAL”, not a major storyline. The relationships formed in the episode does have consequences on the story . . . but that is about it. I certainly did not expect it to be another “CENTENNIAL”. In fact, I was too busy enjoying the episode to really care.

When I said that I enjoyed “The Longhorns”, I was not joking. One, it featured one of my favorite themes in any story – long distance traveling. Two, I enjoyed watching the characters – major and minor – develop a strong camaraderie within the episode’s 97-minute running time. And thanks to screenwriter John Wilder and director Virgil W. Vogel, the miniseries featured some strong characterizations, allowing many of the actors to shine. I wish I could pinpoint which performance really impressed me. This episode was filled with some strong performances. But if I had to be honest, the performances that really impressed me came from Dennis Weaver as the tough and pragmatic trail boss, R.J. Poteet; Michael St. Clair as the young Jim Lloyd who in a poignant scene, eventually realizes that he will never see Texas and his family again; Cliff De Young, who continued his solid performance as the very steady John Skimmerhorn; Glynn Turman as the warm, yet competent Nate Pearson; Greg Mullavey as the gregarious Mule Canby; Rafael Campos as the tough, yet friendly “Nacho” Campos; Les Lannom as the slightly caustic Bufe Coker who is also desperate to start a new life in the post-war West; Jesse Vint as soft-spoken, yet slightly intimidating Amos Calendar; Dennis Frimple as the enthusiastic, but odor-challenged Buck; and Scott Hylands, who gave a very entertaining performance as the verbose teller of tall tales, Mike Lassiter.

For an episode that is considered part of a miniseries called “CENTENNIAL”, I found it interesting that it featured the setting in question in only two minor scenes. One of them featured the cowboys arrival in the vicinity of Centennial. The other and more important scene featured the continued feud between Seccombe and immigrant farmer Hans Brumbaugh. Both Timothy Dalton and Alex Karras played the hell out of this brief scene, reminding viewers that the hostility between the two is destined to spill over in a very ugly way.

What more can I say about “The Longhorns”? I loved it. I loved it when I first saw it and I still do. It featured long-distance traveling, strong characterizations and a strong, yet steady narrative. Both Virgil Vogel and John Wilder, along with the cast made this episode one of the most memorable in the entire miniseries.