Movie and Television Productions Featuring U.S. Marines During World War II

Today is the U.S. Marines’ birthday. To celebrate, I thought it would be nice to recommend ten movie and television productions (in chronological order) that feature U.S. Marines during World War II:

 

MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS FEATURING U.S. MARINES DURING WORLD WAR II

1. “Pride of the Marines” (1945) – John Garfield portrayed real life Marnie, Al Schmid, a decorated hero who was blinded during the Battle of Guadalcanal. Eleanor Parker and Dane Cook co-starred. Delmer Daves directed.

2. “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949) – John Wayne earned an Oscar nomination in this dramatization of the Battle of Iwo Jima. Directed by Allan Dwan, John Agar and Forrest Tucker co-starred.

3. “Battle Cry” (1955) – Raoul Walsh directed this adaptation of Leon Uris’ novel about U.S. Marines in love and war during World War II. Van Heflin, Aldo Ray, James Whitmore, and Tab Hunter co-starred.

4. “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison” (1957) – John Huston directed both Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr in this character study about a shipwrecked Marine and a nun, who wait out the war on an island in the Pacific.

5. “In Love and War” (1958) – Philip Dunne directed this adaptation of Anton Meyer’s novel about three Marines on leave in San Francisco. Robert Wagner, Dana Wynter, Jeffrey Hunter, Hope Lange and Bradford Dillman co-starred.

6. “Hell to Eternity” (1960) – Jeffrey Hunter portrayed real-life Marine hero Guy Gabaldon in this biopic about a homeless Latino in Los Angeles, who is adopted by a Japanese-American family and later becomes a hero at the Battle of Saipan. Phil Karlson directed.

7. “The Outsider” (1961) – Tony Curtis starred in this biopic about Marine Ira Hayes, one of the flag raisers on Iwo Jima. Directed by Delbert Mann, the movie co-starred James Franciscus and Gregory Walcott.

8. “Windtalkers” (2002) – John Woo directed this account of the Navaho code talkers in the U.S. Marines and the men assigned to protect them. Nicholas Cage, Adam Beach, Frances O’Connor and Christian Slater starred.

9. “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) – Clint Eastwood directed this account on three of the six men who raised the flag at The Battle of Iwo Jima. Ryan Phillipe, Adam Beach and Jesse Bradford co-starred.

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10. “The Pacific” (2010) – Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg produced this 10-part award-winning miniseries for HBO about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge and John Basilone – during World War II. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred.

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“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.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Five “The Massacre” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Five “The Massacre” Commentary

The fifth episode of “CENTENNIAL”“The Massacre”, proved to be a difficult episode for me to watch. In fact, many other fans of the 1978-79 miniseries seemed to harbor the same feeling. This episode marked the culmination of many conflicts between the Native Americans featured in James Michner’s saga and the growing number of whites that make their appearances in the story. It is a culmination that ends in tragedy and frustration. 

I am a little confused over exactly when the “The Massacre” begins. I can only assume that it begins days or even hours after the last episode, “For as Long as the River Flows”. The episode picks up with German-Russian immigrant Hans Brumbaugh successfully panning for gold, when he is accosted by his former comrade, the gold-obsessed Larkin. The story eventually moves into the meat of the story – the outbreak of violence between white settlers, the military and Native Americans resisting the encroachment of the whites upon their lands, culminating in the arrival of a former Minnesota settler named Frank Skimmerhorn and the massacre he ordered against a peaceful village of Arapaho and Northern Cheyenne, led by one Lost Eagle from the previous two episodes.

Personally, I consider “The Massacre” to be one of the miniseries’ finer episodes. One of the reasons why I consider it among the best of “CENTENNIAL” was due to its graphic and unsentimental look at how the American government and settlers either drove away or nearly exterminated the Native American inhabitants in the Colorado region. Along with screenwriters John Wilder and Charles Larson, director Paul Krasny pulled no punches in depicting the violence and manipulation used to finally defeat the Arapaho and especially Jacques and Marcel Pasquinnel. Frankly, I found the whole episode rather depressing to watch.

Most viewers would pinpoint Frank Skimmerhorn, the former Minnesota settler-turned militia commander as the villain of the piece. And it would be easy to do so. Using his political connections, he managed to usurp the authority of U.S. Army General Asher; declare Major Maxwell Mercy as a traitor for the latter’s futile attempts to maintain peace; order the death of poor Clay Basket, who tried to sneak away from her son-in-law’s trading post in order to warn her sons of future danger; and place Levi Zendt’s trading post off limits to military personnel. And he did all of this before committing the episode’s centerpiece – namely the massacre of Lost Eagle’s peaceful village.

The massacre was a fascinating, yet horrifying event to watch. More disgusting is the fact that it was based upon an actual event that occurred in Colorado in November 1864 – the Sand Creek Massacre. Not only was the massacre featured in this episode based upon an actual event, the Frank Skimmerhorn character was based upon a real person – John Chivington, who led the Sand Creek massacre. Unlike Chivington, Skimmerhorn was a survivor of the 1862 Dakota Sioux War in Minnesota, who had witnessed the near slaughter of his family. This family tragedy is what triggered Skimmerhorn’s obsessive hatred toward Native Americans. Mark Harmon returned in this episode as Captain John McIntosh, the regular Army officer who found himself under Skimmerhorn’s command. Like Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Crame at Sand Creek, McIntosh refused to lead his men into the attack and allowed several unarmed Arapaho women, children and old men to escape. The one scene that really nauseated me featured the murder of two Arapaho children by militia troopers.

Another aspects of this episode that both horrified and fascinated me was the American citizens’ reaction to Skimmerhorn’s“victory”. It made me realize that despite Skimmerhorn’s crimes and obsession with exterminating the Arapaho in the region, these citizens, the military and the government wholeheartedly supported his actions . . . when they were useful to them. But it took one incident – Skimmerhorn’s murder of the surrendering Marcel Pasquinnel – to express horror and turn their collective backs on him. And the odd thing is that Skimmerhorn was never legally prosecuted for shooting Marcel in the back, just ostracized.

In retaliation for the massacre of Lost Eagle’s village, Jacques and Marcel Pasquinnel went on the rampage, attacking American emigrants and military personnel with Cheyenne leader, Broken Thumb. But their retaliation did not last long against the overwhelming odds against them. Jacques ended up lynched by the Colorado militia and U.S. Army. Michel was shot in the back and murdered by Skimmerhorn. Some have argued that the Pasquinnels – especially the hot-tempered Jacques – paid the price for their violence against American settlers. Personally, I suspect they would have been doomed, regardless of any path they had chosen. They could have followed Lost Eagle’s path and capitulate to the U.S. government’s terms. But Lost Eagle’s choice only led to most of his followers being decimated by Skimmerhorn and his militia. I believe the Arapaho and Cheyenne were simply in a no-win situation.

Despite my high opinion of “The Massacre”, I realized that it was not perfect. As I had hinted earlier, the time factor in the episode’s first half hour struck me as a bit wonky. The episode obviously began in 1860, with Brumbaugh’s final encounter with Larkin. Yet, it is not long before Frank Skimmerhorn makes his first appearance. If Skimmerhorn was supposed to be a fictionalized version of John Chivington, screenwriters John Wilder and Charles Larson failed to realize that the real life militia leader did not make his appearance in the Colorado Territory until 1863 or 1864. To this day, I am confused about the year in which Skimmerhorn arrived in the Colorado Territory. And I also had trouble with a scene featuring a duel between Maxwell Mercy and Frank Skimmerhorn, following Michel Pasquinnel’s death. I can understand that as a West Point graduate, Mercy would be an experienced swordsman. But how on earth did Skimmerhorn, a farmer/minister-turned militia commander would know anything about sword fighting? Because of this, I found the duel between the two men rather ludicrous. I also noticed that Barbara Carrera’s character, Clay Basket, seemed to have become forgotten not long after her character’s death. Characters such as Pasquinnel, Alexander McKeag and even Elly Zendt (who was mentioned in this episode) seemed to resonate long after their deaths. But not poor Clay Basket.

Because of the first-rate nature of the episode, “The Massacre” featured some excellent performances. Gregory Harrison and Christina Raines gave solid performances as Levi and Lucinda Zendt, as they tried keep their lives together, while Skimmerhorn wreaked havoc on their worlds. Both Stephen McHattie and Kario Salem were both passionate and poignant as the doomed Pasquinnel brothers. And Mark Harmon had his moment in the sun in a scene that featured his character Captain McIntosh’s dignified refusal to participate in Skimmerhorn’s massacre. Cliff De Young gave a subtle performance as Skimmerhorn’s only surviving family member, John, who becomes increasingly repelled by his father’s murderous and maniacal behavior. Alex Karras continued his excellent performance as German-Russian immigrant Hans Brumbaugh. But the performances that really impressed me came from Chad Everett, Nick Ramus and Richard Crenna. Chad Everett gave one of his best performances as the well-meaning Maxwell Mercy, forced to witness the destruction of his hopes of peace between the Americans and the Arapaho. Nick Ramus was beautifully poignant as the peaceful Lost Eagle, who witnessed the massacre of the people he had led for so long. And Richard Crenna was both terrifying and pitiful as the malignant Skimmerhorn, who allowed a family tragedy to send him along a dark path toward victory, adulation and eventually rejection.

The episode’s epilogue picked up three years following Skimmerhorn’s departure from the Colorado Territory. The new town of Centennial is being built and Oliver Seccombe (Timothy Dalton), the Englishman whom Levi had first befriended back in “The Wagon and the Elephant”, makes his reappearance in the story. Only this time, Seccombe will make a bigger impact, as he reveals his plans to create a cattle ranch for a British investor named Lord Venneford. And judging from Brumbaugh’s reaction to Olivier’s news, the epilogue sets up a new conflict that will have an impact upon the new Centennial community for at least two decades.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Four “For as Long as the River Flows” Commentary

“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.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Three “The Wagon and the Elephant” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Three “The Wagon and the Elephant” Commentary

The third episode of “CENTENNIAL”“The Wagon and the Elephant”, picks up at least fifteen to sixteen years after the last episode ended. This episode also shifted its focus upon a new central character; a young Mennonite from Lancaster, Pennsylvania named Levi Zendt. 

The story begins in the early spring of 1845, in which young Levi Zendt irritates his more conservative family by forgetting to appear on time for Sunday supper with a local minister. This infraction proved to be nothing in compare what follows. Encouraged by the flirtations of a local Mennonite girl named Rebecca Stolfitz, Levi kisses her after they deliver market scrapings to a local orphanage. Unfortunately, Rebecca becomes aware that the orphanage’s head mistress is observing them and accuses Levi of attempted rape. The accusation not only leads Levi to be shunned by the Mennonite community, but also by his older brothers – include Mahlon, who had plans to marry Rebecca. The only people who know the truth are two late adolescent girls – Elly Zahm and Laura Lou Booker. After befriending Elly, Levi decides to leave Lancaster and head west to Oregon. He also makes a surprise visit at the orphanage and asks Elly to accompany him on the journey west, as his bride. During their journey west, Levi and Elly quickly fall in love. Upon their arrival in St. Louis, they meet three other men who will play major roles in their future – Oliver Seccombe, an Englishman with plans to write a book about the American West; Army Major Maxwell Mercy, the husband of Lisette Pasquinel, who has been assigned to find and establish an Army fort on the Plains; and the venal mountain man Sam Purchas, who acts as a guide to the wagon train that the Zendts accompany.

“The Wagon and the Elephant” is without a doubt, my favorite of all the twelve episodes featured in “CENTENNIAL”. I love it. I am not saying that it is perfect. But I love it. I do have a few quibbles about the episode. One, I was not that impressed by Helen Colvig’s costumes for the female characters. I am willing to give leeway to the costumes worn by Stephanie Zembalist, Barbara Carrera and Christina Raines; considering their characters’ social positions. But the costumes worn by actress Karen Carlson and numerous female extras portraying middle and upper-class females seemed a bit . . . cheap. It seemed as if Colvig failed to put much effort into their costumes, in compare to the female costumes featured in “Only the Rocks Live Forever” and “The Yellow Apron”. Another complaint I have is the presence of white families in the sequence that featured Major Mercy and McKeag’s efforts to negotiate with various tribes for help in establishing an Army fort. This particular incident occurred after the Zendts, Oliver Seccombe, Sam Purchas and the rest of the wagon train continued its journey west. Which meant that Mercy and McKeag’s meeting with the Pasquinel brothers and other tribal leaders must have occurred in mid-July-to-late August.  Any westbound white emigrants still at Fort Laramie (Fort John) during that time of the year, had probably left western Missouri a good deal later than any emigrant with common sense would. The presence of those white families at Laramie in that particular sequence not only lacked any logic, but was also historically incorrect.

But these are minor quibbles in what I otherwise consider to be a superb episode. I have admitted in past reviews of my love for tales featuring long distance traveling. This theme was featured in “The Wagon and the Elephant” in a manner that more than satisfied me. The episode covered the Zendts journey from Pennsylvania to (present day) Northern Colorado with plenty of drama and action that left me breathless. Although this chapter in James Michner’s saga was set in 1844 in the novel, producer-writer John Wilder had decided to set it one year later. Why? Who knows? And frankly, who cares? After all, this minor change did no harm to the story. But I never understood why he made the change in the first place. Another aspect about this episode is that after watching it, I realized that it served as the first half of a two-part tale that introduced Levi Zendt into the saga. The incidents in “The Wagon and the Elephant” severed Levi from everything that was familiar to him in Pennsylvania – family, home, and all of his assets. By the end of the episode, McKeag spoke of how Levi’s losses and upheavals brought him to a crossroad in his life.

After watching “The Wagon and the Elephant”, I was amazed at the number of memorable moments featured in it. Those moments included:

*A tardy Levi and the rest of the Zendt family entertain the Reverend Fenstermacher for Sunday supper

*Rebecca Stolfitz falsely accuses Levi of attempted rape

*The elderly Mrs. Zendt encourage Levi to leave Lancaster and head west

*Levi and Elly meet Oliver Seccombe for the first time

*Oliver introduce Sam Purchas to the Zendts and Major Mercy

*Purchas exchange the Zendts’ team of gray horses for oxen

*Levi’s conversation with Sergeant Lykes about “seeing the elephant”

*The wagon trains’ encounter with Jacques and Michel Pasquinel

*Maxwell Mercy introduce himself to McKeag, Clay Basket and Lucinda as Pasquinel’s son-in-law at Fort Laramie

*Mercy and McKeag’s meeting with the Pasquinel brothers, Broken Thumb, Lost Eagle and other tribal leaders

*Purchas’ attempted rape of Elly

*The Zendts’ decision to part from the wagon train and return east

*McKeag and Levi form a trading partnership

*Elly’s encounter with a rattlesnake

I could go into detail on the scenes mentioned above, but that would require an entire article on its own. The fact that this episode featured so many memorable scenes made it a favorite of mine. However, there are two or three scenes that I had failed to mention. Two of them featured private and intimate discussions between Levi and Elly, conveying their deepening love for one another. But my favorite scene featured Levi’s arrival at the local orphanage to ask Elly for her hand in marriage and to accompany him on his journey to Oregon. With John Addison’s score and the first-rate performances by Gregory Harrison, Stephanie Zimbalist and Leslie Winston; director Paul Krasny created a magical and emotionally satisfying scene that still makes my skin tingle . . . and tears fall.

But it was not only Krasny’s direction and Jerry Ziegman’s script that made this episode so memorable. “The Wagon and the Elephant” also featured some superb performances. They came from the likes of Richard Jaeckel, who was given a chance to shine in his “seeing the elephant” speech; John Bennett Perry, who effectively portrayed Levi’s overbearing older brother, Mahlon Zendt; Leslie Winston, who shone in two scenes as Elly’s vivacious best friend, Laura Lou Booker; Stephen McHattie, who gave a first hint of his brilliant portrayal of the mercurial Jacques Pasquinel; Chad Everrett, who provided a great deal of strength as Major Maxwell Mercy; and Irene Tedrow, who gave a very warm portrayal of the compassionate Mrs. Zendt. Before portraying Sam Purchas in this episode, Donald Pleasence had portrayed a mountain man in the 1965 comedy, “THE HALLELUJAH TRAIL”. In “CENTENNIAL”, he ended up portraying a very unpleasant frontiersman, namely the venal Sam Purchas. Although Pleasence’s Purchas was not what I would call a complex character, I must admit that he was memorable and the British actor portrayed him with a great deal of relish. Richard Chamberlain continued his role as Alexander McKeag in this episode. Although his role had been diminished, he still continued his superb portrayal of the character. And Timothy Dalton made his first appearance as Oliver Seccombe, the Englishman that ended up falling in love with the West . . . for better or worse. Even in “The Wagon and the Elephant”, Dalton would skillfully provide a great deal of charm and moral ambiguity in what I believe turned out to be one of his best roles ever.

However, “The Wagon and the Elephant” truly belonged to Gregory Harrison and Stephanie Zimbalist as Levi and Elly Zendt. Years ago, I had learned that these two had worked together at least four times. It seemed a pity that they did not work more often together, because these two were magic. They took a couple that seemed unrequited (at least from Elly’s point of view) at the beginning of their marriage and created one of the most loving and believable romances in the entire miniseries. They really were quite wonderful. I wish I could say more about their excellent performances . . . but I suspect that I have said enough.

In fact, I believe I have said enough about “The Wagon and the Elephant”. I mean . . . what else can I say? Producer John Wilder took a first rate script written by Jerry Ziegman, an excellent cast led by Gregory Harrison and Stephanie Zimbalist and one of my favorite themes – long distance travel – to create what has become my favorite episode in “CENTENNIAL”.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Two “The Yellow Apron” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Two “The Yellow Apron” Commentary

Set during the 1810s and 1820s, the second episode of the NBC miniseries, “CENTENNIAL”, continued the story of French-Canadian trapper, Pasquinel; his Scottish-born partner, Alexander McKeag; and their relationship with Clay Basket, the daughter of an Arapaho warrior. “The Yellow Apron” explored how jealousies, resentments and desire nearly broke apart their tenuous relationship.

“The Yellow Apron” began in 1809, with Clay Basket giving birth to the first of hers and Pasquinel’s three children, Jacques. The story quickly jumped to 1811, with the birth of their second child, Marcel. By the time the story begins in earnest in 1816, Pasquinel is still obsessed in finding the gold that Lame Beaver had stumbled upon in the last episode. Because of his obsession, he asks McKeag to make the visit to the Bockweiss household in St. Louis for more goods to trade with the Plains tribes. Upon his arrival in St. Louis, McKeag learns that Bockweiss is anxious over his son-in-law’s failure to make the trip. He also learns that Lise Bockweiss Pasquinel has given birth to Pasquinel’s daughter, Lisette. And all of this happened within the episode’s first nine to ten minutes.

So much occurred in ”The Yellow Apron”. The episode saw the birth of Pasquinel’s four children – his children by Clay Basket (Jacques, Marcel and Lucinda) and his daughter by Lise (Lisette). McKeag has to deal with Jacques’ dislike of the Scots trapper and suspicion of Clay Basket’s love for him. Clashes with both the Native American world and the white world leave scars on Jacques, deepening his dislike of McKeag and leaving a mark on his psyche. Both McKeag and Clay Basket continue their struggle to keep their feelings for one another in check. And both have to contend with Pasquinel’s desire for gold and his penchant for leaving them all behind in order to be with his St. Louis wife, Lise. And Lise has to struggle between her own love for the French-Canadian trapper and her growing jealousy for his love of the West and a suspicion that he may have Native American wife. And although he seems very fond of Clay Basket, it is obvious that he is more divided by his feelings for Lise, the West and his desire for gold.

The episode’s last half hour spirals into a series of heartbreaking and bittersweet events. Jacques tries to kill McKeag in a fit of anger over a dispute regarding beaver traps. After the attack, McKeag leaves Pasquinel and the latter’s Arapaho family. After spending a winter inside a hut encased by a snowdrift, McKeag hooks up with a group of trappers that include Jim Bridger and James Beckwourth. They travel to a rendezvous for other mountain men. There, McKeag has an emotional reunion with Pasquinel. But McKeag’s lingering resentment toward his former partner makes the reunion short-lived. After one last trip to St. Louis, Lise convinces McKeag to reconcile with Pasquinel. Unfortunately, McKeag’s efforts to reconcile with his former partner come too late. Minutes earlier, Pasquinel is attacked and killed by a band of Ute warriors after finding the gold he had sought for so long. Despite the tragedy, McKeag and Clay Basket are now free to be together. And the Scots trapper agrees to claim Lucinda as his own. The episode ended with a shot of the gold nuggets that Pasquinel finally discovered, but failed to claim as his own due to his death. However, that final shot struck an ominous note . . . as conveying to the audience that not only will the nuggets be discovered again, but also bring havoc to the region. Especially for Pasquinel’s Arapaho family and other Native Americans.

I must admit that I found ”The Yellow Apron” is probably one of the most bittersweet episodes in this miniseries. And possibly one of the most epic. The latter is not surprising, considering that most of the episode spans nearly fifteen years. But what I really enjoyed about it was that it touched upon an era of the Old West that is rarely covered in Hollywood films or television. I say . . . rarely. There have been movies about trappers and mountain men of the early 19th century, but most Hollywood productions tend to focus upon the West between the 1840s and the 1880s. The episode featured the growing conflict between the Native Americans and whites (both mountain men and the military) that set foot on their lands. This conflict was apparent in an effective scene in which McKeag, Pasquinel and the latter’s Arapaho family visited a fort along the Missouri River, where they clash with a group of hostile American soldiers. Viewers also had an opportunity to enjoy a scene that featured a rendezvous between trappers and traders from many nations and Native Americans. Thanks to some detailed and colorful direction by Virgil W. Vogel, the scene not only went into detail over what transpired at a rendezvous – trading, horse and foot racing, target shooting, singing, dancing, gambling and other activities.

A yellow apron figured into a session of dancing, initiated by a mountain man playing a bag pipe. This incident led to an emotional reunion between Pasquinel and McKeag. Considering the acrimony (at least on McKeag’s part) that led to their separation, watching the two former friends dance away the bitterness proved to be one of the most poignant moments in the entire miniseries. The scene also proved to be one of the finest moments on screen for both Richard Chamberlain and Robert Conrad. In fact, this particular episode provided some of the best acting in the entire miniseries. Not only did Chamberlain and Conrad did some of their best work, so did the likes of Barbara Carrera and Sally Kellerman, who both did excellent jobs in conveying the emotional difficulties in being Pasquinel’s wife. I also have to commend the late Vincent Roberts’ portrayal of Jacques Pasquinel in his early teens. I thought he did a top notch job of conveying the young Jacques’ dislike and resentment toward McKeag without resorting to any over-the-top acting.

Directed by Virgil Vogel, ”The Yellow Apron” is without a doubt, one of my favorite episodes in the miniseries. Personally, I thought it conveyed the complex friendship between Pasquinel and Alexander McKeag with more depth than even ”Only the Rocks Live Forever”. Not only did it boast some first-rate performances, especially from Richard Chamberlain and Robert Conrad, but also provided one of the most memorable scenes in the entire miniseries.