“THE LAST TYCOON” (1976) Review

“THE LAST TYCOON” (1976) Review

What is there to say about the 1976 movie, “THE LAST TYCOON”? Well . . . it was adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last novel, which had remained at the time of his death in 1941. It proved to be the last movie directed by Elia Kazan. And it starred Robert De Niro.

Actually, there is more to say about “THE LAST TYCOON”. It told the story of Monroe Stahr, Fitzgerald’s literary version of the legendary Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer production chief, Irving Thalberg. Stahr served as production chief of a major Hollywood studio in the mid-1930s. The movie unfolds with Stahr juggling his time with emotional actors and directors, and several frustrated screenwriters. Stahr also deals with more pressing conflicts like the newly created Writers Guild of America, a union organizer from the East Coast and the growing resentment his boss and head of the studio, Pat Brady. During all this activity and growing turmoil, Stahr finds himself torn between two young women. One of those women is Brady’s only child, a recent college graduate named Cecilia who is infatuated with Stahr. The other is an Irish beauty with a troubled past named Kathleen Moore, with whom Stahr falls in love and eventually obsessed. Unfortunately for Stahr, Kathleen is engaged to another man.

The production values for “THE LAST TYCOON” struck me as first rate. Well . . . almost. I enjoyed Victor J. Kemper’s sharp and colorful photography. I also enjoyed Jack T. Collis’ art direction, which I thought effectively conveyed the locations of the Hollywood community during the 1930s. But I feel that Collis’ art direction would not have been as effective without Gene Callahan’s production designs. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have also been impressed by both Collis and Callahan. The two men ended up receiving Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration. On the other hand, I am not surprised that Anna Hill Johnstone and Anthea Sylbert’s costume designs had failed to win any nominations. Do not get me wrong. They were not terrible. But . . . I did notice that like some of the hairstyles worn by the actresses in the film, the fashion styles of the 1970s tend to creep in.

I certainly had no problems with the movie’s performances. Well . . . with most of them. May I be frank? Robert De Niro seemed to be an embodiment of Monroe Stahr . . . or should I say Irving Thalberg? De Niro did an excellent job in conveying Stahr’s obsessive nature – whether it was creating movies or falling in love with Kathleen Moore. A second standout performance came from Theresa Russell, who portrayed Cecilia Brady, the daughter of the studio chief. Russell did an excellent job in portraying both Cecilia’s passion for Stahr and her no-nonsense intelligence. Robert Mitchum was superb as Pat Brady, the studio chief who took his daughter’s intelligence for granted and who resented Stahr’s genius as a movie producer.

Both Tony Curtis and Jeanne Moreau gave excellent performances as Rodriguez and Didi, two Hollywood stars, whose egos and insecurities threaten a film they are currently shooting. Jack Nicholson provided a strong, yet quiet presence as an East Coast union official visiting Hollywood to organize the industry’s employees. The movie also featured solid performances from Ray Milland, Dana Andrews, Donald Pleasance, Peter Strauss, Tige Andrews and Anjelica Huston. “THE LAST TYCOON” also featured Ingrid Boulting as Kathleen Moore, the woman who captured Monroe Stahr’s heart. How did I feel about her? Hmmmm . . . she was not a terrible actress. But I was not particularly impressed by her performance. She seemed to spend most of the movie trying to iconic or remote . . . a 1970s version of Greta Garbo. And it did not work for me.

For me, the real problem with “THE LAST TYCOON” was its narrative. Quite frankly, I thought it sucked. Mind you, I thought the film’s explorations of life at movie studio in the 1930s seemed interesting. What made this work is that most of this exploration was told from Monroe Stahr’s point-of-view. I cannot deny that the film’s peek into the old Hollywood studio system was interesting. But instead of fashioning a narrative from this topic or at least from studio politics, screenwriter Harold Pinter had decided revolve the film’s plot around the Monroe Stahr-Kathleen Moore love story. I can understand why he did this. F. Scott Fitzgerald did the same in the unfinished novel. The problem was that Stahr’s romance with Kathleen bored the hell out of me. One, the entire romance almost seemed on-sided on Stahr’s part. And two, both Robert De Niro and Ingrid Boulting lacked any chemistry whatsoever. Every time the pair shared the screen, I found myself struggling to stay awake. Perhaps Pinter could have done a better job in connecting the Stahr-Moore romance with studio politics . . . who knows? Unfortunately, I felt as if I was watching a movie with two different narratives that barely connected – and with the major (and boring) subplot overshadowing the minor one. Pity.

Would I ever watch “THE LAST TYCOON” again? I honestly cannot answer that question. It is a beautiful looking film, thanks to men like Jack T. Collis and Gene Callahan. I also cannot deny the film’s peek into the old Hollywood studio system and politics managed to somewhat fascinate me. Unfortunately, the movie was dominated by a dull love story that bored me senseless. So, would I ever watch this movie again? Right now, I would say no. I do not think so.

 

Image result for the last tycoon 1976 animated gifs

“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” (1975) Review

8692_16_large

 

 

“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” (1975) Review

There have been numerous adaptations of Alexandre Dumas père’s 1844 novel, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. I have seen at least three adaptations – two theatrical releases and a television movie. I had just recently viewed the latter, which aired on British television back in 1975, on DVD. 

“THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” begins in 1815 with the return of merchant sailor Edmond Dantès to his home port of Marseilles in order to marry his Catalan fiancée, Mercédès Herrera. Before dying during this last voyager, Edmond’s captain Leclère charges Dantès to deliver a letter from Elba to an unknown man in Paris. On the eve of Dantès’ wedding to Mercédès, Dantès’ colleague Danglars, who is jealous of Edmond’s promotion to captain, advises Edmond’s friend Fernand Mondego to send an anonymous note accusing Dantès of being a supporter of the recently exiled Napoleon Bonaparte. Fernand is open to the suggestion due to his own jealousy of Edmond’s engagement to Mercédès, whom he also loves. Edmond is arrested and interrogated by the local chief deputy prosecutor Gérard de Villefort. De Villefort is willing to release Edmond when he realizes that the latter is innocent of being a Bonapartist. But when he discovers that Edmond was charged in delivering a letter to his own father, another Bonapartist, de Villefort has Edmond sent to the Château d’If prison without a trial.

During his fourteen year imprisonment, Edmond meets a fellow prisoner named Abbé Faria, who gives the former a former education. When Faria finds himself on the verge of death, he informs Edmond about a treasure located on the Italian island of Monte Cristo. When Faria dies, Edmond takes his place in the burial sack and makes his escape from the Château d’If. After acquiring the Monte Cristo treasure, Edmond sets about seeking revenge against the three men responsible for his imprisonment.

Many literary and movie fans have complimented this adaptation as being “faithful” to Dumas’ tale in compare to many others. I am a little more familiar with the 1845 novel than I was several years ago, when I had reviewed both the 1934 and 2002 adaptations. Which means I am quite aware that this adaptation is no more faithful than the others. But this did not bother me . . . somewhat. I have one or two issues that I will discuss a bit later. But overall, I found this adaptation, which was produced by a British television production company called ITC Entertainment, both satisfying and entertaining. I realize that my last description of the movie seems slightly tepid. Trust me, I do not regard this adaptation as tepid. It truly is quite good. I thought director David Greene and screenwriter Sidney Carroll provided television audiences with a lively and intelligent adaptation of Dumas’ tale.

Both Greene and Carroll did an excellent job of maintaining a steady pace for the film’s narrative. Starting with Edmond’s return to Marseilles before Napoleon’s Hundred Days return to power, to his fourteen year incarceration inside the Château d’If, and his discovery of the Monte Cristo treasure; I can honestly say that this television movie did not rush through the narrative. Well, most of it. This steady pacing seemed especially apparent in Dantes’ elaborate plots to exact revenge against Mondego, Danglars and de Villefort. However . . . there were aspects of Dumas’ narrative that could have stretched out a bit and I will focus on that later. Greene and Carroll also did a solid job in conveying how those fourteen years in prison, along with his desire for revenge had an impact upon his personality. This topic was not explored as much as I wish it had been, but it was featured in the film’s plot.

I do have a few complaints. Like the 1934 movie, this television movie featured the character of Haydée, the daughter of a pasha who had been betrayed and murdered by Ferdinand Mondego and one of Edmond’s major allies. In the novel, Haydée became Edmond’s lover by the story’s end. In this television movie, she is basically an ally who was limited to two scenes. I suspect that the character’s North African background made the producers unwilling to to be faithful to Dumas’ novel and give Isabelle De Valvert, who had portrayed Haydée, more screen time, aside from two scenes. Pity. Speaking of Edmond’s love life, I noticed that once he became the Count of Monte Cristo, Richard Chamberlain and Kate Nelligan, who portrayed Mercédès Mondego, barely shared any screen time together. In fact, it seemed as if Edmond barely thought about Mercédès. So when the film ended with him rushing toward Mercédès to declare his never ending love for her, it seemed so false . . . and rushed. I do not recall seeing any build up to this scene.

One must remember that “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” is not only a drama, but also a swashbuckler. And that means action sequences. There were not that many in the movie, but there were a few memorable moments. The final action sequence featured a duel between Edmond and his former friend, Mondego. It never happened in the novel, but I found it interesting to watch a duel between two former onscreen swashbucklers – Richard Chamberlain and Tony Curtis. It was . . . decent. But if I must be honest, I was more impressed by the duel between Carlo Puri and Alessio Orano, who portrayed Andrea Benedetto (a person set up by Edmond to be a part of de Villefort’s past) and Alessio Orano, who portrayed a former cowardly neighbor of Edmond named Caderousse. Neither duel was particularly long, but I found the Benedetto-Caderousse duel to be more physical and exciting.

I have mixed views of the movie’s production values. On one hand, I found myself very impressed by Walter Patriarca’s production designs and Andrew Patriarca’s art direction. I thought both did an excellent job of utilizing the film’s Italian locations to re-create early 19th century France and Italy. I was also impressed by Aldo Tonti’s solid photography for the film. I found it clear and somewhat colorful. My feelings regarding the film’s costumes are not as positive. I noticed that there is no costume designer named for the film. Instead, Luciana Marinucci was hired as the costume/wardrobe “supervisor”. This makes me wonder if a good deal of the film’s costumes came from warehouses in Italy. A good deal of the fabrics used for movie’s costumes struck me as questionable. Cheap. And quite frankly, I found this somewhat disappointing for a first-rate movie like this. I also found the hairstyle worn by actress Taryn Power, as shown in the image below:

It bore no resemblance to the hairstyles worn by women during the early 1830s.

I certainly had no complaints about the film’s cast. All either gave solid or excellent performances. The movie boasted solid performances from the likes of Anthony Dawson, Angelo Infanti, Harold Bromley, George Willing, Alessio Orano, Taryn Power, Dominic Guard, Dominic Barto and Isabelle De Valvert. Although I have a high regard for Kate Nelligan as an actress, I must admit that I was not that overly impressed by her performance as Mercédès Mondego. I thought it was solid, but not particularly mind blowing. It seemed as if she really had not much material to work with, aside from those scenes that featured Edmond’s arrest and her final scene.

But thankfully, “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” does boast some excellent and memorable performances. One came from Carlo Puri, who gave a very charismatic performance as Andrea Benedetto, a former galleys convict used by Edmond in his scheme against Gérard de Villefort. Speaking of the latter, Louis Jordan was superb as the ambitious prosecutor who was responsible for Edmond’s incarceration in the first place. I was especially impressed by his performance in the scene that featured the revelation about the illegitimate son he had tried to kill years earlier. Another superb performance came from Donald Pleasence as Danglars. I thought he did an excellent job in transforming his character from a resentful and jealous seaman into the greedy banker. Trevor Howard earned a well deserved Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Edmond’s mentor, the imprisoned former soldier-turned-priest. I found his last scene especially poignant to watch. This was probably the first production in which I saw Tony Curtis portray a villain.   And I thought he gave an excellent performance as the broodingly jealous Ferdinand Mondego, who seemed to have no qualms about destroying others for the sake of his feelings and his ambitions. “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO” proved to be Richard Chamberlain’s second (or third) production that was an adaptation of an Alexandre Dumas père novel. Like Howard, he had earned a well deserved Emmy nomination for his portrayal of the revenge driven Edmond Dantès. Chamberlain did a superb job in conveying the growing development of Edmond’s character from the clean-cut, yet ambitious young seaman, to the long-suffering prisoner wallowing in despair and finally, the cool and manipulative man, whose desire for vengeance had blinded him from the suffering of other innocents.

In the end, I have some problems with certain aspects of “THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO”, including the portrayal of some characters , a few changes in the narrative’s ending and some of the costumes. Despite them, I can honestly say that I enjoyed the television movie and thought it did a fine job adapting Alexandre Dumas père novel. And this is due to Sidney Carroll’s well-written screenplay, David Greene’s solid direction and an excellent cast led by the always superb Richard Chamberlain.

The AMERICAN REVOLUTION in Television

Below is a selection of television productions (listed in chronological order) about or featured the American Revolution: 

THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION IN TELEVISION

1. “The Scarecrow of Romney Marsh (aka Dr. Syn, Alias the Scarecrow)” (NBC; 1963) – Patrick McGoohan starred in this three-episode Disney adaptation of Russell Thorndike’s 1915 novel, “Doctor Syn: A Tale of the Romney Mars”. James Neilson directed.

2. “The Bastard” (Syndication; 1978) – Andrew Stevens and Kim Cattrall starred in this adaptation of the 1974 novel, the first in John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” literary series. Lee H. Katzin directed.

3. “The Rebels” (Syndication; 1979) – Andrew Stevens, Don Johnson and Doug McClure starred in this adaptation of the 1975 novel, the second in John Jakes’ “Kent Family Chronicles” literary series. Russ Mayberry directed.

4. “George Washington” (CBS; 1984) – Barry Bostwick starred as George Washington, first U.S. President of the United States – from his childhood to his experiences during the American Revolution. Directed by Buzz Kulik, the miniseries starred Patty Duke, Jaclyn Smith and David Dukes.

5. “April Morning” (Hallmark; 1988) – Chad Lowe, Tommy Lee Jones and Robert Urich starred in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1961 novel about the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The television movie was directed by Delbert Mann.

6. “Mary Silliman’s War” (Syndication; 1994) – Nancy Palk starred in this Canadian-produced television movie about the experiences of a Connecticut matriarch during the American Revolution. Stephen Surjik directed.

7. “The Crossing” (A&E; 2000) – Jeff Daniels starred as George Washington in this adaptation of Howard Fast’s 1971 novel about the Battle of Trenton campaign in December 1776. Robert Harmon directed.

8. “John Adams” (HBO; 2008) – Emmy winners Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney starred as John and Abigail Adams in this award winning HBO miniseries about the second U.S. President from his years as a Boston lawyer to his death.

9. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC; 2014-2017) – Jamie Bell starred in this television series that is an adaptation of Alexander Rose’s 2006 book, “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring”. The series was created by Craig Silverstein.

10. “The Book of Negroes” (BET; 2015) – Aunjanue Ellis, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Louis Gossett Jr. starred in this television adaptation of Lawrence Hill’s 2007 novel about the experiences of an African woman who was kidnapped into slavery.

“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

acaribbeanmystery1989 - 2.jpg

 

“A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” (1989) Review

I have a confession to make. I am not a big fan of Agatha Christie novels written after 1960. In fact, I can only think of one . . . perhaps two of them that I consider big favorites of mine. One of those favorites happened to be her 1964 novel, “A Caribbean Mystery”.

There have been three television adaptations of Christie’s novel. I just recently viewed the second adaptation, a BBC-TV production that starred Joan Hickson as Miss Jane Marple. This version began with Miss Marple’s doctor revealing to one of her St. Mary Mead’s neighbors that following a recovery from pneumonia, she had been treated to a vacation to a beach resort in Barbados managed by a young couple named Tim and Molly Kendal, thanks to her nephew Raymond West. Miss Marple becomes acquainted with another resort guest named Major Palgrave, a retired Army officer who tends to bore not her but others with long-winded stories about his military past. But while Miss Marple struggled between shutting out the verbose major and pretending to pay attention to him, the latter shifts his repertoire to tales of murder. When Major Palgrave announces his intention to show her a photo of a murderer, he suddenly breaks off his conversation before he can retrieve his wallet. The following morning, Major Palgrave is found dead inside his bungalow. And Miss Marple begins to suspect that he has been murdered. Two more deaths occurred before she is proven right.

As I had earlier stated, the 1964 novel is one of my favorites written by Christie. And thankfully, this 1989 television movie proved to be a decent adaptation of the novel. Somewhat. Screenwriter T.R. Bowen made a few changes from the novel. Characters like the Prescotts and Señora de Caspearo were removed. I did not miss them. The story’s setting was shifted from the fictional island of St Honoré to Barbados . . . which did not bother me. The television movie also featured the creation of a new character – a Barbados woman named Aunty Johnson, who happened to be the aunt of one of the resort’s maids, Victoria Johnson. The latter made arrangements for Miss Marple to visit her aunt in a black neighborhood. Aunty Johnson replaced Miss Prescott as a source of information on Molly Kendal’s background. More importantly, the Aunty Johnson character allowed Bowen to effectively reveal Imperial British racism to television viewers by including a scene in which the Kendals quietly reprimanded Victoria for setting up Miss Marple’s visit to her aunt.

More importantly, I have always found “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” to be an entertaining and well-paced story – whether in print or on the television screen. Bowen did a excellent job in adapting Christie’s tale by revealing clues to the murderer’s identity . . . in a subtle manner. That is the important aspect of Bowen’s work . . . at least for me. The screenwriter and director Christopher Petit presented the clues to the television audience without prematurely giving away the killer. And considering that such a thing has occurred in other Christie adaptations – I am so grateful that it did not occurred in this production.

However, “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” does have its flaws. Fortunately, I was only able to spot a few. First of all, I had a problem with Ken Howard’s score. I realize that this production is one of many from the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” series. But “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” is set at a beach resort in the Caribbean. One of those problems proved to be Ken Howard’s score. Considering the movie’s setting at a Caribbean beach resort, I figured Howard would use the appropriate music of the region and the period (1950s) to emphasize the setting. He only did so in a few scenes. Most of the score proved to be the recycled music used in other “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MISS MARPLE” television movies – you know, music appropriate for scenes at a quaint English village or estate. Frankly, the score and the music’s setting failed to mesh.

I also had a problem with a brief scene near the movie’s ending. This scene featured a brief moment in which an evil (and in my opinion) cartoonish expression appeared on the killer’s face before attempting to commit a third murder. I found this moment obvious, unnecessary and rather infantile. But the movie’s score and this . . . “evil” moment was nothing in compare to the performances of two cast members. I have never seen Sue Lloyd in anything other than this movie. But I am familiar with Robert Swann, who had a major role in the 1981 miniseries, “SENSE AND SENSIBILITY”. Both Lloyd and Swann portrayed a wealthy American couple from the South named Lucky and Greg Dyson. Overall, their performances were not bad. In fact, Lucky and Greg seemed more like complex human beings, instead of American caricatures in the movie’s second half. But their Southern accents sucked. Big time. It was horrible to hear. And quite frankly, their bad accents nearly marred their performances.

But I did not have a problem with the production’s other performances. Joan Hickson gave a marvelous performance as the elderly sleuth, Miss Jane Marple. I especially enjoyed her scenes when her character struggled to stay alert during Major Palgrave’s endless collection of stories. She also had great chemistry with Donald Pleasence, who gave the most entertaining performance as the wealthy and irascible Jason Rafiel. What made the relationship between the pair most interesting is that Rafiel seemed the least likely to believe that Miss Marple is the right person to solve the resort’s murders. Both Michael Feast and Sheila Ruskin gave the two most interesting performances as the very complex Evelyn and Edward Hillingdon, the English couple who found themselves dragged into the messy history of the Dysons, thanks to Edward’s affair with Lucky. I found both Sophie Ward and Adrian Lukis charming as the resort’s owners, Molly and Tim Kendal. I was surprised that the pair had a rather strong screen chemistry and I found Ward particularly effective in conveying Molly Kendal’s emotional breakdown as the situation at the resort began to go wrong. “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” also benefited from strong performances given by Frank Middlemass, Barbara Barnes, Isabelle Lucas, Joseph Mydell, Stephen Bent and Valerie Buchanan.

There were a few aspects of “A CARIBBEAN MYSTERY” that rubbed me the wrong way. I felt that most of Ken Howard’s score did not mesh well with the movie’s setting. I also had a problem with a scene in the movie’s last half hour and the accents utilized by two members of the cast. Otherwise, I enjoyed the movie very much and thought that screenwriter T.R. Bowen, director Christopher Petit and a fine cast led by Joan Hickson did a more than solid job in adapting Agatha Christie’s 1964 novel.

Favorite Films Set in the 1830s

16077062_854b_1024x2000

Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1830s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1830s

1. “The Adventures of Huck Finn” (1993) – Elijah Wood and Courtney B. Vance starred in this excellent Disney adaptaion of Mark Twain’s 1885 novel about a young Missouri boy who joines a runaway slave on a journey along the Mississippi River toward the free states in antebellum America. Stephen Sommers directed.

1- The Count of Monte Cristo 2002

2. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (2002) – James Caviezel starred as the vengeful Edmond Dantès in Disney’s 2002 adaptation of Alexandre Dumas, père’s 1844 novel. Directed by Kevin Reynolds, the movie co-starred Guy Pearce and Dagmara Dominczyk.

2 - Pride and Prejudice 1940

3. “Pride and Prejudice” (1940) – Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier starred in this entertaining adaptation of Jane Austen’s 1813 novel. Robert Z. Leonard directed.

3 - The Count of Monte Cristo 1975

4. “The Count of Monte Cristo” (1975) – Richard Chamberlain gave an intense performance in the 1975 television adaptation of Dumas’ novel. Tony Curtis and Kate Nelligan co-starred.

4 - Impromptu

5. “Impromptu” (1991) – Judy Davis and Hugh Grant starred in this comedic tale about author George Sand’s pursuit of composer Frédéric Chopin in 1830s France. James Lapine directed.

5 - Amistad

6. “Armistad” (1997) – Steven Spielberg directed this account of the 1839 mutiny aboard the slave ship La Amistad and the trials of the Mendes tribesmen/mutineers, led by Sengbe Pieh. The movie starred Djimon Hounsou, Matthew McConnaughey, Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins.

6 - Wide Sargasso Sea 2006

7. “Wide Sargasso Sea” (2006) – Rebecca Hall and Rafe Spall starred in this 2006 television adaptation of Jean Rhys’s 1966 novel, which is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, “Jane Eyre”. It focused upon the early marriage of Antoinette Cosway (Bertha Mason) and Edward Rochester.

7 - My Cousin Rachel

8. “My Cousin Rachel” (1952) – Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton starred in this adaptation of Daphne Du Maurier’s 1951 novel about a young Englishman’s obsession with his late cousin’s widow. Henry Koster directed.

8 - The Alamo 2004

9. “The Alamo” (2004) – John Lee Hancock directed this account of the Battle of the Alamo, the only production about the Texas Revolution that I actually managed to enjoy. The movie starred Billy Bob Thornton, Patrick Wilson and Jason Patric.

9 - The Big Sky

10. “The Big Sky” (1952) – Howard Hawks directed this adaptation of A.B. Guthrie’s 1947 novel about a fur trader’s expedition up the Missouri River. Kirk Douglas and Dewey Martin starred.

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Three – “CENTENNIAL” (1978-79)

001kyx21

Below is Part Three to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon “”, the third episode of the 1978-79 television miniseries, “CENTENNIAL”

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Three – “CENTENNIAL” (1978-79)

I. Introduction

Between the fall of 1978 and the winter of 1979, NBC aired an adaptation of James Michner’s 1973 novel, “Centennial”. The twelve-part miniseries spanned 180 years in the history of a fictional town in Northern Colorado called Centennial. Episode Three, titled “The Wagon and the Elephant”, revealed the experiences of a Pennsylvania Mennonite from Lancaster named Levi Zendt and his bride, Elly, during their overland journey to the west.

In the early spring of 1845 (1844 in the novel), Levi found himself shunned by his conservative family after being falsely accused of attempted rape by a local Mennonite girl named . Apparently, Miss Stoltzfus did not want the community to know about her attempts to tease Levi. Only two other people knew the truth, two 17 year-olds at the local orphanage – Elly Zahm and Laura Lou Booker. Levi eventually befriends Elly. And when he decides to leave Lancaster, he asks Elly to accompany him to Oregon as his bride.

Since “CENTENNIAL” was about the history of a Northern Colorado town, one would easily assume that Levi and Elly never made it to Oregon. Instead, a few mishaps that included Elly nearly being raped by their wagon master named Sam Purchas and a bad wagon wheel, convinced the Zendts to turn around and return to Fort Laramie. There, they teamed with former mountain man Alexander McKeag and his family to head toward Northern Colorado and establish a trading post.

“The Wagon and the Elephant” is my favorite episode of “CENTENNIAL”. One of the reasons I love it so much is well . . . I love the story. And aside from one of two quibbles, I believe the episode gave a very effective portrayal of life for an emigrant traveling by wagon train.

II. History vs. Hollywood

From a historical perspective, I believe producer John Wilder made only one major blooper in the production. The fault may have originated with writer James Michner’s novel. Before leaving Lancaster, Levi Zendt purchased a large Conestoga wagon from a teamster named Amos Boemer. As I have stated in the Introduction, a Conestoga wagon was a heavy, large wagon used for hauling freight along the East Coast. It was considered too big for mules or oxen to be hauling across the continent. Which meant that the Zendts’ Conestoga was too heavy for their journey to Oregon.

The wagon eventually proved to be troublesome for Levi and Elly. Yet, according to the episode’s transcript and Michner’s novel, the fault laid with a faulty left wheel, not the wagon’s impact upon the animals hauling it. In St. Louis, both Army captain Maxwell Mercy and wagonmaster Sam Purchas had advised Levi to get rid of his teams of gray horses, claiming they would not survive the journey west. Levi refused to heed their warning and Purchase swapped the horses for oxen behind his back. This was a smart move by Purchas. Unfortunately, neither the wagonmaster or Captain Mercy bothered to suggest that Levi rid himself of the Conestoga wagon. Since the miniseries said nothing about the size of the Zendts’ wagon, it did not comment on the amount of contents carried by the couple and other emigrants in the wagon party.

But I must congratulate both Michner and the episode’s writer, Jerry Ziegman, for at least pointing out the disadvantages of using horses to pull a wagon across the continent. “The Wagon and the Elephant” also made it clear that the Zendts were traveling along the Oregon Trail, by allowing their wagon party to stop at Fort Laramie. The miniseries called it Fort John, which was another name for the establishment. Before it became a military outpost, the fort was known officially as “Fort John on the Laramie”.

The miniseries’ depiction of the emigrants’ encounter with Native Americans was not exaggerated for the sake of Hollywood drama . . . thank goodness. The Zendts, Oliver Seccombe and other emigrants encountered a small band of Arapahos led by the mixed-blood sons of a French-Canadian trapper named Pasquinel. Levi, who was on guard at the time, became aware of Jacques and Michel Pasquinel’s presence and immediately alerted his fellow emigrants. A great deal about this encounter reeked with realism. The emigrants were obviously well armed. The Pasquinels and the other Arapaho only consisted of a small band of riders. More importantly, no violence erupted between the two parties, despite Sam Purchas’ obvious hostility. Due to Paul Krasny’s direction, the entire encounter was tense, brief and polite. The miniseries also conveyed a realistic depiction of whites like Purchas to randomly murder an individual brave or two out of sheer spite or hatred.

Thanks to the episode, “The Wagon and the Elephant”“CENTENNIAL” provided a brief, yet realistic portrait of westward emigration in the mid 19th century. The miniseries was historically inaccurate in one regard – the Conestoga wagon that Levi and Elly Zendt used for their journey west. But in the end, this episode provided a injection of history, without allowing Hollywood exaggeration to get in the way.

“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”.