“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter IV Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER IV Commentary

We finally come to the fourth chapter of the 1979 miniseries, “THE CHISHOLMS”. And like the first chapter, it had a running time of at least 90 minutes. This fourth chapter marked the last episode of the actual miniseries and the end of Evan Hunter’s 1976 novel . . . despite the Chisholms’ story continuing in a short-running television series.

Chapter IV began some thirty seconds before Chapter III ended. What happened in the previous episode? Hadley and Minerva Chisholm made the decision to leave Independence (in western Missouri) and continued their family’s western journey along the Overland Trail without their two older sons, Will and Gideon. Why? The latter two had left the family to search for one Lester Hackett, who had stolen Will’s horse near St. Louis. During this time, the Chisholm couple and their other three children had accompanied a former Army scout named Timothy Oates, the latter’s Pawnee wife and a family from Baltimore named Comyn. Upon hearing a rumor about fever on a wagon train that was ahead of them, the Comyns returned east. Oates and his wife Youngest Daughter eventually bid the Chisholms good-bye and headed for her family’s village. Meanwhile, Will and Gideon spent a month on a prison work gang in Iowa as punishment for “trespassing” on the farm of Lester Hackett’s mother. Following their release, they encountered a wounded Ojibwa woman named Keewedinok, who had been staying at a Missouri farm that was attacked by drunken trappers. Will and Gideon allowed Keewedinok to accompany them as far as Fort Laramie. Being alone on the trail, the Chisholms attracted the attention of a small band of Pawnee warriors who wanted their horses and the women. Chapter III ended with the Pawnees’ initial attack.

In the end, the attack proved to be brief, brutal and tragic. The Chisholm family managed to kill at least three of the Pawnee warriors. Only one – Teetonkah (the one with the Wolf’s Skin) – managed to survive after Minerva attacked him in defense. Unfortunately, Hadley sustained a blow to the head . . . and young Annabel sustained a mortal blow to her chest. She managed to survive for a day or two before she finally died from her wound not far from one of the Oregon Trail landmarks (Scott’s Bluff, I believe). Eventually, the traumatized family reached the Fort Laramie trading post. Meanwhile, Will and Gideon Chisholm continued their trek west in the company of the widowed Keewedinok. In a surprising twist, the trio encountered a tragic scenario on the plains. The two Kansa couples who had encountered their family in Chapter III were found dead and their teepees burned. Actually, only one survived – the Kansa man who had admired the Chisholms’ mules. During this moment, the Chisholm brothers discovered that the Kansa couples had been attacked by white men. And Will eventually learned that that the men who had attacked the Missouri cabin where they had found Keewedinok, were also white. One or more of them had raped her. Following this revelation, Will and Keewedinok grew increasingly attracted to each other. But their newfound emotions were eventually tested when trio finally reached Fort Laramie and the remaining members of the Chisholm family. Will’s new romance led to an estrangement between him and the racist Hadley. And the Chisholms received a bigger surprise with the unexpected arrival of one Lester Hackett at the fort.

When I first saw “THE CHISHOLMS”, I found it odd that the Virginia family had only made it as far as Fort Laramie. I could not understand why they did not continue their journey to California. I eventually realized that certain factors prevented this. One, they were very far behind by time on the trail before Will and Gideon had appeared at Laramie with Keewedinok. It would have been unwise for them to continue their journey west with no guide or without the accompaniment of other wagons . . . especially after what happened to Annabel. And by the time they reached the eastern side of the Sierra Mountains foothills, a late fall weather would have made the mountain crossing very dangerous. Remaining within the safety of Fort Laramie seemed like the smart move to make. They would have to wait until the following summer for the arrival of another overland wagon train, if they had wanted to continue to California. I also suspected that Annabel’s death had traumatized them so much – especially Hadley and Minerva – that they were unwilling to continue west. But Hadley was also reluctant to return to Virginia – especially since their best land had fallen into the hands of the Cassidy family. And they would have to travel between Laramie and Independence without a guide and other wagons. At that point, Hadley and Minerva were determined to remain near Fort Laramie.

But certain factors threatened their plans. One, their sons – especially Gideon – were still anxious to continue west. Actually, I am not certain about Beau. At least I was not at first. After all, he was the only son who had experienced the Pawnee attack. He may have been less eager than Will or Gideon. Two, with Will and Hadley estranged over the former’s relationship with Keewedinok, it was not that surprising that Will also longed to leave the fort and continue west to California. In the end, so much happened in the following months – Lester Hackett’s reunion with the Chisholms, the birth of his and Bonnie Sue’s baby, the end of Will and Hadley’s estrangement, the appearance of Teetonkah aka Wolf’s Skin at Fort Laramie, and the near fatal attack on Keewedinok. I think these string of events, along with enough time finally led the family – especially Hadley and Minerva – to come to terms with Annabel’s death. And I believe this, along with the realization that their children planned to join the first wagon train to arrive in the following summer, finally led the couple to continue their journey to Califorina. Looking back, the Chisholms’ journey had been tainted by bad luck, bad timing and bad decisions since the moment they lost their most fertile corn field to the Cassidy family. With no such impediments and their emotional acceptance of Annabel’s death preventing them from continuing on to California, it was not surprising to see Hadley, Minerva and the rest of the Chisholms joining the next westbound wagon train in the summer of 1845.

I have to be honest. Chapter IV is not my favorite episode in the miniseries. It did feature scenes and performances that I truly enjoyed. This was certainly the case while watching Will and Keewedinok grow closer, as they traveled west with Gideon to Fort Laramie. I have to give kudos to Ben Murphy and Sandra Griego for making this an enjoyable and emotional segment to watch. Another romantic sequence that I found satisfying was Lester Hackett’s renewed courtship of Bonnie Sue, thanks to Stacy Nelkin and Charles Frank’s performances. Both Robert Preston and Murphy acted the hell out of one scene that featured Hadley and Will’s bitter quarrel over Keewedinok. And both Preston and Rosemary Harris were superb in one scene in which Hadley and Minerva had finally decided to join their children on the continuing trek to California. The episode also featured excellent supporting performances from James Van Patten, Brian Keith, Christopher Allport, Billy Drago and Susan Swift, who gave a very effective performance during Annabel’s death scene.

Chapter IV featured less action or conflict than the previous two chapters. But it was bookmarked by two action sequences featuring Drago’s character, Teetonkah. I have already described the Pawnees’ attack on the Chisholms’ lone wagon at the episode’s beginning. Near the end of the episode, Teetonkah had arrived at Fort Laramie and immediately spotted the Chisholms’ cabin and the ponies that the family had taken from him and his deceased comrades. He managed to convince a few braves to steal back the ponies and a few other items from the family. During this robbery, Keewedinok tried to stop him and was badly wounded. This led to a quite interesting and brutal fight between Teetonkah and Will that struck me as well choreographed.

Although I have possessed a VHS copy of “THE CHISHOLMS” for years, I was very happy to finally get a DVD copy of the miniseries. Even after many years, it still remained both enjoyable and fascinating to me. And frankly, I feel it is one of the best productions about westward migration in the mid-19th century. You can read the 1976 novel that it is based upon. But for me, I feel that this television adaptation is the better version. And one can thank David Dortort, Evan Hunter, director Mel Stuart and a superb cast led by Robert Preston and Rosemary Harris. The miniseries must have been very popular when it aired in the early spring of 1979. For it generated a short-lived television series that I plan to eventually view.

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): Chapter III Commentary

“THE CHISHOLMS” (1979): CHAPTER III Commentary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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