“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.
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