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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Second Look: “PEARL” (1978)

SECOND LOOK: “PEARL” (1978)

After recently watching the 2001 Michael Bay movie, “PEARL HARBOR”, I decided to watch “PEARL”, the three-part miniseries that aired on ABC back in 1978. Watching it made me realize how many years had passed since I last saw it. 

Directed by Hy Averback and Alexander Singer, and written by Stirling Silliphant; “PEARL” focused upon the experiences and lives of the U.S. military, their families, and some civilians during the few days that surrounded the Japanese Navy’s air attack at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands in December 1941. The miniseries featured a handful of subplots that featured the following cast of characters:

-Midge Forrest, the unhappy and promiscuous wife of a U.S. Army colonel, who is still mourning the death of her only child after many years. 

-U.S. Army officer Colonel Jason Forrest, a strict and bigoted disciplinarian who is despised and feared by the men under his command.

-Wealthy Southern-born U.S. Army Captain Cal Lankford, who is Forrest’s second-in-command and Midge Forrest’s lover.

-Obstetrician Dr. Carol Lang, whose suicidal behavior attracts the attention of Captain Lankford.

-U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug North, a naval officer and military brat who wants to break family tradition and become a civilian.

-Holly Nagata, a Japanese-American journalist for a small newspaper and past childhood friend of Doug’s, who becomes his new love.

-U.S. Army Private Billy Zylowski, a troublesome soldier and talented painter who falls for an inexperienced prostitute named Shirley.

The subplots in “PEARL” seemed so extensive that I thought it would be best to list some (and I mean a lot) of observations that I made it:

*The pettiness of the peacetime military is revealed in great detail, especially the conflict regarding the unwanted Private Finger and a pinball machine.

*The miniseries also conveyed the intelligence and military establishments’ bigotry toward non-whites on Hawaii in great detail. This was especially apparent in the showdown at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel between Dennis Weaver’s Colonel Forrest and Tiana Alexander’s Holly Nagata, which I found particularly delicious.

*I had forgotten that Adam Arkin, who portrayed Private Zylowski, was in this miniseries. His character is an ex-con who had joined the Army to avoid a prison sentence. He is also supposed to be a first-rate boxer. His character strongly reminds me of a New York version of Montgomery Clift’s character in the 1953 movie, “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY” – especially his relationship with the prostitute Shirley.

*One of my favorite scenes featured Captain Lankford’s success in preventing Dr. Carol Lang from committing suicide. Good acting from both Robert Wagner and Lesley Ann Warren.

*One of the most painful moments I have ever seen in “PEARL” turned out to be the scene in which Doug North meets Holly’s Japanese-born parents and experiences their silent bigotry. Very powerful scene and great acting by Tiana Alexander, Gregg Henry, Seth Sakai and Marik Yamoto.

*Watching Colonel Forrest and the general’s wife (portrayed by Audra Lindley) dance and fail to enjoy themselves was one of the funniest moments in the miniseries.

*“WHO IS THAT ORIENTAL PERSON WHO SPOKE TO YOU?” – The reason I had typed that quote in caps was to hint how loudly Audra Lindley said it to Dennis Weaver’s character. Unforgettable moment.

*I was disappointed to notice that some of the female extras at the Officers’ Ball sequence failed to look as if they had stepped out of a photo circa 1941.

*Some might take this the wrong way, but I am speaking from a cinematic point of view. The scenes featuring the Japanese Zeroes flying over Oahu looked very beautiful to me. However, I suspect the scenes are stock footage from the 1970 movie, “TORA! TORA! TORA!”.

*Due to Angie Dickinson’s superb performance, Midge Forrest’s speech about the travails of Army officer wives was absolutely marvelous. And it was highlighted by two wonderful lines spoken by Midge:

“Jason, I look at you and see 10,000 chairs.”
“You and I have been at war for the past eighteen years.”

*Another memorable scene featured FBI agents’ warning to Mr. Nagata about his pigeons and threat about imprisoning the entire family. Their warning and threat led to a disturbing moment in which Mr. Nagata kills his pigeons with his bare hands.

*Some of the footage showing civilians evacuating their homes looked as if they had been shot in the early 1950s, instead of a decade earlier.

*It is interesting how Colonel Forrest is so obsessed with the idea of a Japanese-American fifth-column on the Hawaiian Islands. According to two historians, the U.S. government harbored a similar obsession that went back several decades.

*The most painful and heart wrenching moment in “PEARL” was featured in a scene in which Holly grieved over Doug’s body, while Carol Lang looked on, crying. Great performances by both Tiana Alexander and Lesley Ann Warren. There was a follow-up in which Holly visited the Norths, Doug’s family, at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Not only was Alexander great in this scene, but also Richard Anderson, Mary Crosby and especially Marion Ross, as Doug’s family.

*In “PEARL”, the U.S. Army seemed to be the major military force for the Hawaiian Islands. But I could have sworn that in real life, the U.S. Navy served that role. Am I wrong . . . or right?

*Dennis Weaver and Robert Wagner have an interesting moment where their characters – Colonel Forrest and Captain Lankford – declare their loathing of each other. But the scene’s pièce de résistance featured Midge’s grand announcement of her intentions to divorce her husband. Her exit proved to be even more spectacular. I felt it was one of Angie Dickinson’s finest moments on screen and she received great support from Dennis Weaver, Robert Wagner and Brian Dennehy.

*Another interesting scene centered on Admiral Nagumo’s (portrayed by actor Sô Yamamura) criticism of his staff for commencing the attack on Pearl Harbor five minutes too early. What the admiral did not realize was that a snafu made by clerks at the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C. prevented Japan from officially declaring their intentions to the U.S. government on time.

There were many aspects in “PEARL” that strongly reminded me of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”. Both productions featured an unhappily married and promiscuous officer’s wife, an Army private that was unpopular with his company’s non-coms and officers, another Army private falling in love with a prostitute and a setting featuring before, during and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But there were differences. The U.S. Navy was strongly represented by the character of Lieutenant j.g. Doug North, his father and some of the men under his command. Doug’s romance with the Japanese-American journalist, Holly Nagata, seemed straight from the 1893 short story, “Madame Butterfly”. Whereas the 1953 movie seemed to feature more enlisted men and non-coms, officers also had major roles in the 1978 miniseries.

While many might turn up their noses at the similarities between “PEARL” and “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”, there is an ironic footnote to this whole situation. About less than a year after “PEARL” aired on television, NBC followed up with its own miniseries adaptation of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”.