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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fourth episode of “CENTENNIAL”“For as Long as the Water Flows”, strikes as an enigma in the episode. Well . . . not exactly an enigma. But I found it rather strange. As far as I know, it is the only episode in the 1978-79 miniseries that is based upon two chapters in James Michner’s novel. 

“For as Long as the Water Flows” picked up some seven months following the end of the last episode. The story found Levi Zendt still mourning over the death of his bride, Elly, while isolating himself at the very cabin that Alexander McKeag was snowbound back in the second episode. Both McKeag and his wife, Clay Basket, have also become alarmed over their daughter Lucinda’s growing friendship with various mountain men and trappers at Fort Laramie. Clay Basket instructs McKeag to send Lucinda to Levi, in order to help the Lancaster man overcome his grief. In the end, Clay Basket’s plans come to fruition, when Levi and Lucinda fall in love. However, Levi suggests that Lucinda spends at least a half a year in St. Louis in order to become educated and learn Christianity before he marries. This suggestion nearly costs Levi his new love, when Lucinda falls for a young U.S. Army officer named John McIntosh. However, Lucinda remains in love with Levi and decides it would be best to be the wife of a pioneer and future storekeeper, than an Army officer’s wife.

The second half of the episode, which is based upon another episode, jumps another four years later to 1851. Major Maxwell Mercy has been instructed by the U.S. Army to facilitate a treaty between many of the Plains tribes and the U.S. government, regarding territorial claims between the tribes and guarantees of safe passage for westbound emigrants to Oregon or California. Although men like Jacques Pasquinel expresses doubt, the Treaty of Fort Laramie (1851) is signed and ratified. The event also featured a family reunion between three of Pasquinel’s children – Jacques, Marcel and their older sister, Lisette Pasquinel Mercy. The story jumps another nine years to 1860, when Northern Colorado is experiencing the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush (1858-1861). One of the potential gold seekers turns out to be the saga’s next major character, Hans Brumbaugh, a Russian-born farmer of German descent. He meets three other gold seekers, including an overeagerly man named Spade Larkin, who had somehow learned about the gold nugget discovered by Lame Beaver in ”Only the Rocks Live Forever”, thanks to an article written about Lucinda during her stay in St. Louis. But most of the second half of the episode focused upon the Laramie treaty and its eventual breakdown, as the number of westbound emigrants increased due to the gold rushes in California and Colorado.

I am going to be honest. ”For as Long as the River Flows” is not one of my favorite episodes in the miniseries. In fact, I consider it to be inferior, in compare to the other episodes in the first half of ”CENTENNIAL”. But I must admit that it featured a good number of powerful scenes and moments:

*Lucinda’s success in helping Levi recover from Elly’s death

*Clay Basket and Lise Pasquinel meet for the first time, thanks to Alexander McKeag

*Levi and Lucinda’s wedding/McKeag’s death

*Levi and Michel Pasquinel’s discussion about the American claim over tribal lands

*Jacques Pasquinel’s prophecy over the American government’s inability to maintain their promises to the tribes and the latter’s future

*Hans Brumbaugh’s angry reaction to the murder of two braves by Spade Larkin’s companions

*Lucinda’s brief reunion with her former flame, John McIntosh, at Zendt’s fort

*Lucinda and Martin Zendt’s brief, yet violent encounter with Spade Larkin

*General Asher’s revelation that the Fort Laramie Treaty has been considered null and void by the American government, reducing the tribes’ claims on the land

Of the scenes featured above, at least three of them stood out for me. One of them featured Levi Zendt and Lucinda McKeag’s wedding, which ended with Alexander McKeag’s death. Watching Clay Basket mourn her second husband not only brought tears to my eyes, it made me realize how much she truly loved him. I do not recall Clay Basket mourning Pasquinel with such deep-seated grief. I was also impressed by Jacques Pasquinel’s arguments against the tribes signing a treaty with the United States. Jacques has always been an ambiguous character. He has a bad temper that can be murderous at times. And he nurses resentments like no other fictional character I have seen (his relationship with McKeag is a prime example). But after watching this episode recently, I must admit that he was a very intelligent man, who pretty much saw the dark future for the Plains tribes. Other leaders such as Lost Eagle and Broken Thumb were willing to make peace with the Americans. Lost Eagle was willing, due to Maxwell Mercy’s participation in the talks; and Broken Thumb saw no other way for his people – the Cheyenne – to survive. But Jacques knew that any peace with the Americans was bound to fail and that the latter would stab them in the back to gain their land. And when one consider how the American government managed to decimate or push away tribes that had resided in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys some fifteen to twenty earlier, how could Lost Eagle, Broken Thumb and Maxwell Mercy even bother facilitating a treaty that was doomed to fail? And the treaty did fail by the end of the episode, in a powerful scene in which the tribal leaders were informed that they would have to be pushed onto land that would not sustain them. Watching that scene, I found myself feeling disturbed, frustrated and filled with contempt toward characters such as General Asher and the government he represented.

Despite those powerful scenes that I had mentioned, I still found myself feeling less than impressed by ”For as Long as the River Flows”. Quite frankly, it struck me as contradictory. At times, I thought I was watching two completely different storylines that had no business being part of the same episode. I realize that producer John Wilder wanted to begin and end the miniseries with an episode that was at least 150 minutes long. However, I wish that Wilder had allowed both ”The Wagon and the Elephant” (Levi Zendt’s introduction to the West) and the next episode, ”The Massacre” (the final decline of the Native Americans in the Northern Colorado region) to have a longer running time. After all, both episodes were based upon two consecutive chapters in Michner’s novel. And considering the importance of each storyline, both episodes would have deserved it. Instead, Wilder and his screenwriter Jerry Ziegman took the last third of Levi’s story and the first third of the storyline about the conflict between the Native Americans and the Americans . . . and meshed both together in a single episode. And in my opinion, it did not work. This reshuffling made”For as Long as the River Flows” look and feel schizophrenic.

I must admit that ”For as Long as the River Flows” featured some first-rate performances. I was especially impressed by Stephen McHattie’s portrayal of the intelligent, yet belligerent Jacques Pasquinel. He conveyed an interesting mixture of intensity, anger and intelligence into his performance that allowed his character to become one of the best in the miniseries. Another outstanding performance came from Chad Everett as the idealistic Army officer, Maxwell Mercy. Everett did an excellent job in generating admiration of his character’s tolerance and idealism . . . and at the same time, allow audiences to ponder over his lack of realism. I cannot count the number of times in which Everett’s Maxwell Mercy expressed some delusional belief that one man can generate piece between the encroaching Americans and the Native tribes.

This episode featured Richard Chamberlain’s last major appearance in the miniseries as Alexander McKeag. And as usual, he was superb and poignant as the aging mountain man, who found peace with himself, before his untimely death. Barbara Carrera gave one of her better performances in this episode, as the older and wiser Clay Basket who set in motion emotional salvation for both Levi and Lucinda; and whose grief over her second husband’s death provided the miniseries with one of its most poignant moments. I also enjoyed her only scene with Sally Kellerman, in which Pasquinel’s two wives got to meet for the first and only time. Both women gave intelligent and poignant performances that allowed their scene to be one of the better ones in the episode. I have never harbored a high opinion of Christina Raines as an actress, but I must admit that this episode featured one of her best performances. I was referring to the above mentioned scene in which she finally helped Levi deal with his grief over Elly’s death. And she managed to create a strong chemistry with both Gregory Harrison and Mark Harmon (her future co-star in the short-lived ”FLAMINGO ROAD”).

Pernell Roberts (Harrison’s future co-star in ”TRAPPER JOHN, M.D.”) was superb as the arrogant, yet ignorant General Asher, who seemed determined to ignore the tribes’ plight at being driven from their lands. Kario Salem gave a poignant performance in a scene in which his character, Michel Pasquinel, discusses the meaning of land and its theft by the Americans with future brother-in-law, Levi. And I also have to mention veteran character actor James Sloyan whose portrayal of the obsessive gold seeker Spade Larkin struck me as both mesmerizing and rather frightening.

There is a lot to admire about ”For as Long as the River Flows”. It is filled with some powerful moments. And it can boast some first-rate performances from the likes of Richard Chamberlain, Barbara Carrera and especially Stephen McHattie and Chad Everett. Unfortunately, the episode also featured two major storylines that made it seem conflicting . . . almost schizophrenic. Pity.