Favorite Films Set in the 1830s

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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.

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

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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 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.

“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”.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Two “The Yellow Apron” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Two “The Yellow Apron” Commentary

Set during the 1810s and 1820s, the second episode of the NBC miniseries, “CENTENNIAL”, continued the story of French-Canadian trapper, Pasquinel; his Scottish-born partner, Alexander McKeag; and their relationship with Clay Basket, the daughter of an Arapaho warrior. “The Yellow Apron” explored how jealousies, resentments and desire nearly broke apart their tenuous relationship.

“The Yellow Apron” began in 1809, with Clay Basket giving birth to the first of hers and Pasquinel’s three children, Jacques. The story quickly jumped to 1811, with the birth of their second child, Marcel. By the time the story begins in earnest in 1816, Pasquinel is still obsessed in finding the gold that Lame Beaver had stumbled upon in the last episode. Because of his obsession, he asks McKeag to make the visit to the Bockweiss household in St. Louis for more goods to trade with the Plains tribes. Upon his arrival in St. Louis, McKeag learns that Bockweiss is anxious over his son-in-law’s failure to make the trip. He also learns that Lise Bockweiss Pasquinel has given birth to Pasquinel’s daughter, Lisette. And all of this happened within the episode’s first nine to ten minutes.

So much occurred in ”The Yellow Apron”. The episode saw the birth of Pasquinel’s four children – his children by Clay Basket (Jacques, Marcel and Lucinda) and his daughter by Lise (Lisette). McKeag has to deal with Jacques’ dislike of the Scots trapper and suspicion of Clay Basket’s love for him. Clashes with both the Native American world and the white world leave scars on Jacques, deepening his dislike of McKeag and leaving a mark on his psyche. Both McKeag and Clay Basket continue their struggle to keep their feelings for one another in check. And both have to contend with Pasquinel’s desire for gold and his penchant for leaving them all behind in order to be with his St. Louis wife, Lise. And Lise has to struggle between her own love for the French-Canadian trapper and her growing jealousy for his love of the West and a suspicion that he may have Native American wife. And although he seems very fond of Clay Basket, it is obvious that he is more divided by his feelings for Lise, the West and his desire for gold.

The episode’s last half hour spirals into a series of heartbreaking and bittersweet events. Jacques tries to kill McKeag in a fit of anger over a dispute regarding beaver traps. After the attack, McKeag leaves Pasquinel and the latter’s Arapaho family. After spending a winter inside a hut encased by a snowdrift, McKeag hooks up with a group of trappers that include Jim Bridger and James Beckwourth. They travel to a rendezvous for other mountain men. There, McKeag has an emotional reunion with Pasquinel. But McKeag’s lingering resentment toward his former partner makes the reunion short-lived. After one last trip to St. Louis, Lise convinces McKeag to reconcile with Pasquinel. Unfortunately, McKeag’s efforts to reconcile with his former partner come too late. Minutes earlier, Pasquinel is attacked and killed by a band of Ute warriors after finding the gold he had sought for so long. Despite the tragedy, McKeag and Clay Basket are now free to be together. And the Scots trapper agrees to claim Lucinda as his own. The episode ended with a shot of the gold nuggets that Pasquinel finally discovered, but failed to claim as his own due to his death. However, that final shot struck an ominous note . . . as conveying to the audience that not only will the nuggets be discovered again, but also bring havoc to the region. Especially for Pasquinel’s Arapaho family and other Native Americans.

I must admit that I found ”The Yellow Apron” is probably one of the most bittersweet episodes in this miniseries. And possibly one of the most epic. The latter is not surprising, considering that most of the episode spans nearly fifteen years. But what I really enjoyed about it was that it touched upon an era of the Old West that is rarely covered in Hollywood films or television. I say . . . rarely. There have been movies about trappers and mountain men of the early 19th century, but most Hollywood productions tend to focus upon the West between the 1840s and the 1880s. The episode featured the growing conflict between the Native Americans and whites (both mountain men and the military) that set foot on their lands. This conflict was apparent in an effective scene in which McKeag, Pasquinel and the latter’s Arapaho family visited a fort along the Missouri River, where they clash with a group of hostile American soldiers. Viewers also had an opportunity to enjoy a scene that featured a rendezvous between trappers and traders from many nations and Native Americans. Thanks to some detailed and colorful direction by Virgil W. Vogel, the scene not only went into detail over what transpired at a rendezvous – trading, horse and foot racing, target shooting, singing, dancing, gambling and other activities.

A yellow apron figured into a session of dancing, initiated by a mountain man playing a bag pipe. This incident led to an emotional reunion between Pasquinel and McKeag. Considering the acrimony (at least on McKeag’s part) that led to their separation, watching the two former friends dance away the bitterness proved to be one of the most poignant moments in the entire miniseries. The scene also proved to be one of the finest moments on screen for both Richard Chamberlain and Robert Conrad. In fact, this particular episode provided some of the best acting in the entire miniseries. Not only did Chamberlain and Conrad did some of their best work, so did the likes of Barbara Carrera and Sally Kellerman, who both did excellent jobs in conveying the emotional difficulties in being Pasquinel’s wife. I also have to commend the late Vincent Roberts’ portrayal of Jacques Pasquinel in his early teens. I thought he did a top notch job of conveying the young Jacques’ dislike and resentment toward McKeag without resorting to any over-the-top acting.

Directed by Virgil Vogel, ”The Yellow Apron” is without a doubt, one of my favorite episodes in the miniseries. Personally, I thought it conveyed the complex friendship between Pasquinel and Alexander McKeag with more depth than even ”Only the Rocks Live Forever”. Not only did it boast some first-rate performances, especially from Richard Chamberlain and Robert Conrad, but also provided one of the most memorable scenes in the entire miniseries.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode One “Only the Rocks Live Forever” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode One “Only the Rocks Live Forever” Commentary

Over thirty-two years ago, NBC Television aired a sprawling miniseries called ”CENTENNIAL”. Produced by John Wilder, The miniseries was an adaptation of James Michner’s 1973 novel of the same title. Because the miniseries stretched to twelve episodes, NBC aired the first seven episodes aired during the late fall of 1978. After a one-month hiatus, the remaining five episodes aired during the early winter of 1979.

Michner’s tale followed the history of the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado and its surrounding region from the late 18th century to the 1970s. By focusing upon the history of the town, ”CENTENNIAL” managed to cover nearly every possible topic in the Western genre. Some of those topics include Native American societies and their encounters with the white trappers and traders, American emigration along the Western trails, the Indian Wars, a gold rush, a cattle drive, the cattle-sheep range wars and environmental issues. The first episode ”Only the Rocks Live Forever” centered on an Arapaho warrior named Lame Beaver, his daughter Clay Basket, a French-Canadian fur trader named Pasquinel, and his partner, a young Scottish-born trader named Alexander McKeag.

”Only the Rocks Live Forever” began with the death of Lame Beaver’s father in the mid-1750s, at the hands of the Pawnee. The episode also covered moments of the warrior’s life that include his theft of much needed horses from the Commanche for the survival of his village, his first meeting with Pasquinel and later, McKeag; and his village’s wars with their nemesis, a Pawnee chief named Rude Water and his fellow warriors. The episode focused even longer on the fur trader, Pasquinel. Viewers followed the trader on his adventures with various Native Americans such as the Arapaho and the Pawnee; and his two encounters with a keelboat crewed by murderous French Canadian rivermen. After being wounded in the back by a Pawnee arrow and barely escaping death at the hands of the French Canadian rivermen, Pasquinel made his way to St. Louis, then part of the Spanish Empire. An American doctor named Richard Butler introduced him to a German-born silversmith named Herman Bockweiss and the latter’s daughter, Lise. Pasquinel formed a partnership with Bockweiss, who provided him with trinkets to trade with the Native Americans and fell in love with Lise.

Upon his return to the West, the Pawnee introduced Pasquinel to the Scottish-born Alexander McKeag, who became his partner. After experiencing a series of adventures, the two arrived at Lame Beaver’s village. There, Pasquinel strengthened his ties with Lame Beaver, while McKeag fell in love with the warrior’s daughter, Clay Basket. The pair eventually returned to St. Louis with a profitable supply of furs. There, Pasquinel married Lise. During the two partners’ visit to St. Louis, Lame Beaver and his fellow Arapaho became engaged in another conflict with the Pawnee in an effort to rescue a child that had been snatched by the other tribe. The conflict resulted in the rescue of the child, Rude Water’s death at the hands of Lame Beaver, and the latter’s death at the hands of Pawnee warriors. When Pasquinel and McKeag returned to the Pawnee village, they discovered that Rude Water had been shot by a bullet molded from gold by Lame Beaver. They also learned about Lame Beaver’s death. And upon their return to the Arapaho village, they learned from Clay Basket that her late father had ordered her to become Pasquinel’s wife. Because of the French Canadian’s desire to learn about the location of Lame Beaver’s gold, he agreed to make Clay Basket his second wife, despite McKeag’s protests.

Directed by Virgil W. Vogel and written by producer John Wilder, ”Only the Rocks Live Forever” was a surprisingly well paced episode, considering its running time of two-and-a-half hours. Viewers received a detailed look into the society of the Arapaho nation (despite the fact that many of the extras portraying the Arapaho were of Latino descent). And through the adventures of Pasquinel and McKeag, viewers also received a detailed and nearly accurate look into the perils of the life of a fur trader in the trans-Mississippi West. Wilder managed to make one historical goof. When asked in late 18th century St. Louis, circa on how far he had traveled upriver, Pasquinel said, “Cache La Poudre”. However, that particular river was not known by this name until after the 1820s, when a severe storm forced French trappers to “cache their gun powder” by the river bank. And although the episode never stated outright, it did hint that St. Louis and the rest of the Mississippi Valley was part of the Spanish Empire during that period, through the characters of Senor Alvarez and his wife, portrayed by Henry Darrow and Annette Charles.

This episode also benefitted from the strong cast that appeared in the episode. I was especially impressed by Michael Ansara’s charismatic performance as the Arapaho warrior, Lame Beaver. Well known character actor Robert Tessier (of Algonquian descent) gave an equally impressive performance as Lame Beaver’s main nemesis, the Pawnee chief Rude Water. Not only was I impressed by Raymond Burr’s performance as St. Louis silversmith, Herman Bockweiss, I was also impressed by his use of a German accent. Whether or not it was accurate, I must admit that his take on the accent never struck me as a cliché. Sally Kellerman’s own handling of a German accent was also well done. And I thought she gave a poignant performance as the slightly insecure Lise, who found herself falling in love with Pasquinel. Barbara Carrera gave a solid performance as Clay Basket, but I did not find her that particularly dazzling in this episode. Hands down, ”Only the Rocks Live Forever” belonged to Robert Conrad and Richard Chamberlain. Both actors did an excellent job in adapting foreign accents. And both gave exceptional performances in their portrayal of two very different and complex personalities. Superficially, Conrad’s portrayal of Pasquinel seemed superficial and very forthright. However, I was impressed how he conveyed Pasquinel’s more complex traits and emotions through the use of his eyes and facial expression. And once again, Chamberlain proved to be the ultimate chameleon in his transformation into the shy and emotional Scotsman, forced to learn about the West and who seemed bewildered by his morally questionable partner.

”Only the Rocks Live Forever” is not my favorite episode in ”CENTENNIAL”. I can think of at least three or four that I would personally rank above it. But I must admit that thanks to Vogel’s direction and Wilder’s script, this episode proved to be a perfect start for what I consider to be one of the best minseries that ever aired on television.