Centennial comes to DVD

Monday, 25 June 2012 00:00


Centennial comes to UK DVDCentennial is a twelve-part, twenty-hour miniseries based on James A Michener’s mammoth book of the same name. It charts the turbulent development of Centennial, a fictional town in dusty Colorado, from the mid 18th Century to the 1970s. The broad history of the American West is covered, including the fortunes of Native Indian tribes, pioneering whites, hunters, cattle ranchers and cowboys, gold diggers, law makers and law breakers.

Amongst roughly a hundred speaking parts, the stunning cast includes Timothy Dalton, Raymond Burr, Richard Chamberlain, Robert Conrad, Donald Pleasance, Dennis Weaver, Lynn Redgrave, Robert Vaughn, Sharon Gless, Mark Harmon and narration by David Janssen. The epic $25 million-budgeted series was nominated for Emmys and Golden Globes, and won several other prestigious awards.  Centennial is one of those series that educates and entertains in equal measure, though one gets the sense that the balance between the two shifts back and forth as it plays out.

It starts out feeling like one of those re-enactment programmes which depict real events with a little bit of artistic licence, but gradually evolves into a full-blown drama featuring both cataclysmic and smaller-scale events that give an excellent overview of what life was probably like.

The viewer is struck by both a sense of evolution as succeeding generations of settlers develop businesses and relationships with each other, but also of a cyclical pattern of violence and human weakness. Buildings, farming techniques and technology advance in sophistication, but greed, dishonesty and above all bitterness about the transgressions of past generations undermine progress.

Running through the heart of the drama is the story of Pasquinel (Robert Conrad – The Wild Wild West), a fearless, French Canadian beaver trapper who ventures into Indian territory and strikes an uneasy alliance with several tribes; they vaguely tolerate his presence in return for guns. In an act of questionable morality but the height of pragmatism, Pasquinel marries both the striking daughter of an Indian chief (Barbara Carrera – “Never Say Never Again”, Dallas) and (back in St Louis) the daughter of a white business man who funds his trips west (Sally Kellerman – the cinematic “MASH”).

In addition to his Scottish friend McKeag (Chamberlain), the trapper becomes a key diplomatic figure in the years to come as more and more Whites trek west in search of a livelihood, and encroach on land that the  Indians consider their own. Pasquinel’s children and future generations from both marriages also play key roles as the story unfolds. His ‘half breed’ sons (Stephen McHattie and Kario Salem) become fierce opponents of the white interlopers, whilst his level-headed daughter from the other marriage (Karen Carlson – “The Candidate”) marries an army Major (Chad Everett – “Mulholland Drive”) who does his best to broker peace between the Indians and the supercilious white military.

There is a great sense of continuity to the series, and whilst the pacing and leaps in time are a bit erratic, Centennial never loses sight of the human interest in every situation. Life was evidently hard for the majority of folk, and tragedy strikes as often as the fleeting moments of happiness. At the same time, the makers have captured the huge sense of scale of pivotal events and the expansive Colorado landscape. Whilst the programme is shot in a 4:3 ratio, it still feels wide-screen in scope, especially during the chapters that deal with cattle driving.

The image quality of the DVDs is very impressive given the age of the material, and the attention to detail is sumptuous. Costumes and buildings are evocative and although the actors playing specific roles occasionally change as their characters develop, in general some superb aging makeup is used to complement fine acting. The sweeping, majestic musical score by John Addison adds wonderful depth and a sense of place.

I would not hesitate to recommend such a superb miniseries; it is lavish and full of colour, drama and detail. Fans of films like “Dances with Wolves” and “Jean de Florette” (for the greed and David and Goliath angle), and the TV show Little House on the Prairie will enjoy it, but undoubtedly so too will everyone else!

The only bonus content in this box set is a short retrospective featuring a few members of the cast. Given the amount of research and planning that must have been required to get this project off the ground, it is a massive missed opportunity.

Centennial (1978) is out now on DVD, courtesy of Revelation Films. The entire six-disc series has a running time of 20 hours approx, carries a ‘12’ certificate and retails for £34.99, or less from www.culttvstore.com

Last modified on Monday, 23 July 2012 10:40

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