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Centennial (TV Mini-Series) (1978)   rating

Review: written 2008

Grandest of the 70’s Mini-series, an elegy to the West

Centennial (TV Mini-Series) (1978)

As a rule, mini-series have aspired to the label `epic'. By having starrier cast names, bigger sets, and of course more worldwide locations. This early mini-series from the late 70's based on James Michener’s novel of the same name, did something different - it kept the same location - the fictional town of Centennial, and charted the creation and evolution of the land and then the town, and the people that came and had an impact. So instead of the characters being large and the locations serving to tell us about the characters, the people are the ephemeral ones, passing through and hoping to leave their stamp on history. It's typical Michener in its style, and works perfectly in the mini-series format - elegiac, rather than just epic.

So the story unfolds over 26 hours of TV, of a beautiful bend in the river which is home to a tribe of native Americans, then the trappers, then traders, the settlers, then the cattlemen, the shepherds, the farmers and civilization takes hold. It's a satisfying and at times informative unravelling of American history, told factually, but through a fictional town. That's not to say the characters are not well written - thanks to utterly memorable performances by the like of Robert Conrad as Pasquinel, Dennis Weaver as the cattle driver, Timothy Dalton as the rancher and yes, even Richard Chamberlain as McKeag amongst a huge cast, these are vignettes which will stay with you.

If the series has a weakness, it's the tendency to give extended and unnecessary flashbacks, particularly in the later episodes where the director feels the continual need to remind us at length of what has gone before. As for dating, it could be argued certainly that the sound quality and picture are somewhat dated now, but on the whole the series stands up remarkably well - paradoxically it is the later modern scenes with Robert Vaughn and Andy Griffith (and a young Sharon Gless) which have dated most and tend to drag.

Perhaps the most surprising element to me watching this again for the first time in 28 years, is the emphasis on harmony on the land - the give and take that the early settlers achieved, but later generations signally failed to achieve.

All in all, a worthwhile message, a handy historical summary, a fascinating cast and a collection of interesting interweaving stories - on whatever level you take it, this is well worth watching, despite its occasional flaw.

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