“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eleven “The Winds of Death” Commentary

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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eleven “The Winds of Death” Commentary

A recent critic of “CENTENNIAL” once complained that the miniseries had failed to breach the topic of land environmental issues in an effective manner. Author James Michener allowed this subject to dominate his 1973 novel. But this critic seemed to hint that producer John Wilder had more or less dropped the ball on this topic in the television adaptation.

Looking back at the previous ten episodes, I do not know if I agree with that critic. I did notice that the subject of who was qualified to be the true inheritors of the land – at least in regard to Northern Colorado – appeared throughout the miniseries. “CENTENNIAL” also focused on how the story’s many characters used the land. One could argue that the subplot regarding the Wendells’ origins as stage performers and scam artists had nothing to do with land environmental issues. And I would disagree. The Wendells’ murder of the businessman Mr. Sorenson in “The Crime” and Sheriff Axel Dumire’s death in “The Winds of Change” allowed the family to become the biggest landowners in Centennial. They used their ill-gotten money – acquired from Mr. Sorenson’s satchel – to not only acquire land, but also become successful owners of a real estate company. The Wendells’ new profession allowed them to play a major role in the major subplot featured in“The Winds of Death”.

This eleventh episode began in 1914, with the arrival of Iowa farmers who had recently purchased land from Mervin Wendell. Among the new arrivals is a young couple named Alice and Earl Grebe. These new farmers are warned by Hans Brumbaugh and Jim Lloyd that they would be wise not to farm the land sold to them by the Wendells – namely the neighborhood’s drylands near Rattlesnake Buttes. That particular location had already witnessed previous tragedies such as Elly Zendt’s death, the Skimmerhorn Massacre and the range war that led to sheep herders Nate Pearson and Bufe Coker’s deaths. Alice and Earl Grebe attempted to create a farm there and were successful for several years. But obstacles such as the land’s dry state, the deadly winds that plagued the Great Plains during the 1920s and 1930s finally took their toll, and a free fall in wheat prices after World War I. Earl and his fellow Iowans received good advice from an agricultural consultant hired by the Wendells named Walter Bellamy on how to till their land during potentially bad times. But they ignore Bellamy’s advice and pay the price by the end of the episode. Especially the Grebes.

“The Winds of Death” focused upon other subplots. It marked the deaths of three major characters – Hans Brumbaugh, Mervin Wendell and Jim Lloyd. Wendell died as a happy real estate tycoon, oblivious of the damage he has caused. His only disappointments seemed to be his continuing lack of knowledge of Mr. Sorenson’s final resting place and the contempt his son Philip still harbors. Brumbaugh’s labor problems were finally resolved in the last episode with the arrival of Tranquilino Marquez and other Mexican immigrants. In “The Winds of Death”, he spent most of his time helping Tranquilino’s family settle in Centennial, while the latter endure six years in a Colorado prison on trumped up charges and years of fighting a revolution in Mexico. Unfortunately for the beet farmer, he died minutes before a possible reunion with Tranquilino.

Jim Lloyd faced a few crisis during this episode before his untimely death. The cattleman insured that his son-in-law, Beeley Garrett (son of sheep rancher, Messamore Garrett) would continue to manage Venneford Ranch. Jim and his wife, Charlotte, also helped Truinfador Marquez maintain his cantina for Centennial’s Latino population in the face of bigotry from the local sheriff and the courts. But Jim’s biggest conflict turned out to be his resistance to Charlotte’s plans to breed the ranch’s cattle to an unnaturally small size for stock shows and fairs. This last conflict led to his fatal heart attack.

For me, “The Winds of Death” proved to be the last well-made episode from “CENTENNIAL”. Mind you, it did not strike me as perfect. I feel that the episode’s running time could have stretched to at least two hours and fifteen minutes, instead of the usual 90 minutes or so. “The Winds of Death” was set during a twenty-year period from 1914 to 1934 or 1935. And there seemed to be a great deal going on in the episode’s narrative for a mere 90 to 97 minutes.

I also have issue with the story’s suggestion that Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems ended with the influx of Latino immigrants. What exactly was Michener trying to say? That Latinos was the only group that lacked the ambition to be something other than agricultural field workers? I also had a problem with the Lloyds’ efforts to help Truinfador keep his cantina. The subplot struck me as a bit contrive and politically correct. Perhaps Jim seemed capable of tolerant understanding of Truinfador’s problems, considering his past relationships with the likes of “Nacho” Gomez, Nate Pearson and especially Clemma Zendt. However, the miniseries had never hinted any signs of such ethnic tolerance from Charlotte in past episodes.

My last problem with the episode proved to be a minor quibble. I noticed that the generation that featured Philip Wendell and Beeley Garrett seemed to conceive their offspring, while in their late 30s to 40s. Why? I can understand one of them having children so late in life, but all of the characters from this particular generation? Philip Wendell’s son (Morgan) will not be introduced until the next episode. But he will prove to be around the same age as Beeley’s son, Paul Garrett.

Despite my problems with “The Winds of Death”, I cannot deny that screenwriter Jerry Ziegman wrote a first-rate script. The episode did an excellent job in re-creating the West of the early 20th century. Not only did it explored the problems that Western farmers faced during that period, it also provided viewers with a more in-depth look into the travails of Latino farm laborers – a subject barely touched upon in American cinema or television. One of the episodes highlights proved to be the two major dust storms that plagued Centennial during the 1930s. Duke Callaghan’s photography, along with Ralph Schoenfeld’s editing and the Sound Department’s effects did an excellent job in creating the nightmarish effects that left parts of the Great Plains covering in dust. The storms sequences left me feeling a bit spooked and sympathetic toward Alice Grebe’s reaction.

I suspect that many viewers were disappointed to learn that the Wendells failed to suffer the consequences of their crimes. Honestly, I was not that surprised. One cannot deny that they were the kind who usually flourished in the end. After all,“Centennial” was not the first or last work of fiction that mingled reality with drama. However, the episode’s pièce de résistance centered on the experiences of the Grebe family’s twenty years in Centennial. It was fascinating, yet heartbreaking to watch Alice and Earl Grebe enjoy their brief success during the 1910s, before the post-World War I years slowly reduced them to a near-poverty state. And considering the tragic event that marked the end of Alice and Earl’s stay in Centennial, viewing their experiences seemed like watching a train wreck in slow motion . . . or the unfolding of a Greek tragedy.

“The Winds of Death” featured some superb performances by the cast. Truinfador Marquez’s efforts to save his cantina led to a conflict between him and his more conservative father, Tranquilino; which also resulted in a superbly acted scene between A Martinez and Byron Gilbert. William Atherton was brilliantly convincing as the aging Jim Lloyd. I found it difficult to remember that he was barely out of his 30s when he shot this episode. Lynn Redgrave was equally superb as the caustic Charlotte Lloyd, who seemed ruthlessly determined to get her own way, whether it meant creating a new breed of cattle for Venneford or helping Truinfador. Anthony Zerbe continued his excellent performance as the charming, yet venal Mervin Wendell. Although Lois Nettleton did not get much of a chance to shine as in this episode as the scheming Maud Wendell, the actress still managed to give a first-rate performance in her brief scenes. Morgan Paul did an excellent job in conveying the many facets of the adult Philip Wendell, who not only remained haunted by Axel Dumire’s death, but also proved to be just as ruthless in business as his parents.

Claude Jarman was excellent as farmer Earl Grebe, who struggled to keep his farm and family together. The episode also featured solid work from Alex Karras, Silvana Gallardo, William Bogert, Geoffrey Lewis and Alan Vint. But for me, the stand out performance came from actress Julie Sommars. She gave a superb performance as the fragile Alice Grebe, whose doubts about farming in the drylands of Colorado would come to fruition some twenty years later. She never seemed more sympathetic, yet frightening in those last scenes in which the high winds and dust proved to be the last straw for the fractured Alice.

I almost regretted finishing “The Winds of Death”. Not only did it convey an excellent portrait of the West during the early 20th century, the episode featured some excellent performances from the cast. More importantly, it proved to be the last one I would find engrossing. The next and last episode is “The Scream of Eagles” and I have to be brutally honest . . . I am not looking forward to it.

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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Ten “The Winds of Fortune” Commentary

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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Ten “The Winds of Fortune” Commentary

This tenth episode of “CENTENNIAL” called “The Winds of Fortune” marked the last one set in the 19th century. The episode also featured the end of several story lines – the troubles with the Pettis gang, Axel Dumire’s suspicions of the Wendell family, Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems and Jim Lloyd’s romantic problems with Charlotte Seccombe and Clemma Zendt. 

The range war that the ranchers began in “The Shepherds” finally gasped its last breath in this episode. The last remnants of the Pettis gang (the killers hired by the ranchers to get rid of the farmers and shepherds) make one last attempt to exact revenge against Amos Callendar, Jim Lloyd and Hans Brumbaugh – the three men who had killed Frank and Orvid Pettis in revenge for the deaths of two friends. Naturally, it failed during a gunfight against, Jim, Amos and the latter’s son.

The Pettis gang’s revenge attempt also led to the closure of the story line that featured Sheriff Axel Dumire and the Wendell family. The gunfight at Amos’ homestead allowed one Pettis killer to escape back to Centennial . . . but not for long. Dumire led a manhunt for the escaped killer. And in a dark alleyway, he and the Pettis outlaw mortally shot each other. While the outlaw died right away, Dumire suffered a slow death. Before expiring, he summoned young Philip Wendell for a last attempt to learn the truth about the now dead Mr. Sorenson. Although he failed, Philip expressed grief and remorse over his dead body.

Jim Lloyd and Charlotte Seccombe’s courtship finally led to a marriage proposal from the former. But their engagement encountered troubled waters when Clemma Seccombe returned to Centennial. Unable to get over his infatuation with the seemingly repentant Clemma, Jim breaks his engagement with Charlotte. The latter tries to bribe Clemma to leave town. But in the end, it took a lecture from Lucinda Zendt to convince the latter to leave. And Charlotte finally married her cowboy. Hans Brumbaugh’s labor problems finally ended when political turmoil in Mexico finally drove Tranquilino Marquez to accompany his uncle, “Nacho” Gomez to Colorado. “Nacho” never made it, dying from a gunshot wound on the Skimmerhorn Trail. But Tranquilino and a few fellow Mexicans made it to the Brumbaugh farm and became permanent employees. Unfortunately for Tranquilino, good luck became bad during a trip to Denver, where he found himself imprisoned on a trumped up charge by a local bigot with a dislike for Latinos.

As you can see, a great deal happened in “The Winds of Change”. Normally, I would have insisted upon a longer running time than 97 to 100 minutes. But screenwriter Charles Larson and director Harry Falk managed to keep the episode’s pace flowing perfectly without any rush or dragging, whatsoever. Following James Michner’s novel, they also managed to do an excellent job of connecting the final acts of the two story lines featuring the Pettis gang and the Wendells. At the same time, Jim Lloyd’s romantic travails continued during this traumatic time for Centennial.

“The Winds of Fortune” featured at least three outstanding scenes that I need to point out. At least two of those scenes featured deaths of primary characters. Once again, Brian Keith and Doug McKeon knocked it out of the ballpark with their portrayals of Sheriff Axel Dumire and Philip Wendell in a poignant, yet ironic scene that featured the former’s death. What I found particularly ironic about this particular scene is that the characters’ deep affection for each other could not overcome Dumire’s desire to know the truth about Mr. Sorenson’s death or Philip’s determination to protect his parents to the bitter end.

Another death scene featured “Nacho” Gomez’s death on the Skimmerhorn Trail, while he and Tranquilino journey to Colorado. Although A Martinez was pretty solid as Tranquilino, Rafael Campos gave one last superb performance as the dying “Nacho” recalled the best period of his life – those months along the Skimmerhorn Trail. In fact, his character died near the very spot where he first met John Skimmerhorn in “The Longhorns”. The last scene was the final confrontation between Clemma and Lucinda Zendt and Charlotte Seccombe. Between Charlotte’s determination to pay off Clemma to get her out of Jim’s life, and the latter’s acidic crowing over her hold of said cowboy, the scene crackled with hostility, thanks to the superb acting of Lynn Redgrave and Adrienne La Russa. Christina Raines gave solid support as Clemma’s disapproving mother, Lucinda.

The episode also boasted first-rate performances from William Atherton, who continued his superb portrayal of the solid, yet love sick cowboy Jim Lloyd. Another excellent performance came from Cliff De Young, who shined as ranch manager John Skimmerhorn, in one of his final scenes in which he expressed the blunt truth about the fickle Clemma. The episode also featured fine work from Alex Karras (Hans Brumbaugh), Jesse Vint (Amos Calendar) and delicious performances from both Lois Nettleton and Anthony Zerbe as the conniving Maude and Mervin Wendell.

“The Winds of Change” featured one major problem with me. Ever since “The Storm”, the miniseries usually featured flashbacks that hinted a major character’s upcoming death. Prolonged flashbacks from “The Longhorns”nearly grounded the episode to a halt, as a dying “Nacho” recalled the events of the Skimmerhorn drive. I could have tolerated one or two scenes. But the flashbacks nearly seemed to go on forever.

Despite the never-ending flashbacks, “The Winds of Change” proved to be another outstanding episode of“CENTENNIAL”. Since it became the last episode to be set during the 19th century, it featured the conclusions of several story lines that have been going on since the saga shifted into the 1880s. It was a near perfect finale to what proved to be a rather interesting period of four to five episodes.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Nine “The Crime” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Nine “The Crime” Commentary

The ninth episode of “CENTENNIAL” proved to be an improvement over the last installment. Picking up a few months after “The Storm”“The Crime” proved to be an intriguing episode that featured a blossoming romance, psychological warfare and two shocking events.

“The Crime” begins during the spring of 1888, which finds Oliver Seccombe at the end of his reign as manager of Venneford Ranch. Unable to face a future disgraced and unemployed, Seccombe commits suicide to end his misery. His widow, Charlotte Seccombe returns to England to grieve. After a conversation with her dying uncle, the Earl of Venneford, she becomes the sole owner of the Colorado ranch. Upon her return to Centennial, Charlotte becomes attracted to ranch hand-turned-foreman, Jim Lloyd, and sets out to woo him in her subtle way.

Hans Brumbaugh’s efforts to find permanent farm hands continue to frustrate him. Using John Skimmerhorn as an intermediary, he contacts Ignacio “Nacho” Gomez to recruit future farm hands from Mexico. “Nacho” tries to recruit his nephew,Tranquilino Marquez, into immigrating to the United States and Colorado. But the cynical younger man does not seem interested in leaving Mexico. Brumbaugh, Jim and Amos Calendar are still threatened by gunfighters, hired by the remnants of the Petis gang, who want revenge for the deaths of Frank and Orvid Pettis in Episode Seven. Sheriff Axel Dumire was forced to arrest a hired gun in a tense moment at Centennial’s train station.

Speaking of Sheriff Dumire, he continues to harbor suspicions that the Wendell family are more than just actors and entertainers. He believes they are swindlers, who acquired a home by using the Badger Game on the town’s local pastor, Reverend Holly. Dumire’s suspicions create a surprising consequence – namely a burgeoning friendship with the Wendells’ only son, Philip. Although the young boy encourages the friendship to keep an eye on Dumire and vice versa, the two develop a liking for one another. Their friendship is tested when Maude and Mervin Wendell try to use the Badger Game on a Mr. Sorenson, a visiting businessman interested in purchasing land near Centennial. When the scam backfires, Sorenson attacks Mervin and Maude accidentally kills him with a blow to the head. Philip comes to his parents’ aid by hiding the man’s body in a nearby creek, Mervin discovers a great deal of money inside Sorenson’s satchel and Dumire begins to investigate the man’s disappearance.

“The Crime” proved to be one of the better episodes from the miniseries’ second half, thanks to Charles Larson’s screenplay and Virgil Vogel’s direction. It proved to be a well-balanced mixture of character study, psychological warfare and romance. The consequences from “The Shepherd” continue to cast a shadow on the lives of Hans Brumbaugh, Jim Lloyd and Amos Calendar. Oliver Seccombe’s suicide proved to be a sad and poignant affair, thanks to Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave’s performances. The surprising consequence to Seccombe’s death proved to be a burgeoning romance between two unlikely people – Charlotte and ranch hand, Jim Lloyd. On paper, the idea of a romance between a British aristocrat and a cowboy from Texas seemed so unlikely . . . and even a little clumsy. Yet, it worked thanks to Larson’s writing and subtle performances from Redgrave and William Atherton. Brumbaugh’s search for permanent ranch hands served to introduce a new character to the saga, future immigrant from Mexico, Tranquilino Marquez – a story that will continue with more detail in the following episodes.

But the episode’s pièce de résistance proved to be the cat-and-mouse game between Sheriff Axel Dumire and the Wendell family. The story line about the two antagonists began in “The Storm”, when Dumire tried to run the theatrical family out of Centennial. Their scam on Reverend Holly kept them in town. Two events threatened the Wendells’ increasingly popularity with the citizens of Centennial. One, young Philip and Dumire have developed a surprising friendship, despite their wariness of each other. And two, the Wendells’ use the Badger Game on the businessman, Mr. Sorenson not only backfired, but led to manslaughter, when Maude bashed him on the head. Eventually, the sheriff became aware of Mr. Sorenson’s disappearance and what followed was a delicious game of cat-and-mouse and some tense psychological warfare between Dumire and Philip. I really enjoyed it, thanks to some superb performances by Brian Keith, Doug McKeon, Lois Nettleton and Anthony Zerbe.

Although I had enjoyed “The Crime” in the past, I never really considered it as one of my favorite episodes from the miniseries. I have now changed my mind. Now that I am older, I feel as if I have developed a greater appreciation of the episode. And I also believe that it just might be one of the better ones of the miniseries.

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eight “The Storm” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode Eight “The Storm” Commentary

The eighth episode of “CENTENNIAL” is a bit of a conundrum for me. Of the eight episodes so far, it seemed to be the only one in which the time span struck me as rather confusing. Which is a pity, because I found it rather interesting.

“The Storm” had the potential to be one of the better episodes of the miniseries. Unfortunately, it seemed marred by a good deal of mistakes that left the time span rather confusing. The previous episode, “The Shepherds” ended with Levi Zendt leaving Centennial to visit his hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. And since the episode opened with Levi’s arrival in Lancaster, I can only assume that the episode began in the fall of 1881. Levi did not return to Centennial until the onset of winter. And this led me to assume that the episode spanned a few months around the late fall and early winter of 1881. However, certain aspect in the episode seemed to hint that several years, instead of a few months, had passed between Levi’s arrival in Lancaster and the winter storm that finally struck Centennial.

Charles Larson’s screenplay made it clear that Levi’s visit to Pennsylvania did not last that long. In fact, his wife Lucinda and his son, Martin, expressed surprise that he had returned home to Centennial before the winter. And considering that it took seven days to journey by rail from the West Coast to the East Coast; Levi’s journey from Colorado to Pennsylvania should have taken less than seven days. In total, his entire trip should have lasted less than a month. And yet . . . there were signs in the episode that several years had passed since the end of “The Shepherds”. One, the character of Amos Calendar seemed to have aged by a decade. Seriously. While Levi was in Pennsylvania, the Findlay Perkins character had arrived in Centennial. Around the time of his arrival, Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe were behaving like a couple that had been married for several years, instead of honeymooners. More importantly, a semi-manor made of brick (or stones) had replaced the clapboard ranch house that served as Venneford Ranch’s main house. I doubt very much that Seccombe was able erect a small manor house within a month or two. Also, the winter storm that struck the Western Plains occurred in 1886-1887. Levi’s journey to Pennsylvania should have occurred five years later. Larson’s handling of the episode’s time span seemed so sloppy that I could only shake my head in disbelief.

But the episode’s time span was not the only thing that troubled me. The first thirty minutes of “The Storm” featured a number of flashbacks I have not seen since “Only the Rocks Live Forever”. The flashbacks in that first episode made sense. It was the only episode that featured the character of Lame Beaver in the main narrative, yet at the same time, allowed viewers access to the character’s past. Because “The Storm” featured the deaths of Levi Zendt and Mule Canby, viewers were subjected to flashbacks featuring Levi’s journey to the West in “” and the Skimmerhorn cattle drive in “The Longhorns”. Instead of providing background to the characters of Levi and Mule, these flashbacks only dragged the episode’s first half hour.

Thankfully, “The Storm” was not a complete waste of time. It featured some first-rate drama and performances. The episode marked the first appearances of the Wendell family. So far, the family has managed to charm most of Centennial’s citizens with their good manners, verbal skills and acting talent. They have also attracted the suspicion of one Sheriff Axel Dumire. As I had stated earlier, the character of Mule Canby, last seen wounded and hauled to a military fort by R.J. Poteet in “The Longhorns”. He has become a trick shot artist for a circus, with Nacho Gomez as his assistant. Their reunion with former members of the Skimmerhorn drive – Jim Lloyd, John Skimmerhorn and Amos Calendar – provided the episode with a very warm and emotional moment before Canby’s tragic death in a tent fire.

There were two story arcs in “The Storm” that proved to be the highlights of the episodes. One story arc featured Levi and Lucinda’s frustrations with their younger offspring, the unhappy and unstable Clemma. Following his return to Centennial, Levi was surprised by the appearance of his daughter, who was supposed to be going to school in St. Louis. Instead, the couple learned of their wayward daughter’s lurid exploits that included prostitution, jail time and marriage to a bigamist. In a memorable speech, Levi reminded Lucinda that despite the disappointments and unhappy times, they had also experienced many positive things in their lives – including their marriage and the growth of Centennial. Unfortunately, this poignant moment was spoiled by Clemma’s decision to leave town on the first available eastbound train – a decision that led to Levi’s death near the rail tracks during the winter storm.

The storm also featured in a tense plot arc that spelled the possible doom of Oliver Seccombe’s career as a rancher. His handling of the Venneford Ranch’s accounts had led his London bosses to send a Scottish accountant named Findlay Perkins to check the books. Both John Skimmerhorn and Jim Lloyd tried to explain to the accountant that the region’s method of free-range cattle ranching made it impossible to precisely account for every cow or bull on the ranch. Being a very perceptive man, Findlay was still able to discover that Seccombe had been mishandling the ranch’s profits in order to build the new house for his wife, Charlotte. Before Findlay could return to Britain, the storm struck the region, forcing him to remain at Venneford. One of the episode’s highlights proved to be the tense scenes between Findlay and the Seccombes, as they waited out the storm.

The episode’s biggest virtue proved to be the outstanding performances by the cast. Just about everyone in this episode gave top-notch performances. But there were a few I would consider to be the best. One of them came from Gregory Harrison, who made his last appearance as former emigrant-turned-merchant, Levi Zendt. Timothy Dalton and Lynn Redgrave were superb as the besieged Oliver and Charlotte Seccombe, anxious over their future with Venneford Ranch and forced to deal with the likes of Findlay Perkins. Clive Revill gave an excellent performance as the Scottish accountant. And his scenes with Dalton and Redgrave were filled with delicious tension and humor. It was nice to see Greg Mullavey as the always gregarious Mule Canby. And I truly enjoyed the tensions between Brian Keith’s suspcious Sheriff Axel Dumire and the wonderfully scheming Wendells, portrayed by Anthony Zerbe, Lois Nettleton and Doug McKeon. But the stand-out performance came from Adrienne LaRussa’s excellent portrayal of the sad and conflicted Clemma Zendt. LaRussa was superb in conveying all aspects of Clemma’s personality, which included her spiteful teasing of Jim Lloyd, and her insecurities. But she gave an Emmy worthy performance in the scene in which she conveyed Clemma’s pathetic life back East to the Zendts.

It is a pity that “The Storm” was marred by a questionable time span and unnecessary flashbacks. The episode had the potential to be one of the best in the 12-part miniseries. It marked the death of a major character and also a change in Centennial’s history with the end of free-range ranching and the Wendells’ arrival. But some outstanding performances and the winter storm featured still made it one of the more interesting episodes, in the end.