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

684027_original

 

“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.

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

centennial 10.1

 

“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.