Americana / Books / literature / Television

You have to watch “Centennial”!

You have to watch “Centennial”!


Ok, but first you should read Centennial.

In 1999 I decided to tackle James Michener’s celebrated novel about rugged Colorado…if for no other reason than I was getting ready to move there in just a few months. So, while on vacation in Malaysia I spent about 4 days where I scarcely left the hotel pool.

My routine would be a dip in the water, then walk back to my deck chair, light up a cigar (ah, the glory days of when I was still able to smoke them πŸ™‚ and lounge in paradise while being mesmerized by one of the best pieces of storytelling I had ever read.

When I finished reading the book my mom (who was also a big fan) bought me the complete NBC mini-series done back in 1978. At over 20 hours in length, the Centennial miniseries has been the only attempt to capture one of Mitchner’s novels in its entirety on film. As a family, we probably watch it every 2-3 years but recently the whole series has been put out on DVD. So, I decided it was time to retire the videos…

And what’s great about the series:

The story: Its the story of America…warts and all. It spans almost 200 years starting with the late 1700’s and ending in the 1970’s. You get to follow beloved characters as youngsters, watch them marry, raise families, grow old and finally die. You see it all; the settlement of the American West, the tragic displacement of the American Indian, the range wars, the cattle drives, famines, storms, immigration…the story of our country. Its no surprise that the series is sometimes shown in high school American history classes.

The Characters James Michener writes some good novels, and I’ve read many of them, but in Centennial he outdoes even himself. From the French Trapper Pasquinel to the Scotsman Alexander McKeag, the Mennonite Levi Zendt to the potato farmer Hans Brumbaugh I get caught up in the lives of these characters like few other stories. It brings one back to a primal time when two men’s bonds of trust were cemented because they approached each other “without fear.”

The “half-breed”, Jaq Pasquinel is perhaps one of the most interesting characters portrayed. Horribly brutal one moment, merciful the next…he is caught between two cultures and not fully accepted by either. One moment I “hate” him, the next, I pity him. The complexity of the character defies sterotypes.


(A good scene from the movie with an aging Pasquinel (Robert Conrad) and his now adult son, Jaq)

The Actors For a guy like me whose formative years were honed on 70’s and 80’s television, the actors who bring Centennial to life are a “whose who” of the times. Richard Chamberlain as McKeag, Robert Conrad as Pasqunel. There is Lynn Redgrave, Timothy Dalton, Gregory Harrison, and Robert Vaughn. A baby faced Mark Harmon stands out when he defies orders to gun down innocent Indians, invoking a court martial in the process. Watching Dennis Weaver play the tough but fair cattle man R.J. Poteet, I’m struck by the thought of what the world could be if men like him actually existed.

But what shines most is Michener’s story of the human condition. Innocent people sometimes die, the criminal sometimes goes unpunished, hard work is not always rewarded but through it all, good does shine through.

I encourage you to get a copy of Centennial which you can do here and spend a few evenings watching a great story about America.

3 comments

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  • I am embarrassed to admit that I have never read any of Michener. My mother was also a huge fan. That’s it, off to the library, and maybe I’ll start with this one.

  • Good on you Bob! I starred at Michener books for years frightened by the size. I read “The Source” first (Another I highly recommend).

    Word of advice…I only scanned the first section of the book talking about the geological formation of Colorado…you may want to do the same.

  • Hey something we agree on. πŸ™‚

    Love Michener’s stuff. Harder to read these days due to cognitive issues. (now what did he say 500 pages ago?)

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