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During the ‘70s, the networks went mini-series crazy. The success of Rich Man, Poor Man and Roots made this revolutionary format a hit with viewers and critics. Large books sprawled across numerous nights of viewing instead of being squeezed into a two hour movie of the week. The mini-series became ratings juggernauts. Who would put down a book in the middle of a chapter? Audiences stayed glued to the tube for the entire run. Into this fertile valley arrived James A Michener’s Centennial, the most massive of novels. For twenty six hours over the course of 12 days, the story of Colorado and the town of Centennial unfolded.
The sweeping story begins in 1795 as Pasquinel, a trapper from Quebec (Robert Conrad from The Wild Wild West), discovers the amazing wildlife on the rivers of Colorado. He racks up the beaver pelts as fast as he can skin them. The local Arapaho Indians trade even more pelts to him for beads, bracelets and a gun. He’s a beaver king. Back in St. Louis he makes a deal with a merchant (Raymond Burr) to back his trading and trapping trips. In order to seal the deal, Conrad marries Burr’s daughter (Sally Kellerman). Conrad isn’t close to being a city slicker. He heads back to Colorado and frees a captured Scotsman (Richard Chamberlin) from the Pawnee. The two trappers form a partnership. In order to get on the good side of the Arapaho, Conrad marries the chief’s daughter (Barbara Carrera). He leads this bigamist double life to uncover the source of gold that the Arapaho use as an ordinary metal. Things get tense since Chamberlin has the hots for Carrera. She also likes the furry man from the land of plaid more than her husband. How long can the trappers be pals before they skin each other?
Not to give away any real plot, but Chamberlin sets up a trading post. This establishment leads to the birth of a town that’s eventually called Centennial. This taming of the land eventually leads to a range war between cattlemen and sheep ranchers. The stories of urban growth end in the 1970s when Andy Griffith arrives in town. He’s a professor researching the area. The future of the town is being fought over by David Janseen (The Fugitive) and Robert Vaughn (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.). Andy uncovers human remains that threaten to unravel one family’s fortune.
Centennial is an epic of the small screen. While they call it a mini-series, there’s nothing mini about it. You can’t just plop down and watch it on a lazy Sunday. This is longer than an HBO series. This wasn’t merely shot on backlots and soundstages. The action takes place on locations that give us a sense of the untamed wilderness before it was conquered by real estate developers. The screen is packed with stars. Besides the previously mentioned actors, we get Richard Crenna, Timothy Dalton, Chad Everett, Sharon Gless, Merle Haggard, Mark Harmon, Gregory Harrison, Alex Karras, Brian Keith, Donald Pleasence, Lynn Redgrave, Dennis Weaver, Stephanie Zimbalist and George Clooney in a bit part as an Indian. While certain elements of ‘70s TV have be come majorly cheesy over the years, this mini-series maintains a novelistic dignity. This is a page turning Bestseller brought to life. Sure you’ll snicker at the wig job on Chamberlin, but that’s the only shaggy part of the production. Centennial reminds us of that time when networks cared about engrossing us in drama instead of disgusting us with gameshows.
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The transfer is top notch and relatively clean. You don’t see too much dust on the prairie. The audio is in Dolby Digital Mono 2.0. The levels are fine for a series shot with such vastness. The subtitles are English.
Memories of Centennial (17:39) is has recent interviews with cast and crew about the huge production. Unfortunately they don’t reunite Richard Chamberlin with his production hair. Robert Conrad talks about how he wasn’t the first choice.
Centinnel rates up with Roots, Rich Man, Poor Man and Shogun in the cream of the mini-series. While the running time is extreme, the stories are blocked off in their various time periods. You can watch it over several nights. It’s hard to conceive an audience in the era before the VCR having to schedule their time to not miss a night. Luckily we don’t have that problem in the 21st century.
Universal Studios Home Entertainment presents James A. Michener’s Centennial. Directed by: Harry Falk, Paul Krasny, Bernard McEveety & Virgil W. Vogel. Starring: Robert Conrad, Andy Griffith, Dennis Weaver, Timothy Dalton. Written by: Charles Larson, John Wilder & Jerry Ziegman. Running time: 20 hours 52 minutes on 6 discs. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: July 29, 2008. Available at Amazon.com