A Story of the Land and the People: Centennial Miniseries

This week, Alex Karras, a defensive tackle for the Detroit Lions passed away. Many will remember him for his excellent play on the field or his nights in the Monday Night Football booth. Or maybe they will remember him as Mongo in Blazing Saddles (1974) or as George Papadapolison the TV series Webster (1983-1987). But to me he will always be Hans Brumbaugh, the immigrant who started out as a gold miner and ended up as a Colorado farmer in the miniseries Centennial.

I have already written about one of my favorite TV miniseries, Lonesome Dove, but another one of my all-time favorites is the 1978 12-part Centennial, which originally ran on TV in two and three hour segments over a four-month period. The show dramatized the settling of the West over centuries by focusing on one town in Colorado. Like many of the 1970s miniseries, the show was a who’s who of TV stars and others, including: Chief Dan George, Robert Conrad, Richard Chamberlain, Lynn Redgrave, Sharon Gless, Timothy Dalton, Barbara Carrera, Robert Vaughn, Brian Keith, Raymond Burr, Richard Crenna, David Janssen, Donald Pleasence, Dennis Weaver and Alex Karras. Another two of the stars, Andy Griffith and Chad Everett, also recently passed away. Rotten Tomatoes reports that at the time, Centennial was the most-expensive, the longest, and most complicated miniseries up to that time, with four directors and more than 100 speaking parts.

When the miniseries first ran, I rushed out and bought the very long book by James Michener, who wrote many other novels adapted for film or TV like South Pacific (1958) and Hawaii (1966). Like many of Michener’s other books, Centennial tells the story of an area in Colorado beginning with the land and following animals and generations of people through centuries. In the TV version, the land formation information is condensed down to a few minutes in the opening clip below and we begin following the people on the land. But even the mentions of the animals and the land foreshadow how they will affect the humans on the land in later episodes. The story really begins when the narration drops off and Robert Conrad appears as a trapper around the 6:30 mark.

While the miniseries and novel are not about real people, many of the characters are based upon real people and many of the events reflect real events. One of the things that makes the series work so well is that Michener and the producers convey real history while also telling compelling stories about people using fiction’s freedoms. Among other things, Michener’s practice of doing extensive research results in a tale that incorporates many people often underrepresented in Westerns. The series’s portrayal of strong pioneer women and the struggles they faced, as well as its portrayal of the tragedies heaped upon the Native Americans will likely go beyond what you might expect from a 1970s TV miniseries.

It is hard to tell a compelling story when a large time period and generations are covered, but the miniseries keeps the focus on several characters from youth to old age. Some of the episodes, such as one about a cattle drive, seems to digress to a new group of characters, but eventually you see the connections. If there is a weakness in the series, it is when it finally jumps ahead to modern times in the final episode and tries to tie all of the history together through a local election. While the final episode does not quite live up to what it should be for such an outstanding miniseries and it does not give the payoff you should get from a 26-1/2-hour series, it does not diminish the enjoyment of the rest of the show. I like what the writers tried to do with the final episode, even if it does not live up to the rest of the series, and the final show goes out on a high note with a touching performance by Merle Haggard. (Spoiler Warning: This segment shows the ending of the series, but it does not really ruin much.)

Conclusion: If you like tales of the American West and do not mind history mixed with fiction if it tells a good story with interesting characters, then check out Centennial, an excellent Western and human saga in the form of a mini-series. The series is available on DVD.

What do you think of Centennial? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    7 thoughts on “A Story of the Land and the People: Centennial Miniseries”

      1. Thanks. I had not thought about it, but I suspect reading James Michener as a teenager may have also played a role in my interest in history. I never read “Chesapeake,” but maybe I’ll check it out.

    1. Great post, Jeff. I too read Michener as a teenager. I met him in college at Sitka, Alaska when he was writing “Alaska”. I guess it was my only brush with celebrity, but a cool one. His books contained so much information about a place.

      1. “Alaska” is the book of his that I read most recently because I was interested in learning more about the one state I have yet to visit (which partly may be the reason I enjoy your blog so much too). A lot of folks seem to recommend his books for learning history about a place. Even though the stories are fictional, it is interesting later to learn how much was based on fact. Thanks for the comment!

      1. I’d never heard of the “Adventures in Paradise” series. I’ll have to keep an eye out for it. Thanks for the comment.

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