“’The Most Gentle of Men’: Revising the Western Hero in NBC’s Centennial”
by Allison McCracken — DePaul University
March 17, 2008 – 03:01
In October of 1978, the 26-hour miniseries of James A Michener’s novel of American Western development, Centennial, debuted, hyped as the biggest television event of the year. Although it proved very popular with audiences, it did not have the critical or cultural legs of either of its predecessors, Roots or Holocaust. The series was, if anything, too much a product of its time, a 70s-specific revisionist history that appeared just as political tides were turning right. Centennial directly, repeatedly, even exhaustively indicts the American government, military, and big business for, among other crimes, the destruction of Native American peoples, rampant corruption and ineptitude, and doing permanent damage to the environment. Centennial’s heroes are post-Vietnam, countercultural, god-in-nature 70s liberals whose struggles to stand up for the oppressed are invariably thwarted by greedy career-men and the institutions they serve. Centennial embraces feminine values both ideologically and structurally: our heroes privilege their emotional connections and the community good over any professional ambitions. Moreover, the serial form that frames these men never allows for any conventionally masculinist forms of closure, triumph or real progress. Centennial’s two-hundred year time span, in fact, continually reinforces the long-term devastating effects of American policies, and its central males are deemed heroic because they struggle for justice in the face of ceaseless frustration and almost certain defeat.
Centennial will finally be released on DVD this July, and I offer this sneak peak of a representative scene that also highlights one of the series’ greatest pleasures: the long and close relationship between the sensitive Scottish trapper McKeag, played by Richard Chamberlain in his first mini-series, and Pasquinel, the fearless but greedy-for-gold (and therefore deeply flawed) French-Canadian trapper, played by the macho Robert Conrad. McKeag is the series’ first hero and an icon of 70s masculinity: beautiful, compassionate, wise, a peacemaker capable of both intense joy and anguish but whose life is, in typical Centennial fashion, marked much more by the latter than the former. His dance with Pasquinel in this scene is predictably interrupted by the pain from a long-embedded Pawnee arrow in Pasquinel’s back, which requires McKeag to plunge a knife into his friend’s lower back to remove it. After the makeshift surgery, a grateful Pasquinel praises McKeag with the series’ greatest compliment: “you are the most gentle of men.” This scene exemplifies a specifically 1970s media masculinity, both for the way in which emotional, even homoerotic, connections between men are celebrated rather than denigrated and for Centennial’s insistence that such affective ties can never truly be removed from the ache of history.