“’The Most Gentle of Men’: Revising the Western Hero in NBC’s Centennial”

Curator's Note

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.


What strikes me here is the inversion of hard and soft masculinity, where Pasquinel's sensitivity is associated with nature and is opposed by a rugged (rather than effete) Capitalism. Typically, city riches are imagined as making men soft. Of course, I might be overestimating the oppositions here. Pasquinel might embody a lamented form of labor not sullied by the market, but still fully immersed in the myth of rugged individualism. His dance with McKeag mirrors them, pointing to their shared bond, rather than highlighting their differences. And, of course, I hate to go old school Steve Neale here, but since this is the 1970s, you gotta love how the move from courtship to bedroom is interrupted by McKeag's near-death experience. Violence (although unseen and located in the past) once again masks male eroticism.

This makes me look forward to the DVD release! 1970s and early '80s mini-series and MFTV movies are woefully underexplored texts, as the richness of this example demonstrates. The feminized masculinity of this case so perfectly parallels the negotiations over femininity in this era. McKeag is both undeniably manly in his rugged toughness yet also clearly gentle, nurturing, so much an attempt to "balance" the blurred lines of sexual difference with assertions of essential maleness. Very similar to the TV movies of the era featuring sexy women--a la Charlie's Angels--being tough and brave, an essentialized femaleness presented as the antidote to their conventionally masculine attitudes and behaviors. I'm wondering if Centennial has any representations of men whose "balance" of the masculine and the feminine is out of whack, who are too feminine and thus presented as deviant? (TV movies of the era such as The Oklahoma City Dolls and S.H.E. have these kinds of overly masculine female characters as limit-cases.)

I agree Elana that telefilms from this period are quite the untapped resource. And I can't help thinking about Saturday Night Fever and the disco context when I see this spectacle of men dancing from 1978. Not even the heavy frontier garb of Chamberlain and Conrad can fully counter the queer associations here. I haven't seen the miniseries (26 hours!), but I'm interested in whether there's a particularly racialized coding to "gentleness" in this context. Is it specifically white manhood being tempered here, or does the miniseries present a broader framework for revising manhood post-Vietnam?

Allison, thanx for calling my attention to this as I'm writing a dissertation on paranoia films of the 70s (w/ an emphasis on their troubling of straight white masculinity). So the 70s "Anti-westerns" (some paranoid, some merely critical of the establishment) are fairly important. Had no idea abt this one. What seems important to me is the long history of "deconstructionist" genre films that suggest this wasnt anything new, even if it probly was out-of-step w/ audiences as u suggest, like DePalma's Blow Out appearing to late in the paranoia cycle. E.g., Fuller was deconstructing the macho western hero in 49's I Shot Jesse James and Ford did the same w/ the Cowboy-Indian opposition in Cheyenne Autumn (64) and the Searchers (56). I cant offer much on what u showed other than to echo Elaine. I'll check it out for sure. But most anti-Westerns of the 60s/70s are less racially progressive than Searchers at the end of the day, from Little Big Man to McCabe, tho they were hailed by critics at the time. Given that, I'm wondering abt the racial dynamics of Centennial?

Avi—We are definitely dealing with a brand of rugged individualism, but it is a specifically 70s counterculture version and primarily honors physical labor that benefits the local community and doesn’t hurt the environment: farmers, traders, small store owners, shepherds (the cowboy is defined here as “a man who tends cows,” another revision of a western icon). Regarding your violence/eroticism point, I would point out that the two are not mutually exclusive and a product of reception more than anything – and certainly the spectacle of the more effeminate male “topping” the more macho here (if you read it erotically) is characteristic of the program’s privileging of the gentle man over the aggressive one. Elana, Joe & Greg—Elana, Yes, I agree that the series is a good counterpoint to the tough (but still pretty!) females of the 70s, but to your question, there are in fact no male characters here who are portrayed as too feminine, but there are plenty who are portrayed as too masculine. Masculine aggression, except in self-defense, is always presented as either a character flaw or a result of childhood trauma, and this is a problem regarding racial differences, which addresses Joe and Gregg’s concerns. While tempering white masculinity is the program’s core concern, the overall indictment of masculine aggression applies to non-whites as well. While it is made clear that Native Americans’ oppression, anger and despair drive them to violent actions that are presented as intellectually understandable, the characters who commit them are not empathetic and are often antagonistic to our peacemaker heroes. The program is clearly much more comfortable portraying Native Americans and Mexicans as passive victims of white aggression and bigotry, which better makes the series’ point about white culpability (the Vietnam context is very obvious here), but is deeply reductive in ways similar to the revisionist western films that Greg mentions here.

Excellent clip and comments. I'm struck as well by how these representations are tucked away in historical dramas throughout that era. Roots, for example, has similar scenes of masculine (and feminine) bonding that recast eighteenth and nineteenth century cross-gender/race/class/etc. encounters in idealized post-60s rhetoric. There's much of this going on earlier as well, in the "adult" TV westerns of the late 50s and early 60s, though there progressive masculinity is clearly coded as "tough" and "rational" (e.g., Paladin in the series Have Gun Will Travel, which I highly recommend). That these codes only flourished in historical dramas of the time (often with "real" historical figures) is fascinating.

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