Indian have many flashback.

White man have no flashback.

This is one way you tell them apart in "Centennial," the 26-hour serial that NBC and Universal Studios have made from James Michener's swollen historical novel about the American West.

The first three-hour chapter of this saga, at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 4, looks more like a tableau than a television film. But perhaps it is appropriate that everything seems to take forever to happen, because this is a simplistic epic on the theme of foreverness.

"Only the rocks live forever" we are told three times during the program, and twice in the first 15 minutes narrator David Jassen, emphatically the wrong man for the job, says that this or that event will "change forever" the way of life or the course of destiny or some other huge thematic blimp. "Roots" had its rhetorical strain, but it wasn't half as pretentious or sanctimonious as this.

The opening chapter, however, written and produced by John Wilder and Directed with more sensitivity than is usual in television by Virgil W. Vogel, is an uncommonly handsome mockchronicle. The cinematography conveys a sense of life outdoors that you rarely get from claustrophobic TV, and the sights of brooks babbling and horses galloping become sensually invigorating in themselves.

The portrayal of Indians ranges from deferential to reverential. "The Indians know more about life than any of us, maybe," says Raymond Burr at one point. How lithe and handsome they are or, in the case of Barbara Carrera as a maiden named Clay Basket, how almost ridiculously beautiful. The treatment is so chicspirited you almost expect a casual mention of saving-the-whales or ending industrial pollution.

But there comes a flashback in the second hour which really does have a poignant lyrical sense to it, when a Pawnee chief is called upon to recount how he proved his manhood to the tribes as a youth by acquiring for them a herd of horses from another tribe. The adversaries are so impressed with this show of courage that they cheer him.

The starchy stately pace of the program is not its undoing so much as its array of howlish miscastings. Robert Conrad as the invading French trapper Pasquinel sounds like he's doing Steve Martin's wild and crazy Czech accent; he speaks of "my fodder" and "yer brudder" and says, "De smell is bod." Robert Walden, reporter Joe Rossi on "Lou Grant," looks so uncomfortable in his period togs and wig that one can't help sharing his embarassment.

Janssen is a particularly poor choice to narrate anything but an aspirin commercial; that raspy, logy rumble does not snare one's attention.

With the sonorous Burr around, and presumably available, it's especially grating, and the narration goes on and on at the outset, later returning in sudden unexpected little bursts.

"Centennial" is by no stretch a diser's own "South Pacific," but a tenderly erotic interlude in a field is ended abruptly by Chamberlain with a "We better go."

Go???

Soon Conrad is back to remind us - again - that "only the rocks live forever." From the way "Centennial" depicts frontier life, they may also be the only ones to have any fun. [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] reputable piece of work. In fact it might have profited from a less lofty approach. Viewers may find themselves not only chuckling at such Indian names as Chief Lame Beaver (won't Johnny Carson have fun with that one?) but also yearning for a bit of gratuitous sex or violence.

Richard Chamberlain and Carrera, for instance, have a nascent romantic relationship that curiously isn't allowed to go anywhere. It is clearly reminiscent of the affair between the native girl and Lt. Cable in Michen-[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]