In "Dream West," the seven-hour CBS mini-series that begins its three-night run at 9 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 9, Richard Chamberlain plays John Charles Fre'mont, the famous explorer who helped open up the American West. Opening up the west was his dream. Hence the title.
"The future's in the West, Jessie," Chamberlain says breathlessly to Alice Krige as his wife. "That's where the dream is!" Of a transcontinental railroad that will "unite the country," he earlier exults, "That's my dream. That's why we're here." To a friend, Jessie Fre'mont says of her husband's latest westward trek, "This is his dream, Maria!"
Yes, of such dreams are nations built. And yet after an hour or two of this laborious historical groaner, one may feel a distinct inclination to urge upon Mr. Fre'mont a course of action best summarized in the simple phrase, "Take your dream and shove it."
Chamberlain is being called "king of the mini-series" since this is his umpteenth starring role in a long-form pageant. He's king of the mini-series for the reason Charlton Heston was once king of the biblical epic: He's bland and dull and his anonymity seems to wear well over long periods. But "Dream West" taxes his staying powers, as well as a viewer's.
Of course, there is the distraction of watching the hair on his face emerge and disappear. He goes from clean-shaven to mustache to Don Johnsonian stubble to full beard and back again, then starts the cycle over. California is always just a beard away.
Except for some spectacular scenery and a few charges set off by Fre'mont's conflict with an imperious Army officer (G.D. Spradlin, the immaculate villain, as Gen. Steven Watts Kearny), "Dream West" is slow, trite and corny, not so much a mini-series as a collection of various bad movies like they don't make any more, and shouldn't.
Krige, bewitchingly ethereal in such films as "Ghost Story," gets weighted down here by the banality of her feisty southern belle role, and by some rather helplessly funny antebellum maternity gowns that surely must have required the widening of a few doorways on the old "Dream West" set.
While on the one hand it's encouraging that this film is the story of a marriage, a nearly lifelong partnership, and not just a glorification of a male American hero, the wife's part, as written by Evan Hunter (adapting David Nevin's novel), seems to be the kind of thing Greer Garson might have fluttered gallantly through in the '40s.
To her friend Maria (looker Gayle Hunnicutt in the definitive thankless role), Krige has her own dreamy-western announcement to make. "Charles is going to make a mark on our time," she says, "and I want to be with him when he does. To help him! To share with him! To pause love him!"
Over the three nights, there'll be plenty of slightly yummy dialogue, it's true: "My name's Carson, Christopher; folks call me 'Kit.' " "I do believe that squaw with the claw necklace has her eye on you." "There's no mountain can't be beat." "Let's go butcher those mules." "Wellsir, you try tellin' that to the Sioux."
Not to mention this duel-inducer that nevertheless fails to induce a duel: "You're a butt-kisser, Fre'mont!"
Still, "Dream West" is never quite camp, and yet never quite good, either.
The film chronicles Fre'mont's expeditions (seemingly, every step of some of them) and his returns home to impregnate his wife. Rip Torn, who does contribute some daffy vitality as Kit Carson, offers Fre'mont a cup of fresh buffalo blood after a spectacular buffalo-hunting sequence in the second hour of Part 1. The director, Dick Lowry, is a specialist at outdoorsy stuff.
To give the film some excuse for drama, Hunter has these terrible arguments blow in out of nowhere, whether between Chamberlain and Krige, or Chamberlain and Spradlin, or Krige and F. Murray Abraham as Abraham Lincoln, or F. Murray Abraham Lincoln, in Part 3. President James Polk is also portrayed (by Noble Willingham), and according to the script, Polk was a fink. Not just a fink, but a rat fink. Not just a rat fink, but a real rat fink a boo boo.
In the early scenes, we are to accept Krige playing a girl of 16 (other characters keep telling her she's "a grown woman" to help on the credulity front) and Chamberlain as a young man of 27. Before it's all over, they are into their sixties and seventies, and still boring. "I made a lot of mistakes, didn't I?" he asks her on a train plunging across a starry, starry landscape. The film paints Fre'mont as a vague cliche' hero and suggests the only time his vanity and pomposity got the better of him was when he was an officer in the Union Army. But then, he "never did understand politics," he says, and we're clearly meant to take that as one of his virtues.
The Fre'monts were devoted abolitionists, it is stated, but they still had servants, and it's dismaying to see capable black actors having to play servile, groveling roles. Sally the maid is dispatched to the doctor as Mrs. Fre'mont goes into labor, and the way the film is written and played, you half-expect her to say she doesn't know nothin' 'bout birthin' babies as she skedaddles out the door.
In Part 2, Fre'mont and a small battalion almost do battle against Mexican troops on a hillside in California. But bloodshed is averted. A soldier says, "You look like you're plum disappointed, Captain," and Fre'mont replies, "Maybe I am." Even a tolerant viewer with a lapful of magazines as company may feel a similar sentiment after hours of dreary talk and slack pseudo-history. "Dream West" is a plum disappointment.
'Return to Mayberry'
If there can be TV movies reviving such prehistoric sitcoms as "Gilligan's Island" and "I Dream of Jeannie" -- and there have been -- then there certainly is a place for "Return to Mayberry," an NBC movie that reunites much of the cast of the old "Andy Griffith Show." It airs tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4.
Griffith's happily homespun show was a deservedly popular item on CBS for eight television seasons. Throughout the run, there was always something humane about the program. It had good manners. It was kind hearted. Of few TV comedies can those things be said.
The fictional town of Mayberry, N.C., stood tall aside Andy Hardy's old Carvel or even, perhaps, Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners -- patently idealized American communities. Those who tune in the new 1986 revival will find that Mayberry is still a respite from the cold, rude frenzy of the modern world.
But it may be untouched by time in too many ways. After all these years, one would think that a few black, Hispanic and/or Asian families might have settled down in such an idyllic minitopia. The film gives the impression that an absence of ethnic minorities contributes to civic tranquility.
In fact, aside from the pleasure to be derived from seeing most of the old Mayberry regulars together again, the film is a fluffy kind of letdown. The characters haven't really progressed, the movie doesn't consider how the past two decades of change might have affected the sleepy village (you keep wondering if they have cable TV yet), and the basic story is a thin farce about an alleged sea monster taking up residence in Myer's Lake.
If you're going to get Andy Griffith, Don Knotts, Ron Howard and Jim Nabors together again after so many years, you really ought to come up with a better excuse than this. With the addition of Howard Morris and Denver Pyle (the latter better known for his role on the oafish "Dukes of Hazzard" series) as a couple of hillbilly buffoons, the sentimentality quotient sinks and the fatuity factor skyrockets.
Griffith and Knotts remain a prize team, however, and they still possess the old chemistry. Nabors pairs again with George Lindsey as Goober at the old G&G Garage, where nothing is in working order, including the proprietors. Aneta Corsaut and Betty Lynn return as Helen Crump Taylor (the sheriff's former girlfriend, now his wife) and Thelma Lou, who is still hoping to marry feckless Fife.
Jack Dodson returns, too, as Howard Sprague, and Hal Smith is back as Otis Campbell, the town drunk who is now several years into sobriety and driving an ice cream truck. But Howard McNear, who so memorably played Floyd the Barber, died in 1967, while the original series was still on the air. Frances Bavier, long the wise Aunt Bee, was too ill to make the new film, so her character now lies in the Mayberry cemetery, to which Andy Taylor pays a respectful visit.
Griffith, as likable and reliable as the character he plays, gets to pay tribute to the great American small town in a toast near the film's end. "There's something about Mayberry and Mayberry folk that never leaves you," he says. "No matter where life takes you, you always carry in your heart the memories of old times and old friends." For all its deficiencies, "Return to Mayberry" does bring those old times and those old friends back again.