Back in the 1970s, in honor of the 200th anniversary of the Declaration on Independence, John Jake wrote a series of eight best selling novels. Collectively know as The Kent Family Chronicles, or The American Bicentennial Series, they tell the story of Phillipe Charboneau, a Frenchmen who travels through England and the New World in Revolutionary times, changing his name to Philip Kent, and interacting with a surprisingly large number of historical figures. The series continues with Philip’s descendants, eventually ending in 1890.
Given the books’ popularity, it should come as no surprise that they would be adapted for the screen. Or, the first three were, anyway, as television miniseries. Acorn Media has released a DVD set of these called The Kent Chronicles. This three disc edition contains the trio of films, broadcast in 1978 and 1979, and each over three hours long.
The first in the series is The Bastard. Here, Phillipe Charboneau (Andrew Stevens, Dallas, The Boondock Saints) is 17-years-old when he learns that he is the son of the Duke of Kent. The Duke is ill and won’t claim his bastard child. Feuding with the legitimate family, and too poor to go home, Phillipe flees to London. There he meets Benjamin Franklin (Tom Bosley, Happy Days), who convinces Phillipe that America is the place to go.
Changing his name to Philip Kent, the protagonist is not in Boston very long before getting involved with the rebels and participating in the Boston Tea Party. Philip concurrently plays a role in the early dispute for the colonies, while haunted by the past he left in England, which follows him across the pond. The Bastard culminates in love and the Battle of Concord.
Picking up months later, The Rebels continues Philip’s role in the war. This takes him away from home, leaving his wife, Anne Kent (Kim Cattrall, Sex and the City) to fend for herself, which, to make a long story short, does not go well.
The Rebels also follows Philip’s friend, Judson Fletcher (Don Johnson, Miami Vice, Nash Bridges), a drunk and a womanizer. Judson’s luck may even by worse than Philip’s, as it’s awfully hard to build a life for oneself when constantly offending others. If only Judson could give up the women and the booze, he might stand a chance.
In the third chapter, The Seekers, the Kent family has grown older. Philip’s son, Abraham (Randolph Mantooth, Emergency!), is the new focus, and he’s trying to build a life on the frontier. Family squabbling rears its ugly head again, resulting in some severe falling outs. Eventually the family is caught up in the War of 1812.
After watching The Kent Chronicles, it’s really a shame more adaptations weren’t made from the rest of the books. The Bastard and The Rebels tells Philip’s tale pretty completely. But The Seekers mostly sets up his kids and grandkids for stories that never make it to screen. The books have the luxury of additional volumes. This DVD set does not, making the third installment, while still enjoyable, inferior to the first two.
On the whole though these are excellent specials, and a big draw is seeing all of the famous faces that pop up throughout the saga. William Shatner (Star Trek, Boston Legal) plays Paul Revere. Buddy Ebsen (The Beverly Hillbillies) is Benjamin Edes. Lorne Green (Bonanza) is Bishop Francis. Peter Graves (Mission: Impossible, Airplane!) plays George Washington. Harry Morgan (M*A*S*H), John de Lancie (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Jim Backus (Gilligan’s Island), William Daniels (Boy Meets World), Robert Vaughn (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Delta Burke (Designing Women), Robert Reed (The Brady Bunch), Ed Harris (The Hours), Olivia Hussey (Romeo & Juliet), and Eric Stoltz (Caprica) also appear, among others.
The Kent Chronicles is sort of like a Roots for white people. Yes, the suffering is often brought more upon themselves in this series than the historic African-American one. But it depicts several generations of a family, showing the story of how they got to America, and what happened after. It’s also a little bit like Forrest Gump in that the fictional narrative is interwoven with many important real events. It might not be quite as entertaining or renowned as either of those, but it’s still a very good story, well executed here.
The Kent Chronicles is most definitely a product of the era in which it was made. More soapy than political, the budget wasn’t available to get too gritty or realistic. The story frequently sways into the cheesy and melodramatic. However, if you keep in mind not only the time period in which the action is set, but also when the miniseries were made, it’s easy to just enjoy this escapist television, not worrying about plot holes or historical inconsistencies.
Visually, too, The Kent Chronicles is a bit lacking by today’s standards, but perfectly acceptable for the time. The quality isn’t bad for the late 1970s, though one wishes a little more work would have been put into restoring it. It’s presented full screen. But given that this is the only release available for these shows, most fans will just be grateful for any edition.
Sadly, there is a severe lack of bonus features. All that is included is a two minute trailer and a biography of the books’ author, John Jakes. Couldn’t the actors have been interviewed? Historians consulted to give perspective? Ah, well. Maybe, if The Kent Chronicles sells well enough, we’ll get extras and a better restoration when it comes out on Blu-ray.
The Kent Chronicles is available now wherever DVDs are sold.