When the auspicious 20-year run of Gunsmoke came to an end, executive producer Toronto-born John Mantley, his star James Arness, and his writing and directing team turned to an epic television series inspired by the epic sweep of the 1962 film How the West Was Won. Set in the tumultuous years of the American Civil War, Zebulon Macahan, a respected frontier scout returns to Virginia to assist his brother's family in moving west to avoid the conflict. Avoiding the Civil War proves impossible, but the family does become part of the migration.
The series premiered in 1976 with four episodes and concluded with 11 episodes in its third season in 1979. We are looking at the epic opening episodes of season 2 from 1978 with Christopher Lee among its distinguished guest cast.
Zeb Macahan is in the Dakotas where the State Department, through Major Drake (Peter Hansen) requests his expertise as a hunter and scout. A party of Russian noblemen led by The Grand Duke Dimitri (Christopher Lee), the Csar's brother no less, are making a grand tour. They wish to hunt; they wish to hunt buffalo, 200 or so kills should satisfy their plans. Zeb wants nothing to do with the entitled noblemen, particularly the arrogant nephew Sergei (Horst Buchholz). Zeb is friends with the Sioux and he will not trespass on their territory nor do anything to the buffalo stock so necessary to their survival. Zeb walks away from the government's "offer."
Major Drake turns to the talents of another scout Coulee John Brinkerhoff (Cameron Mitchell). Brinkerhoff hates all Indians and his agenda includes deliberate trespass of treaty lands and antagonizing the Sioux into a fight. Face to face with the Sioux, the Grand Duke understands the concept of discretion being the better part of valour while the hotheaded Sergei treats the Sioux as if they were Russian serfs. The result of the confrontation finds Sergei and his mistress Valerie (Trisha Noble) taken captive and one cavalry officer dead.
The war chief of the Sioux, Santangkai (Ricardo Montalban - Emmy winner) is justifiably angry. He will keep the unlooked-for Russian hostages until the American government admits their intrusion onto Sioux land and the killing of the buffalo. He seeks retribution. Santangkai tells all of this to his friend Zeb Macahan, who will relay the terms of releasing the hostages to the man now in charge, General Stonecipher (Brian Keith).
General Stonecipher has his own opinion on the circumstances. He knows they are in the wrong and therefore must assert themselves to save face. He will do his duty; he will not deny the facts. Zeb Macahan has his opinion and he leaves the Fort to offer his assistance to Satangkai. "Are you going to make the whole Sioux nation suffer because of one man, General? One man who was such a jackass, it was a miracle he didn't get killed years ago?"
The Grand Duke has an opinion that he does not keep to himself. The trip to the American frontier has opened his eyes to much, and that much is that America is a failed experiment. "You! How dare you speak of Sergei in that manner? I will not tolerate this, General. Sergei lost his life as a direct result of this man's miscalculations and he is paid to know that the Savage can't be trusted. You cannot let him go. I insist that he be punished."