In modern times, Thanksgiving is a feel-good holiday celebrating family, peace and the American spirit of freedom, but the real story behind the holiday is much darker that that. It’s a story marked by turmoil, hardship and death. What we learned in grade school about intrepid colonists who came to the New World on the Mayflower and invited the natives to a friendly feast is a sanitized version of history that’s exposed in Ric Burns’ eye-opening film “The Pilgrims.”
Narrated by Oliver Platt and featuring the late Roger Rees (“Cheers,” “The West Wing”) reading from the writings of Plymouth colony Gov. William Bradford, the film reveals the truth behind the Pilgrims’ motives, the harrowing voyage and harsh conditions they endured and how they really treated the natives they encountered.
In advance of the Nov. 24 premiere (repeating Nov. 26), Burns explains how he brought this important history to the screen.
Why is this a compelling story?
The story of the Pilgrims has become the American story of origins — our origin myth, in fact. We need to understand who these people were, where they come from, what made the Old World intolerable to them, what happened to them along the way and maybe most important: how and why we have come to remember them as we do.
Most of us have only the haziest idea who the pilgrims were and where they came from and why they came. We know them technically to have been English but we tend to think of them as instant Americans, because we think of them as having embodied virtues we like to think of as American. That is, that they came for freedom; that they were deeply religious; that they went through great hardship and adversity; that they were gentle and peace-loving and that they were welcoming to and welcomed by indigenous peoples. All of it nourishes a notion very central to American identity: the idea of American exceptionalism — that we are somehow a special and different people — set apart by Providence or God, selected out for a special destiny. In other words, we have a strong urge to disconnect ourselves from history, and from our English roots and European Old World past, and in so doing, we lose sight of the real story of the English origins of America.
What did you want to convey?
We wanted viewers to understand the Pilgrims in their own terms, not in ours. The Pilgrims were Separatists, radical Protestant extremists convinced that the Protestant Reformation hadn’t gone anywhere near far enough in the England of Elizabeth I and James I. They were convinced that the Protestant Church of England presided over by the monarch contained too many holdovers from the Catholic Church of Rome, and that to get right with God and try to save themselves from eternal perdition, they would have to separate from the Anglican Church altogether and form their own “conventicles” without bishops, without rituals; in fact, without physical churches at all, especially those presided over by priests claiming to have unique access to the Word of God.
For Separatists, the real church lay in the unique relationship of each human soul to God, whose truth and word was equally accessible to all through Scripture. For the Pilgrims, the only real and holy church was wherever true believers gathered together in Christ’s name. Everything depended upon nothing less than the fate of their eternal souls. And in the end, that conviction drove them to separate from the Church of England (a crime against the crown), from England itself (to the Netherlands, initially, then the most liberal Protestant republic in Europe), and finally from the Old World altogether.
What are the biggest misconceptions and myths about the Pilgrims and Thanksgiving that you wanted to clear up?
People tend to think that the Pilgrims believed in religious freedom. They didn’t. They were looking for a place where they could be free to worship as they wished, a freedom they had no impulse to extend to anyone else. They did not believe in diversity of practice. They believed in purity, in expelling contaminating influences. The freedom they helped give rise to was an inadvertent consequence of their radical Protestant beliefs.
What do you think will surprise the audience most?
It was so much darker than we imagine. The suffering and the violence were so much greater. The likelihood that they succeeded was so small. Death played a huge role in almost every aspect of the story: they came to a place of mass death, where Native Americans had been decimated by one of the worst plagues in history, and where the Pilgrims themselves would lose half of their number in the first three months. The Pilgrims’ relationship with Native Americans was at times more violent than we like to remember. We dwell on Thanksgiving, which didn’t really happen the way we think it did, but fail to register the decapitated head of the Massachusetts leader, Wituwamut, that was placed over the meeting house at Plymouth Plantation in 1623, to be a “Terror unto the countryside,” as William Bradford reported.
I think people will be surprised by almost everything: by the radical nature of the Pilgrims’ beliefs; by their almost complete lack of preparation for what lay ahead of them; by the fact that they were the least likely of task forces to attempt to found a permanent English presence in the New World; by the fact that, though we think of them as the “first comers” — a phrase they used for themselves — they weren’t even the first permanent English settlers in America, having been beaten to the punch in 1607 — 13 years before the Mayflower sailed — by the colonists at Jamestown.
They weren’t meant to have ended up on the site of present day New York, but decided to land off the shores of Massachusetts when they were caught in dangerous shoal water, well north of the legal patent they carried from the Virginia Company, thus making the Pilgrims, in that respect at least, the first illegal aliens. The place they settled on to build their plantation — what the Wampanoags called Patuxet and what the explorer John Smith called New Plymouth — was actually ground zero for the worst virgin soil epidemic in recorded history, a horrific plague, brought over in 1616 by European fishermen, that swept a twenty mile swath down the New England seaboard, killing anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the native populations in its path and totally annihilating the approximately 2,000 Wamanoag residents of Patuxet.
The Pilgrims’ first winter wasn’t just hard: it was nearly annihilating, and devastating and traumatic in ways we can hardly imagine. More than half of the 102 passengers of the Mayflower died in the first three months, wiping out five whole families, and leaving no family intact and not grieving. With the exception of their alliance with the Wampanoags, the Pilgrims’ relation with other Native American groups was marked by conflict, suspicion, competition and violence, culminating in a horrific spasm of bloodshed in March 1623 in the killing by Miles Standish and seven other colonists of seven Massachusetts Sachems and the decapitation of the leader, Wittawamut.
For nearly a decade, the colonists couldn’t find a way to make ends meet — they went bankrupt in 1626, only to find an eleventh hour economic salvation in 1628 in the form of beaver fur harvested from the Kennebeck River valley in Maine. Material success, in the end, was the one challenge the Pilgrims could not overcome, as William Bradford’s beloved religious experiment found itself fragmented and abandoned in the aftermath of the founding of Boston.
Why did you decide to focus on William Bradford? What surprising things did you learn about him?
We would scarcely remember the Pilgrims at all, and certainly not as we do without William Bradford, an orphan boy from Yorkshire who became the most famous Pilgrim of them all, governor for more than thirty years and the chief guardian and caretaker of their memory, and without the extraordinary text he left behind: “Of Plymouth Plantation,” the first great work of American literature and history. There is literally no other account of early American settlement like it, and none that shows us what the inside of a radical Protestant conventicle was like, from the earliest days in the North Parts of England, through their escape to Holland in 1608, and then across the Atlantic in 1620 and on. The story of the book itself — why and how William Bradford wrote it, and how the text itself was almost lost forever to posterity — is a gripping, riveting tale, that sheds enormous light on how history and memory are shaped by a heart-stopping blend of accident, circumstance and the powerfully transforming lens of posterity.
The fact that we have the book at all is a more than minor miracle. It was looted from Boston in 1777 by the retreating British army, given up for lost for eighty years, and almost accidentally rediscovered just before the American Civil War, when a scholar in Boston was flabbergasted to read unmistakable quotations from the missing Bradford text in a new English history of the Anglican church in America, published in London in 1855. It took more than forty years to finally repatriate the manuscript itself, which is lovingly housed in the State House of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in Boston. There is no more important text in American history. Seeing it, and turning its pages, and filming the actual manuscript Bradford wrote in his own hand was one of the most thrilling moments of my filmmaking career.
What were your challenges in making the film?
Getting past the myths and all too easily received ideas. Bringing Bradford himself alive, not as a cardboard cartoon character, but as a flesh in blood person. In this latter challenge, we were aided more than I can possibly express by the brilliance of the actor Roger Rees, who simply became William Bradford, speaking and inhabiting and bringing to life his words from the inside out in one of the most moving and beautiful performances I know. He died just this past July, too soon, too fast and so deeply loved and lamented.
The Mayflower II, a recreation of the original Mayflower, was used during filming. (Photo: Kristen Oney/Plimoth Plantation)
Was it easy to secure the cooperation of Plimoth Plantation and Mayflower II?
Yes. They’re American treasures, and as close as anyone is ever going to get to what the Pilgrim experience was like. We knew going in that without the ship we wouldn’t have a film. And without the extraordinarily faithful human and material culture recreated and brought to life at Plimoth Plantation — structures, implements, farm animals, household goods, down the small detail of bonnet and button — the film would have been a cartoon.
We shot at Plimoth Plantation itself or a total of eight days, in all kinds of weather. The highlight of our shooting was the day we spent filming the Mayflower itself: fully rigged out, with a crew of sailors and Pilgrims on board, one camera on the ship, another on a chase boat, and a third doing spectacular aerial filming from a helicopter. The wind was up, there were clouds in the sky that kept changing, and the ship itself was magnificent, as all square rigged sailing ships are. The Mayflower, which berths at Fairhaven near New Bedford Massachusetts when she’s not at Plymouth during the March to November season, is going into drydock for a complete overhaul, rebuilding and repair: $9 million dollars in all. She won’t be seen for a few years now, and we were so lucky to film her when we did. Literally the last time she sailed on her own steam, under the wind, far out in Cape Cod Bay, exactly as the Mayflower itself did 395 years ago this month.
Are you working on another documentary?
We’re working on a number of projects right now: a 2-hour film about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigrants from coming to America and becoming American citizens from that time until 1943, an incredible story. Also a film about Oliver Sacks, based on incredible footage of and interviews with him in the last months of his life; a new episode in our series on New York; and a film about the automobile travel guides many African Americans used from the 1930s through the 1960s, the longest lasting and most popular of which was called “The Green Book.”
What would you like viewers to take away?
The real nature of the early American colonial project; the deep and tangled religious, economic and political motives behind it; How harrowing, dark and deeply transforming the experience would turn out to be: for the pilgrims themselves, for the place they came to, and for the nation that rose up long after they were gone, consecrated to their memory.