National Geographic miniseries explores the first Thanksgivings in America

22 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Mad Man’s’ Vincent Kartheiser sets sail for a whole new world in ‘Saints & Strangers’.

National Geographic’s “Saints & Strangers” goes beyond the history books to tell the story you didn’t know about the first Thanksgiving — and the second — and beyond. Depending on your viewpoint, it is either fitting or ironic that a heightened debate over various immigration issues should occur in the U.S. during the month of November.

Thanksgiving arrives just in time to remind us that we’re all pretty much strangers here, in one or way another, even the people hollering about closing the door to newcomers.In case this part of the story was missing from your child’s grade-school Thanksgiving pageant, TV is here to tell us this holiday week that the Pilgrims were a bunch of grave-robbing, food-stealing killers who lured a Native American leader to what he thought was a meal of peace, only to cut off his head and stick it on a pole.William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser), center, leads the Pilgrims to dry land in “Saints & Stangers,” National Geographic Channel’s two-night movie airing at 9 p.m.

The two-night, four-hour miniseries presents a sturdy cast and a fascinating story that almost gives equal time to the Native Americans who found their land and way of life threatened. This ambitious production from the National Geographic Channel takes us back to 1620, and makes us feel what it may have been like sailing from England on the Mayflower; trying to establish the Plymouth Colony; and how members of the already established Native American tribes might react to the arrival of the interlopers. The United States proudly defines itself as a nation of immigrants, and nothing makes this more clear than our affection for the story of Thanksgiving.

Sunday, Nov. 22, and Monday, Nov. 23. (National Geographic Channel/David Bloomer) CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Pilgrims are on their way, about to land at two different prime-time ports. It’s September 1620, and 102 passengers — “saints,” religious separatists hoping to worship God in peace, and “strangers,” those searching for a second chance in life — are crammed into the hull of the cargo ship The Mayflower and struggle against horrific weather, illness and dwindling supplies. The Mayflower carries both travelers who turned away from the Church of England to follow their rigidly separatist vision of religious freedom, and mercenaries who have good reason to get the heck out of England and pursue their fortune in the New World. He’s William Bradford, the Mayflower’s spiritual captain, who finds time between prayers to become the five-time governor of the Plymouth Colony, a role that required him to trade in those sleek suits for dingy duds and grow a beard that looks as if it could house a family of prairie dogs.

Fleeing a repressive religious state, a small group of refugees relocated to what is now Massachusetts, where, with the aid of friendly natives, they fought the odds (and non-friendly natives) to plant the seeds of this great nation. William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser, almost unrecognizable from his “Mad Men” days) counsels his wife Dorothy (Anna Camp, “True Blood”) and his fellow passengers to have faith in God.

Since the Emmy-winning series, Kartheiser has followed the trajectory of the promising shooting star: marrying a popular actress, “Gilmore Girls” graduate Alexis Bledel; spurring brisk ticket sales to gawkers for the Guthrie Theater’s 2013 production of “Pride and Prejudice”; abandoning plans to move back to the Twin Cities, and building a reputation for playing cat-and-mouse with the media. Judging from accounts from the time, the elementary school textbook tales of pilgrims and American Indians holding hands over a harvest are too simplistic. Papermag.com once posted a piece titled “A Brief History of Vincent Kartheiser Acting Weird.” But during a phone interview this month, Kartheiser was the same chatty, self-deprecating, witty dynamo I met while window shopping on Rodeo Drive in 2007, just before “Mad Men” premiered and changed his life. View Archive Vincent Kartheiser stars as William Bradford (indeed, behind that beard and Prince Valiant bob and smoky eyeliner, it’s Pete from “Mad Men,” doing his best to branch out), the religious separatist who eventually becomes the governor of New Plymouth.

Myles Standish (Michael Jibson), Edward Winslow (Barry Sloane, “The Whispers”), Stephen Hopkins (Ray Stevenson, “Rome”) and others discover what looks to be an abandoned Indian village and, desperate, steal the corn reserves. In light of what followed in American history, it’s heartbreaking and suspenseful to watch Massasoit (Raoul Trujillo), leader of the Wampanoag tribe, weigh his choices. And though neither are particularly notable examples of their genre, they are welcome additions, and perhaps antidotes, to a historic holiday increasingly driven by gluttony and football. The two camps of TV history are on Plymouth Rock display with “The Pilgrims,” premiering Tuesday on PBS, and “Saints & Strangers,” airing Sunday and Monday on National Geographic. “The Pilgrims,” a documentary from Ric Burns (Ken’s brother), is as much a meditation on the life, writings and dark faith of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Plantation for three decades, as it is a history of the settlers. Squanto (Kalani Queypo), the only survivor of the Patuxet tribe and one who was kidnapped and spent years in Europe, is fluent in English and so a natural to act as a liaison between the two groups.

A: The idea that you would die rather than go against the word of God is foreign to my own personal experience, and I didn’t want to bring in my own religious beliefs, which are quite different. Used as companion pieces, they should make excellent viewing for families able to persuade their children to watch historic dramas and/or documentaries. Bradford’s voice, performed by Roger Rees in his last role before his death in July, not only drives the production, it gives it a poetic, even elegiac tone. Native tribes had already seen their own killed by diseases brought by newcomers, and after Squanto’s people were decimated, he made an alliance with the Wampanoag, and became a crucial liaison between Massasoit and the settlers.

I think you just have to imagine this sense of commitment as a small ball of twine and keep wrapping yourself around it until it gets larger and larger in your psyche. Across both groups, faith in human nature clashes with doubt, and misunderstandings test a treaty of peace. “The English,” as the natives call them, find themselves at times players and at times pawns in the power struggle between neighboring tribes.

Ray Stevenson is gruff and imposing as the roguish Stephen Hopkins, whose brushes with the law make the Mayflower voyage a good idea, even if he regards the pious Pilgrims with disdain. Among the first things the pilgrims do upon landing is take corn they find buried at what they thought was an abandoned village and dig up two graves. Even though there is more historical re-enactment than is typical for them, the staples of any production by either of the Burns brothers are included. The settlers, led by William Bradford, held a meeting with other tribal leaders ostensibly to forge peace, but instead the English turned on them during the meal. Both intriguing films leave you with a similar depressing impression – that the Plymouth experiment was far grimmer, grimier and gorier than we were led to believe in those innocent elementary-school days.

O’Byrne as John Billington, Tatanka Means as the ready-for-war Hobbamock, Barry Sloane as Edward Winslow, and Natascha McElhome as Elizabeth Hopkins, who was apparently a fashion forerunner, with her anachronistic long tresses and wide-brimmed hippie hat. With good intentions, the series is attempting to correct the massive mythological construct that has become our standard feel-good narrative of Thanksgiving. The Pilgrims, as they are called, are not the Mayflower’s only passengers; they are accompanied by a ragtag group of “strangers,” led by Stephen Hopkins (“Rome’s” Ray Stevenson) and others who are less bound by scripture and more concerned with survival, even if it means introducing the local Indian tribes to the business end of a musket. So the question becomes: What happened to the dead?” Donegan answers her own question with court testimony given by a man who arrived in 1623 and asked settlement members what they did with all the bodies during that winter of 1620. Much of this four-hour story involves the colonists’ constant debate about whether to wage war with the “savages” or to try to broker an accord.

They’re enough to send you scrambling straight to the Web or the library for more information, and that’s another reason to give Nat Geo thanks for this miniseries. The filmmakers said they were surprised at the amount of strong source material available to help with the story, and that there were many more characters and subplots that could have been used, but they had to be left out. “I think America has reached a point where we don’t always have to see things through rose-colored glasses,” Scharbo said. “It’s good to explore the truth about ourselves.” Tim Pastore, programming chief at National Geographic, said the network takes depictions of violence on the air very seriously. “At the end of the day, the authenticity of telling the story as it was, was the guiding star to stay true to,” he said.

A: One thing we learned is that the water was so bad in the United Kingdom in those days that everyone ordered eight glasses of beer a day, even 4-year-olds. As the many historians and writers interviewed for “The Pilgrims” repeatedly point out, the Puritans were what many modern Americans would consider religious zealots.

Four hours of hard suffering may seem a bit much, but if it makes you feel a tiny bit more grateful to see it from the comforts of your couch, then it’s worth it. Yes, the Pilgrims had mercenary-like crew members for company on the Mayflower, but their real traveling companions were contagion, cold, starvation and dirt. As we see a line of men — some armed and wearing body armor — getting out of the small boat that brought him ashore, we hear Bradford in voice-over. “Our faith helped us across an ocean — faith and a contract with strangers,” he continues, as viewers see Bradford and the others walking through the woods. “The Merchant Adventure Company, without whose support we could not have afforded the journey.

The whole Plymouth Rock story has come to symbolize the first step toward a country, even though the Pilgrims came 13 years after the founding of Jamestown in 1607. And even though an executive producer and a writer are straight off the “Killing” franchise, Eric Overmyer of “The Wire” and “Treme” is also credited as an executive producer. While we may not have been given the whole story as youngsters, we were taught something vital that resonates in both films: that this was a remarkable story of struggle, commitment, perseverance and survival. But it is important to note the change in the 25 years since “The Civil War” first aired in the kind of history TV is telling and who the principal storytellers are. That millions of viewers are getting their sense of who and what we were from the O’Reilly school, instead of Burns and his disciples, is a sea change.

In this age of identity politics, most of our focus seems to be only on the tribe to which we belong and how we think it is being treated or mistreated in American life. But I have to admit: It is going to take a while for me to think of this holiday with a bloody head sticking on a pole instead of “A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving.”

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