Review: ‘Saints & Strangers,’ a Thanksgiving Story Told in a Native Tongue

21 Nov 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

‘Saints & Strangers’ and ‘Pilgrims’ make clear Thanksgiving’s thorny origins.

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.Earnestness is the dominant feature of “Saints & Strangers,” a two-night miniseries from National Geographic Channel that chronicles the initial encounters of Pilgrim settlers and the Native Americans who were already living in what became known as Massachusetts.The National Geographic Channel’s two-part, four-hour re-creation of the events that led up to the first Thanksgiving are far from the simple tale told to schoolchildren.

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 a complex story of people who were not quite the heroic figures so often portrayed, and a political story involving divisions not just among the English but among the tribes who had been decimated by a plague brought by earlier encounters with Englishmen. Of those who made the brutal 66-day journey aboard the Mayflower, there are the “Saints,” religious separatists who risked their lives for a singular cause — religious freedom.

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. And yet the serious intent of “Saints” trips it up at times; many characters remain one-dimensional, and some sequences are plodding or repetitive. Weather instead drove them two months later to what Plymouth’s future governor William Bradford called a “desolate wilderness” much farther north. The wide assortment of Native American tribes living along the northeastern coast of what would be called America had many mixed emotions about the newcomers with their pale skin, odd clothes and history of infectious disease.

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. He’s not entirely trusted by either side, and Queypo paints an effective portrait of him as a man who has lost his entire tribe and must walk a complicated and lonely path.

Bradford is played by Vincent Kartheiser (Pete Campbell in “Mad Men,” but with piercing raccoon eyes), whose performance makes Bradford as luminous as his prose. Also wonderful is Raoul Trujillo as Massasoit, a canny leader who must adapt to the newcomers, who have brought not only diseases and a distinct lack of farming skills, but extremely powerful weapons as well. The pilgrims, who had such little knowledge of — or concern about — the European-born plague that they established their settlement on the site of a ravaged village, saw the initial attack simply as confirmation that the natives were “savages.” Both “Saints & Strangers” and “The Pilgrims” attempt to correct this notion, along with a few other things including the importance of the actual feast (spoiler: no big deal) and, more important, tell the story from multiple points of view. Desolation was also the state of much of the land the English found, where disease, the result of earlier contact with European traders, had depopulated Native villages and decimated entire tribes.

For the Pilgrims, their strongest weapon is their faith in God, and it’s a shame that Vincent Kartheiser isn’t given more to do as the group’s leader, William Bradford. 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. Yet what makes this film so sad in many places is also part of its poignant beauty as it seeks to tell what it can of the Indian experience of settlers.

Almost every one of Bradford’s lines in the first two hours is about his belief in God’s divine plan, which reinforces the idea that the man has a strong faith but does little to add texture or compelling grace notes to his personality. 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. Ray Stevenson, Ron Livingston, Anna Camp and Natascha McIlhone play similarly circumscribed characters; each gets an occasional moment to shine, but neither they nor their relationships acquire any real depth. With the benefit of more time and literary license, “Saints” is better able to portray the horrific suffering of the settlers, who are beset by hunger, disease and despair both on and then off the Mayflower, while also giving voice to the actual “first” Americans.

Filmed on location in South Africa, believe it or not, the re-created Mayflower, American Indian villages, English-built fort, costumes, weapons and more come across as authentic. 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.

O’Byrne, who plays one of the soldiers in the mixed party of adventurers, fighters and people of faith, doesn’t get much to do beyond display his character’s aggression. 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. Massasoit (Raoul Trujillo), chief of the Wampanoag, at first favors attack but then eventually realizes an alliance with the settlers could strengthen his tribes’ position in the local hierarchy. With good intentions, the series is attempting to correct the massive mythological construct that has become our standard feel-good narrative of Thanksgiving.

Don’t mind the opening sequence, which involves the non-Pilgrim “strangers” on the Mayflower yelling words like “bitch” to a soundtrack of retching. Massasoit isn’t simply interested in helping the settlers, he’s interested in forming an alliance that can help his plague-ravaged people. “From my perspective, Massasoit represents not just the short history we are covering in this film, but also about 150 years of watching an assault on the native people by the English settlers,” Trujillo said. “Disease came with them, and that turmoil resulted in tribe versus tribe. “What I am trying to bring to him is that sense of someone who is a war general and chief, but also has a desperation to save his people, which is his utmost concern. 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.

Ignore the mischievous hint that the settlers thrived once they abandoned greed and capitalism: The truth is that after starving for several years, Bradford and the others resolved to abandon their socialist experiment in communal ownership of everything and let each family have and work their own property—with a resulting lifesaving surge in production. True to National Geographic’s roots in explanatory science, “Saints” takes seriously the clash of cultures, beliefs and technologies that went on to influence the founding of the nation. He is tackling both potential conflicts with the English and ongoing conflicts with other native tribes.” “What is amazing is how the Pilgrims could be thankful even though they didn’t have much,” Kartheiser said. “All they had was a piece of biscuit and warm beer. 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.

The film, co-executive produced and written by Eric Overmyer and Seth Fisher (from an original script by “Homeland‘s” Chip Johannessen, with revisions by Walon Green) is an often engrossing attempt to explore the way needful alliances between Indians and settlers may have had a transforming, even enlightening, effect on some of the English. “The Pilgrims” begins much earlier than the Nat Geo film, with the documentary in the PBS “American Experience” series spending fascinating time on the separatists’ experience in England and Holland. There may be some wooden moments as the Pilgrims attempted to survive in their new environment and as the delicate balance of tribal alliances are disrupted by the invaders. In fact, the miniseries could have been winnowed to Kalani Queypo’s fascinating take on Squanto, the Patuxet Indian whose ability to speak both English and tribal languages pretty much is the Thanksgiving story.

In one section, for example, we learn that the New England Pilgrims and their story basically hijacked credit for America’s founding which really took place many years earlier in blighted Jamestown, Va. Executive producers, Grant Scharbo, Gina Matthews, Teri Weinberg, Eric Overmyer, Seth Fisher; producers, Jayson De Rosner, Peter McAleese; director, Paul A. Edwards; writers, Chip Johannessen, Walon Green, Overmyer; camera, Balazs Bolygo; production designer, Cristina Casali; costume designer, Kate Carin; editor, Steven Kemper, Steve Polivka; music, Hans Zimmer, Lorne Balfe; casting, Amy Hubbard. 4 HOURS Raoul Trujillo, Vincent Kartheiser, Kalani Queypo, Ray Stevenson, Tatanka Means, Anna Camp, Ron Livingston, Natascha McElhone, Brian F.

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. A large group of them came into the village when settlers were bringing in the harvest, and happened to stay for a few days, eating and hunting and the like. We came for God — to build a new life, to worship as we please, free from persecution.” “Starved and desperate, 102 passengers arrived in the New World guided by the Lord,” Bradford says in voice-over. “But there are some things God neglected to mention.” And then, after all of 58 seconds, the first arrow comes flying at the settlers and they are chased through the woods by Native Americans as the soundtrack pounds with ominous drums. 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. Both films also explore the dark corners lurking at the edges of the Pilgrims’ uneasy relationship with local tribes. “The Pilgrims,” for instance, explains how the Plymouth colony kept the decapitated head of a native person on a pike outside the settlement.

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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