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PBS Presents 'Pilgrims' Without the Docudrama Garnish
November 24, 2015  | By David Hinckley
 

Pilgrim tales, it turns out, can be served hot or cool.
 
TV viewers are getting two extensive productions this week on the British colonists who landed at Plymouth, Mass., in the late fall of 1620, and while both tell much the same basic story, they couldn’t differ more in style, temperature or conclusion.
 
National Geographic’s Saints & Strangers, which is largely a dramatization, finishes part two of its premiere showing Monday night at 9. Both parts will run again Thursday, 7 and 9 p.m.
 
Ric Burns’s much more traditional documentary The Pilgrims runs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on PBS’s “American Experience” series, then repeats Thursday at 9:30 p.m.
 
Both shows work from the premise that most modern-day Thanksgiving celebrants have no idea how brutal life was for the 102 souls who crossed the ocean on the Mayflower, the most famous cramped and rickety old cargo ship in all of American mythology.
 
Half didn’t survive the first winter, while starvation, disease and the threat of lethal attack from hostile Native American tribes didn’t lessen for years.
 
Both shows also point out that only about half the settlers were the fundamentalist Pilgrims who have gotten pretty much all of history’s attention.
 
The other half were adventurers, many from rough backgrounds, whose mission was to find saleable goods and turn this expedition into a money-maker for its underwriters back in England.
 
Needless to say, conflicts arose, though the external threats were so dire that the two factions quickly realized they needed to band together or die.  
 
You can watch either show and come away with that same basic storyline, as well as extensive forays into ancillary dramas like the ambivalent relationship between the colonists and the Native American tribes.
 
The presentations, however, are almost yin and yang.
 
Saints & Strangers gives us a lingering shot of the arriving British women sponging themselves off by the sea, rapturous looks on their faces as they luxuriate in the moment. It looks like a bunch of actresses filming a high-end resort spa commercial.
 
In other scenes, the British women wear blouses that seem scanty for a New England winter, right down to the rather notable cleavage.
 
Characters periodically say things like, “I spoke my own truth,” which seems a little more like a recent favorite TV phrase than something a colonist might spontaneously utter.
 
William Bradford, leader of the Pilgrims, governor of the Plymouth colony for 30 years and author of the written history on which almost everything we know of his group is based, is a theatrical figure in Saints & Strangers.
 
He’s an eloquent wise man played by a well-groomed Vincent Kartheiser. Almost all his scenes revolve around his fair-minded, practical decisions on secular crises, internal and external.
 
In The Pilgrims, conversely, the late Roger Rees (left, top photo) plays Bradford as a rather unkempt fellow whose concerns lie far more with spiritual matters. For this Bradford, survival was a means to the end: creating a colony where everyone worshipped in the same intense fundamental way as he and his friends.  
 
The Pilgrims keeps dramatization to a minimum, going the more traditional route of telling the story through extensive commentary from more than a dozen historians and colonial experts.
 
Among other things, this enables The Pilgrims to go more deeply into the Native American backstory: how many tribes inhabited New England, their relative strength and how badly several had been decimated from a plague spread by English fur traders.
 
The detached scholarly approach also ultimately leads The Pilgrims to a different ending from Saints & Strangers.  
 
Saints & Strangers makes a triumphant climactic scene out of the conciliatory harvest feast shared by the colonists and Native tribes – the celebration that we nominally celebrate in our modern-day Thanksgiving.
 
The congregants create an Atlantic City-style buffet. They dance together. They jokingly try each other’s weapons – muskets vs. bows and arrows – with predictably comic results that draw hearty laughs of camaraderie all around.
 
That scene effectively ends the story told in the series, with an on-screen coda noting that the peace forged between the colonists and the Wampanoag tribe, under Massasoit, lasted more than 50 years.
 
Without minimizing the hardships and tribulations endured by the colonists, there’s an unmistakable air of victory here, a sense that everyone found a way to make it all work out.  
 
The Pilgrims also acknowledges the endurance of the legacy forged at Plymouth.
 
But Burns’s historians suggest that Bradford himself ultimately considered the colony a failure, since it rapidly devolved from the single spiritual oasis he envisioned into a widening group of villages more concerned with things of this world.
 
In contrast to the notion that the first Thanksgiving sealed the survival of the colony, The Pilgrims notes that it took another decade, much additional hardship and many more deaths before the English foothold was secure.  
 
On the Native American side, The Pilgrims points out that while the peace between the Wampanoag and the English did hold for more than 50 years, that doesn’t suggest the colonists developed much respect for or benevolence toward the “savages.”
 
The Pilgrims saw the plague that ravaged the Native American tribes as God’s just means of clearing away the infidels to make room for His favored followers.
 
By 1670, as English colonies continued to spread, the Native American population of New England had plummeted from about 70,000 to 20,000. When Massasoit’s son Philip broke the peace by leading a desperate last effort to drive the colonists out, it ended with Philip’s head on a pike in New Boston.
 
Amazing how differently the same story can be told.


 
 
 
 
 
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