With American Thanksgiving just around the corner, the History Channel’s maiden broadcast of Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower is strategically positioned. With first-rate production values (period costumes and replica vessels fill the screen with convincing detail), varied musical track (only the sighting-of-land’s saccharine orchestration jars the ear instead of reinforcing the moment) and effectively interwoven commentary from (refreshingly) native Americans and Ivory Tower historians, the cause of digging deeper than the myths or stereotypes into this momentous story is faithfully served.
By journey’s end, it’s left to the viewer to fathom if the title’s “crossing” refers to the actual voyage, the sacrifice of Jesus for others, or the unstoppable action of betrayal that has permeated the course of history since Adam & Eve.
The events are largely seen through the eyes of William Bradford (played by Sam Redford) and based, primarily, on his journals. That gives Lisa Q. Wolfinger’s production a clear point of view, leaving it to the commentators to fill in historical gaps and provide balance, notably Jonathan Perry and Linda Coombs from the Wampanoag Indigenous Program. Their quiet rage simmers masterfully, recounting the theft of corn-seed as well as defamation and looting of burial sites by the Pilgrims who have fled both England and the Netherlands to escape persecution from James I who sees himself as God’s devoted agent.
The Pilgrims seem long on piety and short on organizational acumen. After failing to leave England en masse (betrayed by those who saw the frightened Puritans as easy marks for wealth redistribution), they finally made their way to Leiden only to be greeted with poverty and pettiness in the largely tolerant society that—itself—was busy preparing for war with Spain's Catholics.
Leaders Robinson and Brewster, hold yet another “What now?” meeting. The camera follows the roundtable discussion brilliantly—its dizzying circle the perfect visual metaphor for the besieged congregation that only wants the freedom to worship and a bit of land to grow their crops. Famously, America is chosen as the next port of call.
But it takes three-more years to set sail. They are easy prey for unscrupulous English merchants whose last-minute contract changes—the addition of 50 “strangers” to the passenger list threatens to scuttle the voyage before it starts. With the fear of God in their hearts and prospect of cannibalistic savages before them, the group sets out to the New World where there are “no civil men, only savages who need to hear the word of God.” They've suffered at the hands of their own people, but their faith remains strong: “We might expect the blessing of God in our proceedings.”
They are further challenged with cracked beams, leaking timbers (putting the ironically named Speedwell into dry dock and jamming the Mayflower-fare beyond capacity), seasickness, disease and death. When land is finally sighted in November 1620, the target goal at the mouth of the Hudson River has to be abandoned (Pollack Rip proves too onerous) in favour of the safer confines of Provincetown Harbour. Once again, the set designers and research pays off in spectacular fashion. The only false note comes from the early-December battle between liberators and the Wampanoags. The previous day’s cold and snow seems to vanish, which is a comfort to the natives as they do battle in summer dress.
A further series of expeditions finally lead the “adventurers” to Plymouth Rock. The first buildings constructed are pressed into service as hospitals. Scurvy and pneumonia have reduced both passengers and crew by half—Bradford's wife succumbs as does John Carver, resulting in the bitter widower being elected as the next governor. Yet stoicism remains: “It pleased God to visit us with death daily.”
And here the film's irony soars like an eagle. The Pilgrims have unwittingly settled in the village of Pawtuket—itself wiped out by the plague—brought on by English traders. The only survivor, Squando, did so through misadventure. The tall, healthy Wampanoag had been kidnapped and taken to Europe to be showcased as an example of the good, healthy life that awaited immigrants. He managed to escape—having learned the language—and returned to his homeland only to discover that his village had been wiped out. Who better to serve as envoy for Chief Massasoit and Bradford. Each had something the other wanted: the newcomers—far out-numbered, needed peace, security and trading partners; Massasoit and his nation needed muskets, powder and cannons to fight off other tribes in the region.
Then, before you can say “better the devil you know,” a mutual assistance pact is sealed, the leaders sleep together (symbolism for centuries to come) and another chapter of forgive-and-forget—now—seek-revenge-later comes to a thoughtful close. JWR