Thanksgiving is finally upon us, which means that we’ll gather with family and friends to enjoy a sumptuous feast involving a turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce. A game of football will be watched on television (or played in the backyard), followed by a slice of pumpkin pie and a nice nap. Hopefully, there will also be time to consider the many things we’re thankful for in life. But for many of us, thoughts of the Mayflower, pilgrims, and the native inhabitants of this country will be far removed from our minds. That’s a real shame—one that the National Geographic Channel is attempting to remedy with a film called Saints and Strangers. It’s a challenging and gritty look at a unique period in American history and is well worth a viewing. Hopefully, the lessons learned from the movie will keep us from repeating their mistakes in today’s society.
The title of the film originates from the fact that there were two groups of individuals on board the Mayflower—saints (those coming to the New World to start a new life and worship free of persecution) and strangers (those from the Merchant Adventure Company looking for fortune and prosperity). Obviously, conditions were less than ideal, and numerous individuals perished along the way. What was an attempt to settle in Virginia soon became an attempt to survive in the cold reaches of Massachusetts. It’s pretty easy to see the numerous and potentially overwhelming difficulties this group of 102 individuals would face–find a place to settle; build houses; develop a system of order; stay healthy; and keep the natives at bay.
These Native Americans (known to the Pilgrims as savages) are obviously leery of their new neighbors and begin planning what they need to do—especially in the light of discovering their stored corn has been stolen from the Nauset tribe. The leader of the local Pokanoket sachem (or tribe) is Massasoit (Raulo Trujillo), a wise leader who is flanked by his main warrior Hobbamock (Tatanka Means). He gathers other groups together to discuss the situation and learns that there’s a lot of uncertainty—will they be taken over by the new arrivals from across the sea? Canonicus from Narragansset (Michael Greyeyes) has a huge tribe and wants to increase his own power and standing and have no problem stating such. Masaasoit’s response paves the way for the rest of the film—and a particularly interesting character named Squanto. He’s a Native American but speaks English as well—this proves to be quite beneficial for the Pilgrims, but are his translating skills helping or hurting the cause?
The Pilgrims learn a lot that first year and celebrate Thanksgiving in a pretty grand manner. But as time progresses, tensions begin to develop–tribe against tribe, saint against stranger, tribe against Pilgrim colony, Pilgrim colony against new folks arriving from England, and everyone against Squanto (Kalani Queypo)–except for Governor William Bradford (Vincent Kartheiser). The result of these frictions brings about the true beginnings of America—and it’s not always pleasant to see. We have to be thankful for it, however, because it brought about the country we now know and love.
Saints and Strangers is a two-part film, to be shown this Sunday and Monday (November 22 and 23) at 9 PM (8 PM Central). The first part ends just before the first Thanksgiving, so you’ll have to wait a day to see what that looks and sound like. As for the film itself, it’s done quite well and director Paul Edwards provides a gritty, earthy view of what life was like in those early days. The acting is, for the most part, top-notch and doesn’t jar one back into the modern day with colloquialisms and such. The Native Americans all speak Algonquin, but are thankfully subtitled. This is used to nice effect as Squanto tries to translate between the two groups of people (producing some humorous moments).
There’s character development throughout, including some really fascinating changes to Massasoit, Bradford, and Stephen Hopkins (Ray Stevenson). Oh, and composer Hans Zimmer does the music—a nice touch. The early faith of the Pilgrims is put on display quite noticeably and even includes a few passages from the Bible (including a portion of 1 Corinthians 13). With that said, I think the treatment of Christian faith in Saints and Strangers is impressive and pretty even-handed, making sense in the context of the time and situation. National Geographic even went so far as to include a study guide for the film (downloadable here in PDF format).
So what does Saints and Strangers have to offer in the form of lessons for today? Well, the main thing to consider when watching is the attitude of all the groups involved—saints, sinners, and savages. They convey one specific word—fear:
- The Pilgrims were afraid of the unknown and the natives.
- The natives were afraid the Pilgrims were going to run them out of town and take over.
- The saints were afraid the strangers would keep them from worshiping God.
- The strangers were afraid they would be converted and change them for the worst.
Fear kept them all from making the situation in front of them better. If this sounds vaguely like the whole situation with the discussion in the US regarding Syrian refugees, it’s because it is. We have to take a look at the past in order to keep from preventing the same thing from occurring in the present. Sure, not everyone in the Pilgrim colony was on the same page, but the fear of a few poisoned the whole group to the point where their attitudes gave way to actions that threatened everyone. It’s interesting to note that within fifty years of the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth, there was a major war that turned out to be one of the costliest in US history—all because of fear leading people to not get along with each other. If God has things in control, then why do so many people ignore the words “Do not be afraid” that are peppered throughout the Bible? It’s something to consider, as life is too short to be a prisoner of fear.
This is the time of year when we sit back and watch Snoopy battle a lawn chair and Charlie Brown serve popcorn to a bunch of confused individuals. Perhaps it would be wise to add Saints and Strangers to your must-see schedule this Thanksgiving. Those Pilgrims and Native Americans have much to teach—and we still have much to learn.
Saints and Strangers airs on the National Geographic Channel this Sunday and Monday, November 22/23, at 9 PM (8 PM Central).