Breathtaking ‘Pilgrims’ documentary tells substantial tale

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PLYMOUTH – Accompanied by striking images of the Mayflower II under sail off Plymouth Rock, a new film that airs this week uses the original handwritten history of Massachusetts’ first settlers to tell the story of the Plymouth Colony and the religious conflict that helped to create it.

Director Ric Burns makes clear in his latest project, “The Pilgrims,” that the narrative of religious radicals seeking freedom to worship as they chose is a far more tragic and substantial tale than the turkey, corn meal and merrymaking normally associated with the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday.

“To whatever degree Americans are exceptional, it’s not because we were spontaneously generated,” Burns said, answering questions from an audience at the State House in Boston after a special screening of his film Nov. 16.

Burns, who has won six Emmy Awards for his television work, based much of the film on William Bradford, the governor of the colony for three decades. Bradford was the only Mayflower passenger to write a history of the colony’s founding. His “Of Plymouth Plantation” – written between 1630 and 1651 – is stored at the State House, but filmmakers were provided rare access to the original manuscript.

“We wouldn’t have done the film if it wasn’t for the book,” said Burns, the brother of Academy Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns.

Lost for a century following the Revolutionary War, the treasured manuscript that contains a detailed list of Mayflower passengers as well as a thorough history of the colonists’ early days in the New World, was discovered in London in the 1850s. It was eventually returned to Boston.

The late actor Roger Rees stars as Bradford and narrates much of the history through Bradford’s words and meditations found in the manuscript. The Tony award-winning actor died in July, making “The Pilgrims” his final television appearance.

The film is one of the few to fully bridge the gap between British history of the people they called Separatists and the American history of the colony and the Pilgrims who founded it, executive producer Jeff Bieber said in an interview. He said many Americans possess only a rudimentary knowledge of that history. Yet among other things, the colonists created the Mayflower Compact to govern their relations, and it became the first written guide to governing in what would become the United States of America.

The documentary aims to fill in the gaps, telling the tale of the 102 men, women and children – including five expectant mothers – who left Holland, where some had taken refuge from English authorities, in September, 1620. At least half were religious exiles, and the film focuses on the nuances of their beliefs and what made them determined to flee the Church of England.

The majority of the documentary was filmed over two seasons (March through November) at Plimoth Plantation, a recreation of the original settlement in Plymouth, and portrays stunning scenes of the full-scale replica Mayflower II under sail with actors and crew aboard. Richard Pickering, Plimoth Plantation’s deputy executive director and a consultant on the film, said that the ship’s rare excursion was filmed in strict secrecy at dawn, in 90 minutes and with three cameras, in order to avoid the curiosity seekers.

“How majestic and solitary it is at sea,” Pickering said in an interview. “Its passengers are chiefly family and this is their chance to plant their church and worship without persecution. Images from the film really punctuate the bravery.”

Customarily a wine trade vessel, the three-masted Mayflower was scarcely more than 100 feet in length and 25 feet wide at the widest point, and had just three primary decks. When she crossed the Atlantic in the middle of hurricane season, she carried an estimated 130 people, including the crew. By comparison, the Queen Mary ocean liner (now a hotel in California) is about 1,020 feet long and could carry 1,957 passengers and almost 1,200 crew members.

Airing on the American Experience on Boston’s WGBH-TV and WGBY-TV on at 8 p.m. Tuesday and again on Thanksgiving day at 9:30 p.m., “The Pilgrims” is narrated by actor Oliver Platt. The two-hour film was produced by WETA-TV in Washington and Burns’s Steeplechase Films, in association with the British Broadcasting Corp., the U.K.’s CTVC television production company and the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service.

Contact Kara Bettis at [email protected] or @karabettis.