TV Review: American Experience: The Pilgrims (2015)

Posted: December 2, 2015 in Documentary, TV


At age 12, William Bradford (Roger Rees), living with his uncle, and sickly, took to reading the Bible.  From this study came the roots of his theology.  He wanted people to have a simpler, more direct relationship with God, no Bishops or church was necessary.  This was a radical idea to most people in England at the time, especially to King James I. Bradford tried to escape England, multiple times, finally making it to Amsterdam, but  Bradford and his followers, had poor jobs, and they left Amsterdam, because they thought of themselves as essentially British.  The 30 Years War was also raging, so they set out for the New World, wanting to go to New York, they find an investor named Westin and though delayed finally set sail toward the New World first on the Speedwell, and then on the Mayflower.  Bradford had to go to the New World not only with people that believed like Bradford, but with strangers, who shared nothing in common with Bradford. Of the 103 people who made the voyage, more than half had no connection with Bradford or his followers.

The ship sailed for New York But ended up in Plymouth Massachusetts.  While on the boat the strangers and Bradford’s congregation sign the Mayflower Compact, in which the strangers and congregants agreed to get along with one another. In the intervening years, Bradford and his followers faced many challenges, Bradford’s wife died, there was rampant illness, and there was the question of how to settle a land that was already settled by people who looked nothing like the Pilgrims.  The story of how the Plymouth colony was established and grew is a remarkable story, for detractors of the Pilgrims as well as supporters.

This is a fascinating special.  Detractors of Bradford and the Pilgrims will call them religious zealots, supporters will call them upholders of religious freedom.  Detractors will call them killers of Native peoples, supporters will point out that they signed a treaty with the first tribe they came across.  The truth of these facts depends very much on your perspective as you watch, but the very fact that an orphan, propelled by a religious fervor that was so strong, he created a colony in the New World, is simply a story worth telling.  The fact that the Thanksgiving story may have been embellished became secondary to the incredible story of Bradford and his followers. Sadly the documentary seems to put its thumb on the scale a bit and lean in a certain direction when telling the story.  I wish they hadn’t done that.

This documentary was created by Ric Burns brother of Ken Burns, legendary documentarian and creator of the outstanding Civil War documentary. Unfortunately, the quality of this special does not rival his brother’s work, there are maps and voice over narration, but unfortunately, an actor even one as talented as Roger Rees, is not as compelling as all those Civil War stills, but I did learn a lot about the Pilgrims, and it gave me a fresh perspective on those Thanksgiving legends that we’ve all heard as children.

The Pilgrims:  A pilgrimage well worth taking.


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