I saw (for the second time) Terence Malick’s The New World Friday night. It’s a strange and engrossing movie, what one critic calls a “tone poem” about the founding of the Jamestown settlement. Part history, part psychological analysis, part dream, it enraptures, engrosses, and enrages alternately. Partly through pacing (one of, I think, its best qualities – The New World doesn’t seek to show us the Jamestown experience at the speed of contemporary life but instead moves at the pace of life in 1607), partly through interweaving the stream-of-consciousness of its main characters (John Smith and Pocahontas), Malick captures the brutal reality of the historical events that they were part of. The dearth of dialogue that some might find unsettling works well at conveying the need of two cultures unable to communicate verbally trying to find ways to express meaning to each other. (As an aside, Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas steals the film; and for once, Colin Farrell’s thuggishly angsty intensity suits his role – adventurer and angst-ridden thug Captain John Smith.)
I begin with this micro-film review because it relates to my reading list post of a couple of weeks ago. The first book on that list was William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, which I finished early last week, a few days before stumbling upon The New World during one of those free movie channel promos from my satellite TV provider. (And yes, I’m taking pains not to give them free a product mention; when they’re ready to go quid pro quo and offer me free promo for my books I’ll do that – this is how the world we live in works, n’est-ce pas?) I realized (since my 20th/21st century mind raced along despite Malick’s admirable attempt to slow me down to 17th century experiential pace) that, while The New World offers a superb vision of the Jamestown experience, that I could not name a film that does an equally fine job of conveying the experience of that even more famous group of New World colonists, the Pilgrims. And that got me to wondering why.
And, yes, there have been attempts.
The first and best known is probably is the creaky but lovable Plymouth Adventure, directed by erstwhile MGM staffer Clarence Brown and starring Spencer Tracy as the captain of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones. Principal characters in the Plymouth settlement (and in Bradford’s fine book), William Bradford, William Brewster, and Myles Standish serve primarily as foils for Tracy’s character. Gene Tierney portrays Bradford’s wife, Dorothy, who fell or jumped from the deck of the Mayflower and drowned in December 1620 while her husband was exploring the Cape Cod coast looking for a spot to found the colony – and the film intimates that part of the reason for her “accident” is conflicted love for (you guessed it) the redoubtable Captain Jones (Tracy gets the girl – sort of, right?). Like most studio era Hollywood treatments of history, there’s wonderful accuracy in technical details like clothing and weaponry and little or no accuracy in – well, the historical events. Most importantly, this version focuses on the voyage of the Mayflower, not on life in Plymouth colony – and the voyage covers perhaps 10% of Bradford’s work.
There’s another version of this story, Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure, (again, with the focus on the voyage rather than life in the new world) done later with Anthony Hopkins as Captain Jones, Richard Crenna as William Brewster (these two argue a lot) and Jenny Agutter as Priscilla Mullins. While this version de-emphasizes the ridiculous idea of a romantic triangle among Bradford, his wife Dorothy, and Jones, the film plays up the romance of Priscilla Mullins (Agutter) and John Alden (Michael Beck). If no names other than Hopkins ring a bell – well, this was a TV movie with the attendant soon to be sort of forgotten cast thereto provided. Even the director, George Schaefer, was strictly a TV guy. And evidently, the Pilgrim who wrote the book on Plymouth, William Bradford, didn’t make this particular voyage of the Mayflower, because he’s not listed in the cast. No, I don’t understand why, either.
So, back to Bradford’s book – and the difficulty of making it into a film.
Maybe it’s a source material issue – after all, John Smith’s A True Relation of Virginia offers lots of action, adventure, and romance – including the famous anecdote about Smith being saved by Matoaka, called Pocahontas (“little wanton”) because of her “frolicsome nature.” Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation is another kind of book altogether. The early section of the book is a long discourse on the religious arguments in post Elizabethan England leading to the “Separatists” (Bradford’s term for his group – they became the Pilgrims later, a name given them because of their voyaging to America) first removing from England to the Netherlands and, ultimately, to Plymouth in modern Massachusetts to be able to practice their faith freely. It’s thoughtful, potent stuff and makes one consider the power of sincere religious faith to move humans to (what we see through the prism of history as) great deeds – but a movie director would have a hard time making an engrossing film of a group worrying about stuff such as that their beloved pastor isn’t allowed to sail with them. Bradford’s expressions of faith and his doctrinal observations and discussions of his Separatists’ beliefs in relation to Anglican and Massachusetts Puritan dogmas make interesting reading, but probably don’t translate well into cinema.
Yes, the Mayflower voyage provides good drama – this explains why Hollywood has seized on it multiple times. And certainly Bradford’s own grief at the loss of his wife Dorothy when it seems they have overcome their greatest obstacles is genuine and could be made cinematic at least for a scene (think of that closing shot of Garbo in Queen Christina, a film set in roughly the same era). One minute down, 89 to go.
Perhaps the cinematic difficulty lies with the author’s narrow world view – and what he reports. There were approximately 35 Pilgrims in the group of 103 passengers who made that initial voyage to Plymouth. That means that two-thirds of the passengers to America were not Pilgrims. Bradford dismisses this group cavalierly (pun intended) and focuses his attention (rightly so, after all – he’s writing a history of his group, not of all those who came to the New World) on his fellow Pilgrims. So we do get information about William Brewster, Myles Standish, John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, et. al. Most of this information is matter of fact life event stuff, though, and not the stuff of good film plots.
Mostly, though, Bradford’s work is a chronicle of the important governmental events of the Plymouth and neighboring “plantations”: threats from Native American tribes, negotiations with other colonies. He was, after all, governor of Plymouth Plantation for most of his New World life. He offers interesting observations on the growing power – and pompous religiosity – of his Puritan neighbors at Massachusetts Bay. Bradford, in contrast to them, finds little to criticize in “heretic” Anne Hutchinson, though he disapproves of another “heretic,” Roger Williams. He finds the colonists at Piscataqua (what became New Hampshire) troublesome (at least partly because they are Anglicans with strong ties to powerful English merchants who can undercut his colony’s trade).
A lot – a lot – of Bradford’s narrative concerns the business dealings of the colony with the “adventurers” who were their original investment group. The parallels between the experience of the Plymouth colonists with the merchant investment bankers in London who kept shifting their notes around and changing terms for settlement will seem uncomfortably familiar to modern Americans who have found their mortgages sold by their local banks to someone they don’t know and with whom they’ve had no dealings whose sole interest seems to be to maximize their own profits no matter what the cost to the mortgagee. Bradford’s (and his colleagues’) struggles in this area will resonate.
But mortgage payment arguments aren’t the basis of many successful – artistically or commercially – movies. So maybe the issue is simply that Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation, with its emphasis on government and its powers and abuses, religion and its relation to government policy, and finance and its relation to life and death, isn’t perhaps the stuff of great cinema.
After all, we don’t want our lives up there on the screen, do we?
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