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Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower

(History Channel; US DVD: 30 Jan 2007)

Where the water meets the shoreline in modern day Plymouth, Massachusetts, resides one of the most telling contrasts in how Americans encounter and appreciate their own history. To stand on the beach at Plymouth is to literally stand in the footsteps of the Pilgrims and Native Americans whose clashes (both cultural and martial) were among the early sparks which ignited the engine of the New World.


Here, one can look out over the wide, blue ocean and become engulfed in the enormity of that majestic and terrifying vista, the same view held by those early colonists who looked back wistfully toward home, and who looked forward into the forbidding woods with cautious hope and faith. The woods are gone now, replaced by rows of New England souvenir shops and warm-weather eateries, but the ocean remains to give visitors an opportunity to relive and contemplate the overwhelming depth of their history.


Instead, most tourists are content to slowly file into the ostentatious cupola which looks down upon the saddest, most frustrating artifact of the American experience: Plymouth Rock. Despite never being mentioned in any of the highly-detailed first-hand narratives of Pilgrims like William Bradford and Edward Winslow, the scarred and split slab of granite enjoys a revered status, to the degree that confused onlookers have taken to tossing pennies at it as if it were a wishing well or fountain. It’s a perplexing habit, as if the crowds believe anything historical must be legendary, and thus magical and capable of granting wishes.


Plymouth Rock is a lesson, not as many believe a lesson about the Pilgrims’ arrival in the New World, but instead a lesson on the way we as contemporary Americans view our past: as a series of symbols, totemic icons that summarize the complicated, messy events which actually took place. Plymouth Rock is the epitome of this sloppy perspective, a creation of flawed oral tradition and misplaced trust, first elevated to its status by a doddering 95-year-old clerk and since held up as the touchstone (pardon the pun) of the Pilgrim experience.
 
Thankfully, the History Channel has produced an impressive and comprehensive documentary in an effort to clear the cobwebs off the true, multifaceted story of the Pilgrims’ crossing.  The documentary expands upon the oversimplified textbook chapters and Thanksgiving moralities plays that have long since overgrown and obscured the past like weeds. Desperate Crossing: The Untold Story of the Mayflower follows the ragtag band of religious separatists from their underground activities in Scrooby, England, to their somber exile in the Netherlands, and finally the perilous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and into the wild.
 
While much of Desperate Crossing relies on the familiar documentary elements of guiding narration (provided by the authoritative voice of Edward Herrmann) and a large stable of well-informed scholars who fill in the blanks, the true heart of this production is in the surprisingly powerful dramatizations which illustrate the real-life, personal stories of the Pilgrims in vivid detail.


The actors tapped to bring the Pilgrims and Native Americans to life manage to avoid schmaltzy, wooden recitations and elevate the documentary above a hokey costumed play and into a marvelously immersive recreation of the early 17th century. Many of the participants are members of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and their skill in representing characters of a bygone era comes in very handy.


The portrayal of military advisor Myles Standish, a man of short-stature and short-temper, is worthy of particular praise, as the actor captures his irascibility perfectly. Jonathan Perry, who plays Squanto, helps to give depth to one of the most fascinating individuals of the whole story, a man whose cunning and guile played a significant role in the survival of the Plymouth colony, and demonstrates the unrealized potential of the early settlers’ relationship with the Native people.
 
Desperate Crossing doesn’t merely spin new legends to go along with Plymouth Rock. The documentary uses the primary sources provided by the Pilgrims themselves, who produced meticulous records of their journeys, to create the scenes and dialogue which propel the story. Additionally, the Wampanog tribe of Massachusetts was employed to assist in presenting an authentic and measured Native perspective, helping the story feel truly complete.


In the DVD’s bonus features, the cast and crew behind Desperate Crossing allow viewers behind the scenes of the production, a give a very compelling look at the historical and theatrical motivations behind the documentary. The care taken in composing each scene, developing the characters and helping to provide both historical context and emotional weight, shines through and will surely help to introduce the fascinating reality of the Pilgrims’ story to the public that deserves to know of it.


For most viewers, the events contained in Desperate Crossing will come as a surprise, from the financial and business maneuvers and political intrigue required to simply depart Europe, to the difficult relations between the religious and secular contingents of the colony which threatened to destroy their experiment more seriously than any other adversity. It honors their perseverance by shedding light on the severity of their journey.


Those intrigued by the narrative of Desperate Crossing will find Nathaniel Philbrick’s brilliant book, Mayflower worth reading, as it covers not only the years surrounding the crossing but also the struggles, negotiations, and wars that filled the subsequent 50 years of the colony in a breathless and evocative narrative. The more adventurous will find Governor William Bradford’s own Of Plymouth Plantation or colonist Edward Winslow’s Good Newse From New England appealing as a direct window into the past.


In any case, Desperate Crossing makes for a good first step into a world Americans thought they knew; a world that formed the very foundations of the one in which they currently live, and a past that may help them understand how we got to the present a little better.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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