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Turkey Day wasn’t always about temperamental relatives passing around gelatinous cranberry sauce over an overcooked fowl. When the first Thanksgiving was held in 1621 in Plymouth colony, it was meant to mark the shared peace between wary Native American tribes and the European Pilgrims (many of them religious refugees) who journeyed to the New World for a fresh start.
National Geographic Channel’s two-night series Saints & Strangers is billed as “the real story” of this celebrated event, as well as of the many tensions (political, spiritual and otherwise) leading up to and resulting from it. Though it’s true this isn’t some whitewashed, grade-school version of history, the miniseries never comes fully alive, feeling more often like a dutiful soapbox lecture occasionally interrupted by a few shoddily staged action scenes.
Air date: Nov 22, 2015
The story begins on the merchant ship Mayflower, which carried 102 passengers across the Atlantic from England in the fall and winter of 1620. Among those on board are William Bradford (Mad Men‘s Vincent Kartheiser), the eventual governor of Plymouth Colony, and Stephen Hopkins (Ray Stevenson), a cynical adventurer leaving his British homeland under a cloud of disgrace. Not all of their shipmates live to see American shores, since scurvy and starvation are rampant on board, and morale is consistently low. But despite the poor odds, Bradford feels that God will provide, and Hopkins is fairly certain good fortune (in all senses of the term) awaits.
Once they land, however, there’s the matter of the “savages” — the many Native American tribes of New England who think, with rare exception, that the European settlers should be met with merciless hostility. Pokanoket sachem Massasoit (Raoul Max Trujillo) feels differently, however. Perhaps there is a chance to form a strong alliance with these aliens from another culture and peacefully coexist? So he tasks Patuxet warrior Squanto (Kalani Queypo) — the only tribesman who knows the languages and customs of both Natives and Europeans — to serve as both observer and ambassador.
Credit where it’s due: The miniseries goes all in on the communication gap. Each Native character speaks his or her respective tribe’s tongue (translated onscreen in subtitles), which emphasizes the very pronounced and profound language barrier between the Indians and the settlers. It’s a choice most North America-made productions would eschew for an anachronistic all-English dialogue approach, and it does lend a welcome air of authenticity to the proceedings.
In most other ways, however, Saints & Strangers is a second-rate production, with nondescript, TV-hack direction by Paul A. Edwards (heavy on all-angles coverage, not an inspired shot in the bunch) and a script credited to Eric Overmeyer, Seth Fisher, Walon Green and Chip Johannessen that never feels like anything beyond a dry, pro forma compression of events. The Thanksgiving scene midway through the mini — a should-be-momentous interlude filmed instead as if it were a very special episode of Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman — has all the substance and sustenance of weeks-old stuffing.
It’s left to the cast to pick up the slack, though the supporting players tend to show up the leads. Both Kartheiser and Stevenson are one-note heroes, the former soft-spokenly obstinate, the latter seethingly gruff. Queypo cuts a striking figure as Squanto, though his arc as a Fredo-like manipulator of both the Natives and Europeans doesn’t pack quite the tragic punch it should. Trujillo is excellent as Massasoit — imposing at certain moments, achingly soulful at others and especially good in the climactic scenes when he makes his decision (wise in the short term, obtuse in the long run) to put his trust fully with the European settlers. The mini’s MVP, however, is Michael Jibson as the Pilgrims’ iconic military adviser, Myles Standish. His commanding performance strikes just the right balance between the mythical and the credible, as if he somehow instilled an animatronic Disneyland automaton with a stirringly virile essence.
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