Movies & TV

Nat Geo movie tells gritty Pilgrims’ tale

Kalani Queypo (Squanto), right, teaching pilgrims how to plant crops in a scene from “Saints & Strangers.”

NEW YORK: With its political infighting, tip-of-the-arrow diplomacy and climactic decapitation scene, the National Geographic Channel’s film “Saints & Strangers” is the “Game of Thrones” version of the first Thanksgiving. The four-hour movie will premiere Sunday and Monday on National Geographic, following a rush to finish in time for the holiday. It tells the story of the religious pilgrims and thrill-seeking opportunists thrown together on the Mayflower and their efforts to build a settlement peacefully among the Native Americans they encounter.

Judging from accounts from the time, the elementary-school textbook tales of pilgrims and Native Americans holding hands over a harvest are too simplistic. So are suspicions that settlers went on a murderous rampage. The truth, said Seth Fisher, the movie’s chief writer, was far more complex.

“There was a lot of palace intrigue,” said Grant Scharbo, an executive producer.

Scharbo and Gina Matthews, his wife, were making the project as a short-run series for NBC when that network backed out a year ago. They made a deal with National Geographic, an affiliation the producers believe will enhance the film’s legitimacy.

National Geographic pressed for historical accuracy, even hiring an expert to teach actors the Abenaki language used in the film.

After some ups and downs, the leaders forged a peace with Massasoit, leader of the Pokanoket tribe.

He warned the settlers that other tribes were planning an attack. The settlers, led by William Bradford, held a meeting with other tribal leaders ostensibly to forge peace, but instead the English turned on them during the meal. As the pilgrims later celebrated the first Thanksgiving with Massasoit and his tribe, the entrance to the settlement was “guarded” by the severed head of Canonicus, the Narragansett leader.

Scharbo said his 10- and 6-year-old children can see most of “Saints & Strangers,” but certainly not the decapitation scene. He acknowledges there was some debate about including it. “Our goal was to tell the true story,” he said. “The problem is that the story has been sanitized to such a degree that no one knows the real story.”

Tim Pastore, programming chief at National Geographic, said the network takes depictions of violence on the air very seriously. “At the end of the day,” he said, “the authenticity of telling the story as it was was the guiding star to stay true to.”

The preemptive attack led to a 50-year stretch of peace between the settlers and Native Americans.

The filmmakers said they were surprised at the amount of strong source material available to help with the story, and that there were many more characters and subplots that could have been used but they had to be left out.

“I think America has reached a point where we don’t always have to see things through rose-colored glasses,” Scharbo said. “It’s good to explore the truth about ourselves.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on November 21, 2015, on page 12.

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