Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “History is a myth that men agree to believe.” Truer words were never spoken when it comes to Thanksgiving.
The two-hour “American Experience” documentary “The Pilgrims,” Tuesday (Nov. 24), on PBS (check local listings), endeavors to explode a few myths about the holiday and give viewers a real history of what happened.
“They’re ripe to be exploded because of the way historical memory has worked about Thanksgiving,” says Ric Burns (“Andy Warhol: A Documentary”), who wrote and directed the film, tells Zap2it. “I mean, it’s funny. It’s kind of a funny little cartoon balloon we carry around in our heads. And unlike other moments in American history — the Revolution, the Civil War, about which we might know something — what we know is very kind of self-contained within that cartoon bubble. You know, buckled shoes. You know all the items the way I do, we can all recite them.”
As is the case with many legends, the real story of Thanksgiving is far more interesting, starting with the fact that the Pilgrims weren’t the first Europeans to put down roots on American soil. That distinction went to the settlers of Jamestown, Va., 13 years earlier in 1607.
The film details the Pilgrims’ ordeal after landing at what is now Provincetown, Mass., in November 1620. They faced rampant disease, starvation and death at the Plymouth colony, and to ward off attacks by the natives they would prop up their sick and dead against trees so they would appear to be sentries.
The Pilgrims’ relationship with the local tribes was complex. They built Plymouth Plantation on a site littered with the remains of the Wampanoags, who had been decimated years earlier by a plague brought over by European fishermen. Vulnerable to attacks by other tribes, the two groups formed an uneasy alliance. After surviving the brutal winter of 1620-21, they found their crops had yielded a considerable harvest and the following fall held a three-day celebration of games and food. But it wasn’t until more than 200 years later that President Abraham Lincoln, with the country in the midst of a divisive war, commemorated that feast as what is now Thanksgiving.
“It’s a product of 19th century America fighting a war about how to define what America is, the product of the Civil War,” Burns says. “It’s a product of the unlikely survival and return of this manuscript. I mean, no manuscript of Plymouth Plantation, no Thanksgiving.”
That manuscript was written between 1630 and 1651 by William Bradford, the colony’s governor, and it forms the backbone of the documentary. Here, the late Roger Rees (“Cheers”) makes his final film appearance in the role of Bradford.
“I really feel anybody who sees this film is going to go, ‘That’s what William Bradford looks like,’ ” Burns says. “Roger just got it. He just got it immediately. He could make the word ‘etcetera’ put a lump in your throat. And I can’t imagine anybody having done it better.”