Plymouth Adventure, a 1952 film with Spencer Tracy and Gene Tierney, is not a great movie. But as the story of the Pilgrims’ passage on the Mayflower it appears every season around Thanksgiving. It’s melodramatic and somewhat dated but still warmly moving and instructive. Tracy, true to his own real-life personality, effectively portrays a grumpy, unlikeable, and chronically depressed but competent Captain Christopher Jones, who meanly accepts a bribe to deliver the Pilgrims to chilly Massachusetts rather than the desired southerly Virginia.
Captain Jones also makes no secret of his trans-Atlantic lust for Gene Tierney, the primly attractive Dorothy Bradford, wife of Pilgrim leader William Bradford, who nobly suppresses her own hankerings for the bawdy captain, while hoping to save his despondent soul.
The Bradfords, like all the Mayflower passengers, brave an arduous ocean voyage on a rickety vessel wracked by storm, sickness, and deprivation. In a famous scene, a printing press, belonging to the literate Pilgrims, saves the ship by leveraging a broken beam back into place as the cold Atlantic waters pour into the lower compartments.
Gene Tierney, torn over her devotion to her devout husband and attraction to Spencer Tracy, disappears from the ship one night. Her bereaved husband is certain she fell accidentally, as her faith precluded suicide. The Captain is equally bereft. But the Pilgrims, having already crafted their Mayflower Compact to govern their new settlement, stoically begin building their new homes on the Massachusetts coast at Plymouth.
The Captain had resolved to return immediately to England, leaving the Pilgrims exposed to the harsh elements and their likely doom. But a final plea from Mrs. Bradford had softened his heart, which had been as hard as Plymouth Rock. Remaining off the coast until spring, the Mayflower offers shelter that ensures the colony’s survival and emotionally bonds the Pilgrims to their once cantankerous Captain.
In fact, half the new colony perished that first winter in the New World, as did about half the Mayflower’s crew. The repressed romance between Captain Jones and Mrs. Bradford is fictional, although not her mysterious death, nor most of the other sufferings the Pilgrims endured in their escape from Britain.
The film, much of it gray, frigid, and overcast, captures the harsh poignance of a small cohort of English dissidents who abandoned nearly everything in their native land at risk of their lives to create a new civilization where their Protestant faith could thrive. There is no portrayal of the first Thanksgiving. More powerfully, the film closes with Captain Jones generously offering to transport back to England any who desire to escape the further hardships of the wilderness. None accept the invitation.
Making such a film as Plymouth Adventure would be very hard today. Would political correctness allow a sympathetic portrayal of pious, Psalm-singing European Calvinists colonizing America? As P.J. O’Rourke once bemusedly opined, America was founded by “religious nuts with guns.” Such people might more merit FBI surveillance today, just as they were under surveillance back in the England of the Stuart monarchy. The Pilgrims were as politically incorrect in their day as they would be in our day. Fortunately for America, they were not intimidated any more by state or social disapproval than they were by dangerous Atlantic crossings or untamed wilderness.
And fortunately, the Thanksgiving holiday enshrines the Pilgrims’ courage and triumph into our national consciousness, despite all the countervailing social forces. Whatever their theology, it’s hard to demonize the hearty, hospitable settlers who shared the possibly first Thanksgiving with their helpful Indian neighbors. More commonly, of course, the Pilgrims are defanged of their decidedly unmodern religiosity with common portrayals of them as harmless, Amish-like characters in black hats and white lace.
Much of secular political correctness today would again consign serious religiosity to Amish-style abstention from modern culture and politics, rendering it seemingly harmless. Today’s cynical, disapproving, and often intolerant secularists are not unlike Spencer Tracy’s Captain Jones, who sneers at the Pilgrims’ all-consuming piety. Among other irritants, this piety prevents the voluptuous Mrs. Bradford from accepting the Captain’s offer to quit her straight-laced husband and naughtily return to England on the Mayflower with the Captain.
And why shouldn’t Mrs. Bradford have self actualized by escaping a difficult marriage in favor of adventures with the far more exciting Captain? Today’s arch-secularists likewise resent the opposition of the seriously religious not only to the still evolving Sexual Revolution but also to their insistence, against all the assumptions of post-modernity, on an authoritatively transcendent reality that supersedes radical self-autonomy and self-actualization.
The Pilgrims, who refused to conform to the state church of the Stuarts’ England, would just as vociferously have resisted the culturally imposed state religion of today’s America, with its rites of family and sexual deconstruction, its diminishment of human life, its relegation of all serious religion to the private sphere, its exaltation of state power, and its rejection of any spiritual authority that competes with contemporary fads.
It is the Pilgrims who are today rightly remembered and celebrated, not the king and state church that tormented them and chased them across the ocean to found a new civilization. The Pilgrims were on the right side of history, so to speak. Today’s religiously faithful, often despondent about our culture, might regain some confidence by recalling the trajectory of the Pilgrims’ example. William Bradford’s unfashionable religious dissidents prevailed despite the scorn of skeptics like Spencer Tracey’s Captain Jones.