Hey tell me something: do we still live in America? Is there still a unified concept of “America” anymore? Because I have a fifth grader who tells me she doesn’t hear squanto from her teachers about the Pilgrims. They’re not talking about the Mayflower or Priscilla Mullins and John Alden or the first Thanksgiving this week. None of it.
By Paul Mavis
Lucky for her she’s got her movie-lovin’ dad to fill her in on the fictionalized, highly romanticized details. In comparison to other historical subjects (like say…WWII), there have been a scant few modern movies made about the Pilgrims and the Plymouth Colony (same for the American Revolution—odd, isn’t it?). Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s expensive, robust 1952 romantic drama, Plymouth Adventure, with Spencer Tracy, Gene Tierney, and Van Johnson, arguably remains the most prestigious production dealing with that nascent period of our nation’s birth. A middling hit when released around Thanksgiving time, it sold tickets…but not enough to offset an inflated $3 million-plus production cost. For the next twenty years, though, it was a staple of afternoon TV movie shows during the Thanksgiving season.
England, 1620: no time to be a Puritan in King-loyal, Church of England-lovin’ Britain. So…the leaders of the religious separatist group decide it makes just as much sense to brave the grave dangers inherent in an ocean voyage to the “New World” as it does to stay in England and either starve or get locked up…or worse. Moral leader William Bradford (Leo Genn), with his gorgeous nutcase wife Laura Pilgrim wife Dorothy, are ready for the challenge—but not for the sneering, aggressive verbal and physical assaults of the Mayflower’s Puritan-hating captain, Christopher Jones (Spencer Tracy). Jones, a hard-charging misanthrope, takes one look at Dorothy in her form-fitting Puritan glad rags and knows she’s not built for no psalm-singing (take out the “g” and add an “n” and now you’re talking!).
Along for the ride: earnest non-Puritan cooper John Alden (Van Johnson); boorish, sex-crazed First Mate Coppin (Lloyd Bridges); fugitive Puritan leader and stowaway William Brewster (Barry Jones); super-fine Pilgrim maiden, Priscilla Mullins (Dawn Addams); tough-as-nails soldier Miles Standish (Noel Drayton); charming rascal and narrator Gilbert Winslow (John Dehner), and plucky street urchin William Button (Tommy Ivo), who wants to be the first person on the Mayflower to spy the New World’s shore. Every manner of deprivation and hardship await the Pilgrims on their ocean voyage, from cramped, wet quarters, little food and water, unsanitary conditions, sea storms, busted main beams, and sexual harassment, to Spencer Tracy’s unrelentingly sh*tty mood. Will Dorothy choose her husband or the Captain? Will little Willie see the New World? Will Van Johnson stop smiling? Could the New World be any more of a welcome sight after this particular Love Boat from hell?
Don’t worry: this isn’t going to be one of those “comparative history” reviews, where I explain, point by point, how Plymouth Adventure gets historical record wrong. Of that…I couldn’t care less. I don’t go to the movies for a lecture. I want magic, kids, not facts. So if the descendants of the Mayflower pilgrims back in 1952 slammed M-G-M and decried how Plymouth Adventure slandered Dorothy Bradford, more power to them, but it ain’t my concern. If critics today laugh at this movie’s invented melodrama and glossy, romanticized M-G-M view of the Pilgrims and their voyage, then poor fools they for taking seriously a mere Hollywood movie, and then missing by a mile the point of the project in the first place. Who goes to an entertainment like Plymouth Adventure in the hopes of seeing historical “truth?”
So…my kid won’t get a strictly accurate history lesson from Plymouth Adventure, but she will see that beautifully crafted approximation of reality that was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s specialty, and that might lead her to do some follow-up on the subject (that happened countless times for me as a kid). Even with its script troubles and its questionable casting choices, Plymouth Adventure’s expensive, polished production can’t help but entertain.
Looked at from merely an adventure angle, Plymouth Adventure’s middle section is solidly drawn. Old pro director Clarence Brown (Flesh and the Devil, National Velvet, The Yearling) and equally accomplished scripter Helen Deutsch (King Solomon’s Mines, I’ll Cry Tomorrow, Valley of the Dolls) are adept at creating an increasingly claustrophobic, tense atmosphere on the Mayflower, culminating in a spectacular sea storm that deservedly won the movie the Special Effects Oscar for that year. That sequence—the highlight of the movie—is an absolutely first-rate example of golden age Hollywood craftsmanship at its burnished peak: the model work is exemplary (those crashing waves look as good as anything today); the camerawork kinetic (Brown creates an interesting effect of dollying the camera in and out to give the spray-fuzzy shots a rolling, sea-swept feel), and the production design meticulous (no detail is too small in the recreation of the Mayflower under siege by the elements).
Too bad the movie’s romantic drama elements weren’t as cohesively wrangled as the physical production. Central to Plymouth Adventure’s plot is a romantic triangle between Tracy, Genn, and Tierney. Granted, this movie was based on a historical novel…but why wouldn’t the producers go ahead with the far-better known triangle of John Alden, Miles Standish, and Priscilla Mullins? After all, Longfellow’s 1858 poem, The Courtship of Miles Standish, was a major catalyst for Americans to accept the Pilgrim narrative as transformed popular culture myth. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to film that (real or fictitious) love story, one still known to most adults and school kids back in 1952, rather than an unfamiliar invention featuring Captain Jones and the Bradfords? Tracy could easily have essayed soldier Standish, with Tierney a lovely (if older) Priscilla and Johnson kept in the Alden role.
As it stands, Tracy’s and Tierney’s love story is too vague to score much impact, although it’s well-acted. Give producer (and studio head) Dore Schary credit for trying to put a little heat under those prim Pilgrims, with Tracy’s drunken, horny captain pawing Tierney left and right while speaking of the ship’s Puritan passengers as “rutting beasts” in waiting. Unfortunately, we never get a handle on why, exactly, Tierney is attracted to the aggressively unpleasant Tracy (is it his heart or below the belt)…although being married to ineffectual wimp Genn should be answer enough for us (bad casting there, with too-soft Genn unbalancing the triangle). Tierney tries in her few scenes to convey some kind of inexplicable longing for Tracy…but we just can’t see it (which only makes her surprise exit from the movie fall flatter than a Puritan pancake). The rest of the cast is competent, with Johnson earnest but perhaps a tad too homespun collegiate for a 15th century cooper, and Bridges doing well as a nasty, earthy sailor.
In the end, Plymouth Adventure doesn’t provide much more than a Classics Illustrated view of the Pilgrims’ theology or psychology. However, the color-soaked, detail-rich production design, composer Miklos Rozsa’s beautiful, powerful score, and a few ripe turns from the familiar cast—along with that meticulous, action-filled voyage and sea storm middle section—all converge to give us first, a reasonably entertaining sea epic, and second, a tantalizing (if fanciful) primer on a seminal story from our shared past—one that should be more a part of our collective thoughts at this time of year.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.