‘Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure’ (1979): Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Mayflower’s landing

Attention! Attention fellow American lockdown inmates!

By Paul Mavis

If you watch the 1979 CBS made-for-TV movie, Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure, starring Anthony Hopkins and Richard Crenna (now showing on Amazon Prime), you’ll learn that the America we used to know was largely founded by incredibly brave, outright ballsy religious separatists who risked drowning, starvation, disease, and physical torture, rather than allow a repressive government to tell them how to live and worship. Just remember that when you’re denied entry to your house of worship this Thursday morning, or when you’re choosing which three of your six kids’ families will have to stay away from your Thanksgiving dinner table, because some little tinpot socialist commie dictator governor and his or her feeble-minded “Presidential puppet” told you to…or else. You just remember that the next four years.

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Having already reviewed the lush 1952 M-G-M Plymouth Adventure a few years back for Movies & Drinks, I thought it would be a good time to look at another take on the subject—not necessarily because Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure is better (because it isn’t)—but because 2020 just happens to be the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower. What? You say no one mentioned that remarkable milestone to you this past year during phase one of the “Great Reset”? No one told you that this 400th year should have been marked with boisterous, lavish ceremonies all across this once-great land, commemorating those intrepid travelers who brought something to these shores far more important than their tale of that courageous crossing: the “Plymouth Combination” (a.k.a.: the “Mayflower Compact”), where our deeply religious founders chose not a theocracy but a civil arrangement of self-determination and self-rule? No? Oh well…we can talk about it again in 3020, I suppose, if there’s still such a thing as “America” then….

According to Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure, Puritan Separatist William Brewster (Richard Crenna), hunted by the English crown for sedition and treason, has finally secured (through an intermediary) passage for his congregation to sail to the New World. Piloting the tiny 90 foot vessel is Captain Christopher Jones (Anthony Hopkins), a cold, cynical, world-weary salt who’s only taking on the Pilgrims for the money and for the chance to see the New World before he retires. He cares not a whit if his profane crew deliberately taunts and offends the meek, reverent Pilgrims; his job is to transport his human cargo as efficiently as possible along the 42nd parallel, and that’s all.

Passengers and crew aboard the Mayflower include church elder William Mullins (Frank Hamilton) and his charming, beautiful daughter, Priscilla (Jenny Agutter). She immediately catches the eye of Mayflower cooper John Alden (Michael Beck), a stalwart, simple young man transfixed by her flirtatious manner. Naturally, other men notice Priscilla; primarily Myles Standish (David Dukes), a waggish rogue and soldier who has been hired as military advisor for the Pilgrims. Unfortunately, Myles is very much married to increasingly ill Rose (Trish Van Devere), who is all too aware of Myles’ attraction to Priscilla…since he makes no bones about it, openly admiring the young, healthy beauty right in front of his embarrassed wife.

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After one week out at sea, Captain Jones meets his new stowaway: none other than William Brewster. Somehow hiding under the hole deck boards the entire time, and thereby successfully eluding the insulting English sheriff (Paul Sparer) who almost held the Mayflower from sailing, Brewster tells the Captain he’s free to do with him as he wishes: take him to the New World…or feed him to the fishes. Jones, incredulous at Brewster’s nerve, waves him off, and thus begins a battle of wills and personal philosophies that rivals the raging storms, the cramped, wet conditions, the rotting food and dwindling water…and the romantic triangles, that challenge the Pilgrims’ progress across the Atlantic.

Of course I’m only guessing (since I couldn’t track down the Nielsen’s for that week), but if I had to…I’d say that CBS’s Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure probably sank against heavy competition over on ABC and NBC, way back on November 21st, 1979 (Thanksgiving Eve). With a weak lead-in at 8pm (part 2—part 2?—of an animated Raggedy Ann and Andy special), the poor obedient, god-fearing Pilgrims on The CBS Wednesday Night Movies (which didn’t crack the Top 30 that year) had to compete against ABC’s potent line-up of Eight is Enough (12th for the year), a disco kidnapping plot with Charlie’s Angels (20th), and a D.O.A. knock-off episode of Vega$. Even more brutal competition came from NBC, with a gawd-awful Real People (14th) Family Reunion clip show, followed by The Bee Gees Special, a filmed concert of the supergroup during their Spirits Having Flown Tour (Willie Nelson and Glen Campbell were brought in for cornpone seasonin’, y’all). Short of Priscilla Mullins showing her melons (of course she would have forgiven that joke. And prayed for me), or a killer Great White added for laughs, I just can’t see how a distressingly sedate, too sincere re-telling of the Pilgrim’s voyage could beat all that combined spandex, cleavage, and throbbing disco beats. And that’s just Robert Urich.

I don’t remember Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure at all, but I expected it—having been shot 27 years after the more popular M-G-M version—to be at least a little more…forward, shall we say, in its presentation, particularly since the famed romantic triangle of Standish, Mullins and Alden is a major subplot. Imagine my surprise, then, when it turned out to be even more chaste than the Spencer Tracy/Gene Tierney Plymouth Adventure outing. That loud, brash, even horny version looks positively decadent next to Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure. Written by James Lee Barrett (The Green Berets, Smokey and the Bandit), and directed at half-speed by George Schaefer (the hilariously awful Doctors’ Wives, tons of made-for-TV movies), Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure‘s overall tone is almost funereal in its at-arms-length approach to the material. Frankly…the Pilgrims were more hands-on.

Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure is a great example of why straight history lessons in movies and TV often aren’t only not necessary…they’re rarely any fun. I’m not asking for the love triangle here to be portrayed like a Harlequin Romance novel cover (although that would have been sweet: sweaty, grappling Pilgrims ripping away their bodices and britches!), but can we at least have some heat in the various dynamics? Some true passion? After all: these were people willing to sail over a hostile sea in a teacup, to be dropped off in a strange, forbidding land by themselves where they could very well have been slaughtered by Indians or perish from the elements, with only their faith in God to strengthen their resolve. Mere faith. How about showing that burning faith, that overriding conviction? Instead, most of the Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure‘s declarations of Christian devotion are as scintillating as the muffled murmurings at a Methodist potluck dinner (the kind we used to have in the church gym…with 10 different kinds of baked bean casseroles and 16 different Jell-O salads to choose from).

The theological wranglings between Hopkins and Crenna aren’t much better. While there are a few isolated exchanges that whet our appetite for some real conflict (when Crenna asks Hopkins to curb his crew’s free—and profane—speech, which Hopkins rightly turns back on Crenna as hypocritical), they’re over before they start, and delivered in a rather shockingly drab manner. Crenna I get, acting staid and colorless (his forte was always comedy…which he didn’t do nearly enough of), but Hopkins? Jesus, there’s only one thing worse than a horribly hokey turn from eye-rolling, jaw-jutting, tick/shtick-infested Hopkins, and that’s a bored performance from that hilariously overrated ham. Preoccupied-seeming and slow, Hopkins’ Christopher Jones isn’t “world-weary” and “cynical”…he’s neurasthenic. How can we become involved in this central quarrel between the holy and the temporal, between faith and cold reason, when both actors appear to discussing their bowling scores?

Thank god for David Dukes, who gives Mayflower: The Pilgrims’ Adventure its only bit of juice. Shamelessly waggling his eyes at Jenny Agutter, Dukes’ strutting, boasting Myles Standish is finally a performance matched to the character. While it’s a crime for gorgeous Agutter to be in anything that doesn’t require at least one disrobing, she manages a rather intriguing Priscilla Mullins, a young woman who acknowledges the naturalness (and even godliness) of women and men flirting and being attracted to each other, as she remains refreshingly open to the idea of taking either Dukes’ Standish or Beck’s Alden (you can see why quiet, unprepossessing Beck didn’t go onto anything bigger after The Warriors…particularly when he weirdly reminds one of a butch Kay Lenz).

Still…this is 1979 TV, further hampered by a network no doubt terrified of showing the Pilgrims as anything less than saintly, so Agutter and Dukes can only go so far. If watching Mayflower: The Pilgrim’s Adventure spurs one to seek out the headier, proto-rutting Plymouth Adventure, and that in turn compels one to seek out a good book on the Mayflower and the Pilgrims in these waning days of their 400th anniversary, well…I can think of worse things to do in the coming weeks, before the seven seals are broken, and the seven trumpets sound.


Read more of Paul’s TV reviews here. Read Paul’s film reviews at our sister website, Movies & Drinks.

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