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1:25:05 Signing the Mayflower Compact

The Mayflower Compact -- The Basis of America's National Pride

By Elsie Hamel

[1] After a series of episodes depicting the Pilgrim leaders as spineless, easily manipulated wimps, this scene (and the one immediately preceding it) shows these men, particularly William Bradford, as strong-minded and determined to deal with whatever hardships providence sends their way. The signing of the Mayflower Compact represents the realization of a dream, of the culmination of their struggle to establish a separate colony dependent upon only themselves for their livelihood, religion, government, etc. In light of the years of disharmony and frustrations with their social, political, and religious life in England, in Holland, and on the voyage, the achievement of a feeling of unity is captured and emphasized in the signing scene--unity not only among the Separatists, but all the settlers and with Captain Jones as well. The main thrust of the depiction of this event is to reinforce the unique position the Pilgrims hold in our history books and to justify our national holiday devoted to commemorating these settlers.

[2] In the Compact-signing scene, Producer Dore Schary, Director Clarence Brown, and Screenwriter Helen Deutsch attempt to portray this sense of historical significance and unity with a number of filming techniques: 1) by first showing the human qualities of the settlers as they argue about what property is due them individually, and then Bradford's exhortation that they must all work together; 2) the focus and angle of the camera; 3) the dress, language, and demeanor of the principal Pilgrim leaders; 4) the contrasting shots of Jones; 5) the roll call; 6) the tone of the narrator's voice; and 7) the music.

[3) As the scene opens, the general feeling of charged tension is displayed to illustrate the normal human apprehension the common settlers have concerning their welfare in the New World when they learn there is no valid contract with the New England Company; i.e., they are not so sure that Providence will take care of their needs, as the Pilgrim leaders believe. The spokesman for the dissenting group, John Billington, says, "Every man can take what he pleases; we starved and froze for weeks. We're free now. I'll trust my own strong back to get me my share of living." His attitude is a foretaste of his later actions: he was always a troublemaker, and in 1630 he was hanged for killing one of his fellow settlers in New Plymouth (Stevens 9-15).

[4] This disunity is dispelled as John Carver calls them to order, and Bradford gives a lengthy dissertation warning them they must all work together. He asks them to consider that their greatest danger is not the savages nor the the hardships of the New World, but the possibility of anarchy (lawlessness). (click here for link to audio recording) His address is the pivotal point in the historic signing of the Compact. Brewster adds that God is with them in the room.

[5] The camera angle and the actual positioning of the Pilgrim leaders at the table with the focus on the Compact itself is reminiscent of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (a painting by John Trumbull in the Capitol Great Rotunda in Washington, D.C.), a later document modeled after the Compact. But it is also a good likeness of the proliferation of drawings and paintings in our history books and national literature; thus, it is a familiar scene to most Americans. (see my image gallery)

[6] Against the dark background of the room, Bradford and Brewster in their dark suits with pristine white collars (and Carver so elegantly dressed) have an air of authority about them. When Bradford rises from his seat, this impression is enhanced by his imposing stature and the modulated richness of his stirring speech as well as Brewster's. To further highlight their importance, their presence is interspersed with several shots of Jones in his nondescript clothing, providing a sharp contrast and the psychological implication that the base of power on the ship has changed. This illusion is confirmed by the changing expressions on the face of Jones as the camera returns to him in four shots, but it is also an indication that he will have a change of heart at the end of the film.

[7] The value of this scene is stressed by the indirect camera shots of the Pilgrims in the actual signing process; additional emphasis is provided as a roll call is read, and each person is depicted separately in the act of endorsing the Compact as his name is mentioned by the narrator: Gov. John Carver, William Bradford, John Alden, Isaac Allerton, William Brewster, Miles Standish, Samuel Fuller, Richard Warren, Stephen Hopkins, Francis Cook, Thomas Rogers, Edward Fuller, Francis Eaton, John Billington, Christopher Martin, William Mullins, William White, James Chilton, Degory Priest. Bradford's signature is highlighted to indicate his central position in this venture.

[8] The tone of reverence in Winslow's voice as he describes the signing, from the Pilgrim leaders who crafted the Compact to the illiterate bond slaves who signed with an "x," adds a universal dimension to the portrait. His dramatic message is that this day must be remembered for the courage of this band of ragged frightened settlers "setting forth into they know not what"; "they have the true splendor of man." Finally, the surge of soul-stirring music as the ceremony commences completes the scene.

[9] This scene, then, is the pinnacle toward which the movie has progressed, beginning with the dedication in the opening caption and climaxing with the survival of the settlers in the final scenes. It is a slice of Americana to stir the hearts of all red-blooded patriotic citizens of the United States. There is no hint that the Plymouth Colony will be subsumed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692.