Saints & Strangers
Christian Movie Review
[Note: The author of this article was able to attend the red carpet premiere of this film in Beverly Hills. Check out his feature article on the event, complete with photos of the cast and filmmakers arriving on the red carpet and interviews with them. Also check out my new podcast episode to hear my audio from the red carpet interviews.]
The National Geographic Channel is adding some rich spices to the Thanksgiving turkey this year by bringing a stunning new true-story-behind-Thanksgiving historical drama called Saints & Strangers to television on Sunday, Nov. 22 at 9/8c (Nov. 22 is Part 1; Part 2 airs Nov. 23 at 9/8c.) I say stunning because, frankly, TV movies usually only reach a certain caliber. “Saints & Strangers,” however, is one of the best historical movies I’ve seen in a few years whether on the big screen or little screen. And — I’ll go out on a bigger limb here — I think it’s the best thing that NatGeo has done in recent years. I liked “Saints & Strangers” better than the “Killing” series (i.e. “Killing Kennedy,” “Killing Jesus,” etc). It also doesn’t hurt that it stars some fantastic thespians: Vincent Kartheiser (“Mad Men”), Anna Camp (“The Help”), Ron Livingston (“Office Space,” “Band of Brothers”), Ray Stevenson (“Thor”), Raoul Trujillo (“Apocalypto”) — just to name a few of the quality cast members.
It’s called “Saints & Strangers” (#SaintsAndStrangers) because it looks at a fascinating dichotomy in the people who traveled on the Mayflower: some of them were “saints” because they simply wanted religious freedom and a life of peace, and some of them were “strangers” who wanted to go to the New World for personal gain — for wealth and land. The film is so good because:
A) It is impressively ambitious in its high end production value, and its film craft is just as good (if not better) than many big screen films of the genre. The shots of the ship sailing on the ocean made my jaw drop — especially the aerial photography;
B) It has top-notch Hollywood talent involved;
C) It is a film that will likely hit home with faith-based movie fans. It treats the Christian faith with thoughtful, sincere respect, and there are many moments that express general Biblical truths in a powerful way — particularly the call to trust God and rest in His unchanging nature even in the midst of great loss and suffering.
It also challenges viewers with a question implied in the subtext: has America become a nation of saints or strangers — or perhaps a complicated mix of both? The film goes even deeper when it presents this question: is it possible for a single person to be a complicated mix of a saint and a stranger? As one of the characters says in the film: “savagery infects us all.” The Bible would agree: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23).
The way the film explores these questions is both heart-pounding and tear-inducing in several scenes.
The film also presents a moving testimony of faith as we watch sincere, passionate, humble-hearted believers experience the kind of extreme hardship that makes you wince; yet they keep pressing on in their relationship with God and heeding His voice even when it seems like everything is falling apart.
But He is Constant
One of my favorite scenes of the film happens after a character beloved by many of the pilgrims dies. And after the funeral, a grieving man says this to one of the women (Lizzie Tilley): “I feel my purpose has died along with the man I served for so long.”
Lizzie replies: “Not so…It is in service of the Divine that gives us both purpose.” She then explains how she is grieving too because the man who has died — he and his wife — was the family that took her in. But now she is alone again. But then she says, with a hope that quietly glimmers in her face that pushes through the tears: “But I have the Lord. And so have I purpose. Everyone else can vanish in an instant. But He is constant.”
That might be my favorite line of the entire two-part series: Everyone else can vanish in an instant. But He is constant.
The question I kept wondering, however, was whether or not the film would depict works-based Christianity (i.e. moralism) or grace-based Christianity (the belief that we’re saved by God’s grace alone through Christ’s atonement, not by doing enough good deeds in life or keeping track of how “righteous” we or others think we are).
Although the film never really talks about Jesus in great detail — mostly general “God” and “Lord” titles, with the rare mention of Christ specifically — there is mentioned the “grace of God” on many occasions, and that at least bears the most crucial mark of true grace-based Christianity in its purest form.
[An aside: Christian grace is not self-help advice; it is a scandalous claim, actually. Jesus didn’t present a mere “teaching” that people could use to find a path to God if they applied it like a self-help formula. He actually claimed to be God in the flesh. Big difference. He claimed to be what Timothy Keller calls “ultimate reality” birthed into human form — God made flesh — and in Jesus when we see ultimate reality incarnated into a human being, we watch in shock as this human being willingly dies on a cross for all of humanity and prays for His enemies with His dying breath. If there really is a God, in other words, and if that God really did become a person — Jesus Christ — to show His true nature to the world, then that is very good news indeed. Jesus, who called God His Father, came and made that very claim: that because He was God in the flesh, quite literally, then He alone had the authority to show the world the true heart of God, and that heart is an extravagant, ferocious, all-consuming love that not only forgives but works to refine our hearts in His fire.]
The film is not a theology lecture so it certainly doesn’t get into that level of detail, but the “saints” characters do demonstrate grace — though more in their actions than in overt dialogue.
Pilgrims in This World: Are We Becoming Saints or Strangers?
One of the most moving dynamics in the film is Squanto’s friendship with William Bradford, especially as each man finds common ground in their sense of estrangement from their homes. I love this conversation that occurs when Squanto finds Bradford sitting alone on the boulders of the shore, staring at the sea with a look of weary melancholy. As waves crash all around them, Squanto speaks:
“Do you long for your home?” asks Squanto.
“…No, I do not long for my home. I am home,” replies Bradford.
“Yet here you are alone,” says Squanto.
“As long as I have the Lord by my side, I shall never be alone in this life.”
“Is the Lord with you now?” asks Squanto. Bradford stays silent, and we see a complicated mix of emotions in his face — sadness, resolution, longing, weariness, faith.
And then Squanto speaks again: “Four times have I crossed this ocean. Not once by choice. In my time away I felt great sadness being alone — a stranger in a new world. With great joy I finally returned. Only then did I truly learn what it is to be alone. I sat not far from this place and wept into the waters that carried me so far away. That day I longed for my home.” He turns and smiles slightly. “Yet I was already home.”
It’s a haunting, beautiful scene that has stuck with me.
Later in the film, during the Thanksgiving scene, Bradford says to Squanto,”It’s a strange thing, to live amongst others, yet feel so alone.” Squanto replies: “But not today.” (And then they dig into a delicious looking feast. Wow, I’m hungry now.)
All of these scenes carry a complicated mix of bittersweetness and a longing for something — a longing for what we think is home — that not even home itself can satisfy once we reach it. It’s hinting at what C.S. Lewis described in his book “Surprised by Joy”: in truth, this world is not our home, and it was never meant to be. We are pilgrims passing through, doing our best to love each other and love God along the way, but with hope we are looking “for a better country, a heavenly country,” as Hebrews 11 says.
The question is, as we travel along on this pilgrim journey, are we becoming saints or are we becoming strangers?
Are we really following Christ or are we just paying Him lip-service and building our identity around a moralistic religion instead of an intimate, covenantal, devoted relationship with God through the perfect grace of Christ?
In subtle but powerful ways, “Saints & Strangers” raises these important questions (and many others).
My rating for “Saints & Strangers”: [usr 8] (See my notes at the bottom of this article about the rating scale.)
[Note: if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]
Parent Guidance Content at a Glance for this TV Mini-Series…
Violence/Gore/Scary Content (probably on the level of a mature PG-13 film): The most violent scene shows a man stabbed several times in the abdomen. The attacker is then about to cut into his neck, but the camera cuts away. However, afterward, we see the dismembered head of the man on a pike in bloody detail. War scenes include stabbing and shooting but no gore. Squanto gets sick and coughs up blood. A corpse is seen leaning against a tree. Dead bodies hang from trees.
Sexual Content/Nudity: None.
Language: A couple uses of b-word and d-word.
Note about my rating system for the movie’s film craft and entertainment value:
1 star = one of the worst movies ever made (the stuff of bad movie legends), and it usually (not always) has below 10% on Rotten Tomatoes
2-3 stars = a mostly
bad movie that has a handful of nice moments; it usually falls between 10-30% on Rotten Tomatoes
4-6 stars = a decent movie with some flaws, overall. Four stars mean its flaws outweigh the good. Five stars mean equal good, equal bad. Six stars mean it’s a fairly good movie, with some great moments even, that outweigh a few flaws. A 4-6 star rating usually means it falls between 30-59% on Rotten Tomatoes (but not always).
7-9 stars = a rare rating reserved only for the best movies of that year; and a film must have a Fresh Tomato rating (60% or higher) on Rotten Tomatoes to be given 7 stars or higher, with a few exceptions (if I strongly disagree with the critics).
10 stars = one of the best films of all time, right up there with the all-time greats (i.e. Casablanca, The African Queen, Gone With the Wind, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars Episode IV, Indiana Jones, etc.).
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