Squanto: A Warrior's Tale

Squanto: A Warrior's Tale ★★★½

2-Minute Review:

For adults, something like "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" seems to often be the go-to Thanksgiving movie, but for kids it's got to be something like this. While there's shockingly little warring in "A Warrior's Tale", the film is still meant to be an engaging romp, and the performances are mostly pitched to be entertaining rather than dramatic. And in as much as we don't know many of the details of "Squanto's" life, the film actually gets the broad strokes right and does a good job of reminding us what Thanksgiving is all about. It wasn't just a celebration of having good food to eat, it was a celebration of a truce between different people, an acknowledgement to respect differences enough to work towards a common future. Now seems like a great time to remember that.

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For the Real Cinephiles:

Okay, the truth is that "real cinephiles" are going to struggle a bit with this one. It does actually start out making you think that somebody snuck another one by Disney. The beginning of the film has almost no English for probably more than 20 minutes, and much of the languages aren't subtitled. They trust that viewers will pick up the significance of what we're witnessing, which is Native American culture (the Patuxet tribe specifically): hunting methods, a wedding, reception, greeting ceremonies, and trading negotiations. It all works well to enforce that these people are not so different than any of us: they want the same things, have the same emotions. It's a lot of Show rather than Tell, and a promising start to the film.

Unfortunately, the script goes downhill from the time we start focusing on the English sailors. The acting gets hammy, the action scenes get broad, the music beats you over the head with emotional cues, and the whole thing seems rather as strained and hard to believe as any Hollywood blockbuster, though less exciting. I had assumed that all the more dramatic moments in this film were fictionalized by the writer (a soap opera actress!) but it turns out they ARE based on historical evidence. Squanto (whose real name was Tisquantum) was actually kidnapped and enslaved, was taken to the UK and lived there for years. He did learn enough English to later act as a translator, and the events at his village were true as well. The problem is that the script stitches these all together with such over-the-top gusto that they're hard to believe... (as an adult; I'm sure kids won't be bothered.)

The villain of the piece is the perfect test case. Sir George Plymouth is an English blowhard who's big into business and spectacle, and if you thought Michael Gambon screamed unecessarily in The Goblet of Fire, wait til you seem him here. Ruddy-nosed and cartoonishly-evil, Gambon is pretty hateable here but eventually just becomes laughable, as so many kids' villains do. As Squanto fends off a bear, jumps a horse onto a ship sailing by, and becomes totally fluent in English in like a year, his adventures in England are all rather silly, fish-out-of-water stuff. Worse yet, there is lots of reinforcing lazy stereotypical tropes, like "the noble savage", communicating with animals, prophetic dreams, and more kind of Othering writing that reveals exactly who wrote this. We don't really know anything about the real Squanto's life at this time, so the adventures are fair play, but I wish the details were stitched together with more thoughtfulness.

We do know about him playing a role in early negotiations with the Pilgrims, and that is basically shown here. They do contextualize it to make it a more personal story, and to drive home the meaning of Thanksgiving to a potentially-jaded audience. The film gets a bit hammy in this respect, but mostly is surprisingly dark and a bit mature for younger kids. It does stop at a *convenient* point though, leaving out all the self-interested stuff Squanto did later on....

Turns out that the real Squanto was something of a liar and braggart, manipulating different factions of tribes and settlers in order to get more from both of them for himself. He was facing possible death or banishment after being caught in a bit of an attempted coup, but he had a strong advocate in the Governor of Plymouth, William Bradford. He gave Squanto his freedom and a chance to redeem himself as a guide on a risky expedition, one which Squanto got sick and died on. Bradford wrote about it in the colony's records and seemed genuinely rather heartbroken at the loss of his problematic friend. All this happened only two years after the events at the end of this film. Goes to show you that a happy ending really just depends on where you decide to stop telling the story.

With a fairly strong, mature beginning and ending, Squanto has enough to warrant a holiday view, particularly with the family. Solid performances from Adam Beach and THE Mandy Patinkin will hold your interest through the silly middle part, and chances are that you can sneak some mind-opening education into your kids as they get engaged by the bulk of this film. For what it tries to do, it's a decent enough movie.

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