Ric Burns wants to change the way you think about Thanksgiving. “It’s not just buckled shoes, pointed hats and turkeys,” he said in a recent interview with the Gazette.

The noted documentarian and seasonal resident of West Tisbury has created a new film, The Pilgrims, which premieres on Tuesday, Nov. 24, at 8 p.m. on PBS with an additional showing on Thanksgiving day. The two hour documentary follows the journey of the “essentially radical cult” of fundamentalist Protestants searching for their own Jerusalem.

Through the voice of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony from 1621 to 1657 and author of the book Of Plymouth Plantation, the program explores the real story of how the area was settled.

“We take the Pilgrims away from the myth,” Mr. Burns said. “The darkness of the story is shocking.”

Mr. Burns calls Thanksgiving also a day of mourning for the Wampanoag. — Courtesy Steeplechase Films

Ric Burns and his brother Ken have long been chroniclers of the American experience through their award-winning documentaries. Younger brother Ric whet his appetite on the genre working for his brother Ken on the series Civil War. Ric was hooked from the beginning and discontinued his graduate studies to pursue filmmaking.

“It’s just incredibly thrilling, difficult and joyous work to do,” he said. “Each film, you have to kill it before it kills you. And it’s easier to screw it up than make it work right.”

The Pilgrims is his 14th film under Steeplechase Films, the production company he founded in 1989. Known for documentaries that delve into American history, Mr. Burns often produces films for American Experience, a program on PBS. He is particularly well known for an eight-part series on the birth and growth of New York.

The circumstances of where the Pilgrims landed was a substantial reason the seemingly doomed colony survived, he said. They landed in Plymouth just after a plague swept through, devastating a huge portion of the Wampanoag population. Both the tribe and the Pilgrims were in dire situations.

“They were like two spent swimmers drowning in the sea who reached out to each other,” Mr. Burns explained.

“We take the Pilgrims away from the myth,” Mr. Burns said. “The darkness of the story is shocking.” — Courtesy Steeplechase Films

“The Wampanoag were crucial to the story and then marginalized by the settlement itself,” he added. “If you think of the Wampanoag, as you must on Thanksgiving, and that it is a day of mourning for them, we have the obligation to make it partly a day of mourning for us.”

Tobias Vanderhoop, chairman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), appears in the documentary to talk about the relationship between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims. While the film is focused on the Pilgrims’ story from the inside out, it also recognizes the pain and loss the European settlers caused to the Native Americans.

“There’s blood on our hands that there is nothing we can do about but acknowledge,” Mr. Burns said.

He called the arrival of the Pilgrims a creation myth that Americans do a poor job of fully explaining. Most Americans have a distorted view of the Pilgrims as the original freedom-seeking Americans who were allied with the Wampanoag, and were fighting for their individual rights, he explained. “It’s pretty to think it might be true, accepting only the whitewashed version. The blurry edge after Thanksgiving is hovering in a misty cartoonish limbo.”

The film purposefully attempts to bring out the real story and “give them back the gravity of what really happened.”

For the unvarnished story, Mr. Burns went to the primary source. The film crew was granted access to the original Of Plymouth Plantation manuscript.

Ric Burns is a seasonal resident of West Tisbury. He and his brother Ken have long been chroniclers of the American experience. — Courtesy Steeplechase Films

“We went into the bowels of the State House where the librarian kept an eagle eye on us, and filmed day by day, each page,” Mr. Burns said. “Every shot you see is the real book, every shot is a page that was indented with the pen of William Bradford.”

In Governor Bradford, Mr. Burns found a thoughtful, passionate soul who greatly believed in his God and pursued his Jerusalem. In his last performance before he died, the late Roger Rees, a Tony-award winning actor, gives voice to the governor.

“Bradford is so moving as a character,” Mr. Burns said. “I find him deeply, deeply compelling.” He admires Bradford’s honesty, tenacity, truthfulness and his recognition that the Pilgrims’ mission was failing.

“Any story with a character as complex and multifaceted as Bradford...is just fantastic,” he said.

No matter his respect for Governor Bradford, Mr. Burns said ultimately, America should be glad the Pilgrims radical religious plan failed, allowing the country to grow away from a mono-cultural straitjacket.

“However poignant their failure might be, we don’t want to live there,” he said.

The Pilgrims, while clearly a story about the past, has a way of remaining remarkably present. Through the harrowing account of perseverance, disillusion and cruelty, viewers connect to the unlikely band of fanatics who set sail for their own Holy Land. Nearly half of their population died, and under such extreme conditions, much of the survival of the Pilgrims was due to chance, Mr. Burns said, and chance still rules life.

“All of us live a heartbeat away from disaster. But our lives are not frail.”

The Pilgrims premieres Tuesday Nov. 24 at 8 p.m. on PBS and airs again on Thanksgiving at 9:30 p.m.