If you’re anything like the majority of modern Americans, the name Mark Twain is synonymous with his literary works like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. During your school years, you most likely were required to read one or both of these tomes that highlight the lifestyles and attitudes of middle America during the mid-to-late 1800s. You may have even had to read one of the author’s short stories, like “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”
But there is a good chance, unless you’re a voracious fan of Twain’s, that you have never read, or heard of, the literary work that set Twain up to be one of America’s most celebrated authors — the book that was Twain’s most read work during his lifetime, Innocents Abroad. A new documentary from Indigo Films, Dreamland: Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem focuses on this work and sheds light on just how important it was for the people of Twain’s time to get a raw, honest and, in Twain’s typical style, comical view of the Holy Land.
Dreamland starts with Twain’s initial decision to go to Jerusalem. While the six-or-so experts that are interviewed throughout the film offer conjecture on this decision, it isn’t explicitly explained. But as the film progresses the viewer gets the sense that Twain was trying to find a faith he had lost in Christianity and the Bible.
To go on this pilgrimage, the young journalist employed his writing abilities to pay his way across the sea, promising a newspaper 50 correspondences throughout the journey. And so, with his mission in mind Twain sets off across the Atlantic, a cigar-smoking, heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed, witty agnostic amongst a group of God-fearing Christians.
Throughout Dreamland we have a group of actors re-enacting the journey blended with a series of pans across archival photos, interviews with the experts and some original footage of the first filming to take place in Jerusalem. This is blended with a series of voices explaining Twain’s journey, from the aforementioned experts to Martin Sheen’s narration and then a voice that is meant to mimic Twain’s, offering lines from the author’s writings. This mix gives a well-rounded view of the journey; however I have to say the best voice throughout is Twain’s. His wit is timeless, with lines like “If Christ were here there is one thing he would not be, a Christian,” bringing some comedy into what could have been a dry film.
One thing that struck me was Twain’s incessant battering of Europe — where his boat made stops along the way — and how he continually remarks how nothing there is as good as in America. It reminded me of a former fraternity brother of mine that traveled to Germany and all he had to say when he got back was how bad the food was, how no one spoke English, how everything over there was just so old and how ‘Merica was so much better in every way. But Twain redeems himself to me when he arrives in Jerusalem and sees his traveling companions, the holier-than-thou Christians, walk into Muslim places of worship and refuse to take their shoes off and also breaking off pieces of Christian monuments to take home as souvenirs. He writes how appalled he is by their lack of respect, showing his empathy for the people, customs and cultures of the world.
One of the most enlightening parts of this documentary was the impact that these correspondences had on the American people of the time. At this moment in history tourism was just becoming a part of American culture, and even then only the wealthiest of people could afford to travel abroad. Twain’s accounts of Spain, Italy, France and ultimately Jerusalem, were the only honest accounts that many Americans had and these articles cemented in the minds of our country what else was out there in the world.
All-in-all Dreamland shares the story of a larger-than-life figure and the journey that allowed him to forge himself as one of the most important writers in American history.
See Dreamland: Mark Twain’s Journey to Jerusalem during Indy Film Fest at The IMA on Sunday, July 16 at 1:45 p.m. in The Toby or Wednesday, July 19 at 7:15 p.m. in The Deboest Lecture Hall.