Did you know that before Mark Twain produced some of the most important and influential works of his career, he parlayed his writing skill into a trip that took him from a small paper in San Francisco to Europe and ultimately the Holy Land? Not many people do, including myself, but the documentary “Dreamland: Mark Twain's Journey to Jerusalem” sheds light on this period before Twain become a household name and showcases that Twain possessed his trademark wit and biting commentary from the very start.
With the promise of 50 dispatches to the Alta California newspaper for the price of his journey, Twain boarded the USS Quaker City, a retired Civil War ship, filled with devote Christians headed to the Holy Land partially to find the faith he once held as a child, but more importantly for the young writer, a chance to find the voice that would make him a giant in the literary world.
The film follows Twain and the rest of the passengers on the voyage as they make their way across the Atlantic, through the Mediterranean and into the Middle East. Once they hit the Holy Land, Twain joined a party that would make the trek across the desert to Jerusalem. Along the way Twain watches in horror as members of the religious party chip away as holy landmarks to bring a piece of the Holy Land back to them. The little respect he held for the party quickly diminished as they crept closer to Jerusalem.
Once in Jerusalem, Twain's feelings of indifference for the members of his party only increases as they refuse to remove their shoes as they walk into Muslim places of worship. It was a rather hypocritical stance since most of his writings on the trek served to point out that America was better than anything Europe or the Middle East had to offer.
What I found most intriguing about the film was it shows that Twain, even before he was Mark Twain, was himself from the moment he stepped on the dock for the voyage. While the other held nightly prayer meetings, Twain hooked up with like-minded gents aboard who spent their nights not in prayer, but playing cards, using foul language, drinking and smoking their nights away. Another bonus is the first video footage of Jerusalem and the only known film footage of Mark Twain.
A blend of reenactments, commentary by Twain experts and a perfect narration from Martin Sheen “Dreamland: Mark Twain's Journey to Jerusalem” is an insightful look into a largely unknown period of Twain life and gives us a glimpse of writer before he became the Mark Twain.