The New World

Opening on December 25th in Los Angeles and New York; wide release on January 13th.

 

 

Terrence Malick’s ambitious and idyllic cinematic imagining of the story of Pocahontas and Captain Smith opens in wide release on January 13th.  It will appeal to the romantics among us as well as Malick’s fans (Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line), though historians may tag it as revisionist. 

 

In 1607, thirteen years before the Pilgrims would land at Plymouth Rock, three small ships from England sail up a river in what would be Virginia and found a settlement they name Jamestown. Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) leads the expedition and the men intend to look for treasure. One of the men, John Smith (Colin Farrell), is bound in chains, probably due to insubordination. He is soon released.

 

The tidewater and low country is lush, but food is low. Smith and some men travel up the Chickahominy River to look for food but encounter the Native American Powhatan tribe; all but Smith are killed. Smith is taken to the Powhatan village and remains there for several months, even going through a kind of ritual of acceptance into the tribe. He meets Chief Powhatan’s (August Schellenberg) daughter, the young Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). They spend much time together wandering the wilderness and swimming in the river; Pocahontas teaches Smith their language and customs and Smith teaches her English. They become very attracted to one another.

 

Meanwhile, Captain Newport decides to return to England for supplies and more settlers.

 

Before winter sets in, Smith returns to the settlement with food. The men are near starvation and they are fighting among themselves. But in the spring, the Englishmen plant corn, a sign of permanence. When the tribesmen realize the English are not going away, they plan an attack. Pocahontas warns Smith and a battle ensues. When Chief Powhatan discovers that Pocahontas has betrayed them, he banishes her to another tribe. Later she is traded to the English for a copper pot.

 

Captain Newport returns with supplies and families for the colony and Smith decides to take a ship back to England without marrying Pocahontas. He has one of the soldiers tell her later that he died while crossing the ocean. She is heartbroken, but resigns herself to learn the ways of the English, putting on their clothing and shoes, and accepting Baptism because she can no longer return to any of the tribes.

 

There are many layers to The New World, as Malick, who also wrote the script, tries to give image to the myths and written accounts about the founding of the Jamestown colony from the perspective of both the Native Americans and the English. It is a new world for the English and the English, but most of all for Pocahontas who realizes this new Anglicized world is her only option for survival.

 

The amazing fifteen year-old actress Q’orianka Kilcher, a newcomer who plays Pocahontas with depth and maturity, said in an interview that the tight corset, clothing, and shoes must have felt like a prison to the young woman who was giving up her cultural identity to survive. The change of costume from native to western clothing, said Kilcher, helped her as an actress to feel and understand what life must have been like for Pocahontas who after her Baptism would be called Rebecca. In actual fact, we never learn the name of this young woman in the film until she receives a Christian name – Malick’s nod to both history and the myth.

 

Some historians will surely accuse Malick of revising history since he does give way to artistic license for dramatic effect in several places. For example letters and diaries say that Opechancanough, played by Wes Studi, was really Pocahontas’ brother but in the film he plays her uncle who accompanies her and John Rolfe (Christian Bale; Batman Begins) whom she later marries, to England. According to early diaries and letters, the young Native American woman we call Pocahontas was probably traded to at least two tribes, but Malick decided to simplify the story which is already complex enough. The most obvious difference between The New World’s account of John Smith in Virginia and what a documentary might reveal is that this story is told as a myth that emerges from a shared dream world inhabited by the thoughts and non-verbal communication of director Malick and the actors who seem to play their roles intuitively. 

 

Wes Studi, known for his strong personifications of Native Americans on television and in movies, attached himself to the project because of his interest in the work of the Indigenous Language Institute of Santa Fe, NM (www.indigenous-language.org). He said in an interview with representatives from faith-based publications that the Algonquian language used in The New World was re-created out of about 27 words that were phonetically recorded in early documents. To Studi, who belongs to the Cherokee Nation, The New World while “wonderfully shot in the waving grass” is told from the English perspective because it is the Native Americans who lose and have to change, while the English express their entitlement to this land given to them in a grant from King James for commercial purposes.

 

Producer Sarah Green said to the same group of journalists that Malick manages to blend in a critique of this mythic version of merging of two worlds by having the English say that the Native Americans have no greed or jealousy in their hearts and then shows through visuals that they are willing to sell Pocahontas for a kettle; the Native Americans are offended by the smell of the unwashed Europeans.

 

Colin Farrell plays John Smith as a moral man, who is adventurous and courageous. His love for the young Pocahontas seems authentic and true. 

 

Terrence Malick’ filmmaking is experimental, as one film reviewer noted, because he is creating a new language for film by the jarring non-linear editing style, dependence on non-verbal communication for most of the film, and relying on his own imagination for how the real characters felt as historical events unfolded. The voice-overs are often soliloquies that accompany long, contemplative sequences and reflect Malick’s spiritual style in filmmaking. Malick is in love with visuals as actor Christian Bale noted, “You have the script and then depart from it completely, leaving out the dialogue”. Q’orianka Kilcher described working with Malick as, “If he saw the grass blowing a certain way, he’d just start filming it.” Then, “Because Malick would scrap dialogue, it was up to me to express what Pocahontas was feeling.” 

 

The New World is not a political or historical film; it’s an emotional experience – a visual treat for Malick fans. The New World is not an explicitly Christian film per se, although Pocahontas is baptized and the church is one of the first buildings to go up within the stockade. If anything, the film shows her to be a survivor who is resigned to her situation because being English and Christian is effectively the same thing. She quietly makes the best of blending two worlds although, as we know, it will lead to the eventual death of many Native American cultures. The New World could be a starting point, accessible to junior high students and up, to study the history of European colonization with parallels for today, if you want to give the film a contemporary reading. In my opinion, this aspect makes the film interesting for Christians and people of good will because human dignity and other principles of Catholic social teaching can elicit conversation about things that matter.

 

The child of Pocahontas and John Rolfe was the first inter-racial child born in the colonies; his descendents live on today.

 

With over one million feet of film shot for The New World, which Malick actually wrote the script for some 25 years ago (long before the 1995 Disney version of Pocahontas’ life), the final cut is 180 minutes long. Producer Sarah Green is betting that the extended version of the DVD will be even better.

 

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