By Ciara O’Neill |
Terrence Malick’s 2005 film, The New World, is one of my new favorite treasures. Much like the British explorers in the film who went looking for gold in Virginia, I was looking for something special when I began to watch this movie. I wanted to know what would set this retelling apart from any other version of the story that I’d seen or heard. With that being said, Malick sure delivered. His film centers on the arrival of British settlers to Jamestown, the tensions between the “natives” and the “pale-faces,” and the life of a bright, young native girl, Pocahontas. The movie starts off in 1607 with a scene that shows the Native Americans rushing between flashes of brown and green forest, watching the ships filled with strange white men drawing nearer to the shore. Already in this scene, Malick is setting up the ominous tone of the film, preparing us for what is to come.
First, a word of warning: Malick’s version of this part of our history doesn’t mirror the endearing and whimsical depiction of the animated 1995 Disney film, Pocahontas. This adventure-drama motion picture very clearly presents the uneasiness of both the settlers and the “Powhatan” tribe and how dangerous this uneasiness proves to be. They’re both clueless to each other’s languages, customs, and ways of life. There is one strange scene where both the “pale-faces” and the “natives” stand before each other, inspecting each other thoroughly in what seems like a state of awe and fear. The natives run their hands over the bodies of the settlers, sweeping their fingers over the white men’s weapons, feeling over the strange cotton cloths that covered more skin than the natives were used to. Malick presents us with the way each group perceived the other. The natives do not trust the settlers and doubt that they have any intention of leaving their land alone. The settlers, however, believe that the Native Americans are inferior and uncultured, and the film clearly shows how quickly things can escalate when there are breaches in understanding between people. The battle scenes in the movie are intense, being the reason for the film’s PG-13 rating. These scenes kept my heart racing; I cringed every time a man was struck over the head and with every man that fell I continued to be riveted. However, I must applaud Malick for excluding explicit depictions of blood and gore, which I felt wouldn’t have added anything to the development of the story except for making my stomach turn.
During the first half of the movie, we are enamored with the romance between John Smith, played by Colin Farrell, and Pocahontas, played by then 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher. This is the first bridge we see in the film that connects both groups of people together after Pocahontas pleads with her father to spare Smith’s life, so that he may teach her about the land he comes from. For quite some time, they exchange very minimal dialogue, seeing that their language barriers permit them only so much. But during the many scenes of blissful embraces and smiling faces, their voices are heard, speaking poetic interior monologues from the perspective of their characters, filling up the empty spaces between them. Smith’s voice, smooth and heavy, comments in one scene that Pocahontas “exceeded the rest in beauty, wit, and spirit.”
Through Malick’s work, we begin to see Pocahontas as a representation of all the tribal peoples: she becomes their metaphor. Her peaceful and curious nature, the way she runs through the forest and seemingly becomes one with her surroundings—this all paints a clear picture of untouched innocence, a land and a culture still untainted by Western expansion. But by the last forty-five minutes of the film, she is known as Rebecca; she has been baptized, and allows herself to be taken on a journey to the “Land of Kings and Queens.”
Malick contrasts the settlers’ complete takeover of the “New World” and Pocahontas’/Rebecca’s seeming assimilation to English customs with his imagery of the wilderness. His film is flooded with emphases on nature, with camera-shots flying over the endless streams and meadows that seem uncontainable. Instead of making nature a backdrop setting for the film, Malick makes the film about nature, both human and environmental. Pocahontas is the most organic symbol of them all, herself being a form of uncharted territory at first. But by the end of the film, she is discovering a “new world” of her own; a world that involves a marriage not to her lover, John Smith, but to another Englishman, John Rolfe (played by Christian Bale), a world that no longer gives her room to be the daughter of a chief.
Malick’s film depicts a variety of tensions and conflicts between and within each character. The distrust and anger between the settlers and the “naturals” (as the settlers once called the Native Americans) jumps off the screen in rhythm with the drum-beat playing in the background. Pocahontas has to make a decision to help the man she loves (Smith) or to stand by her tribe in their wishes to drive “the white man” away. Smith has to decide whether to stay with Pocahontas or follow a path that could potentially change the fate of his career. And at the climax of the film, Pocahontas makes a decision as to whether she will let love and trust into her heart again. Every character in this film makes a decision to discover their own “New World.”
The movie is slow-paced and covers about ten years (1607-1617) in the span of two and a half hours. The dialogue between characters is often choppy and spread out, but the performance of the lead actors is strong and consistent. Though Malick’s use of a stunning underage actress has often been deemed controversial, I believe it helped contribute the innocence and free spirit to her character that the filmmaker was hoping for. And at the end you realize how fond you’ve become of the “New World’s Princess,” Pocahontas. Bringing Jamestown’s first years to life, The New World gives us a front-row seat to the story of how two worlds collided with each other. At once historically situated and extremely relevant, the themes of this film express the tensions and conflict between different cultures that continue into our own day.
Ciara O’Neill is an English major at Lehman College, where she also studies Early Childhood Education. Her hope is to encourage young students to explore reading and writing in ways that transcend the classroom and that allow students to discover their creative abilities and interests. She spends much of her time writing poetry and travels often, looking for new inspiration everywhere she goes.
An earlier version of this review essay was published on the writers’ platform hichkey.com.