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Summer 2006 | Volume 29, Number 3 | Books & Film

Paradise Lost

In The New World, Pocahontas takes moviegoers on a spiritual journey

Pocahontas means “playful one.” And perhaps it was playfulness that led the 12-year-old Native American princess to courageously befriend a man from another world: British explorer Captain John Smith.

Those were tense times for the native Powhatan tribe as British settlers moved into what would become known as the Virginia territory in 1607. And it wasn’t exactly a picnic for the British either. As they staked their claim and set up the Jamestown settlement, disease and weather proved to be as dangerous as the disgruntled residents of this “new world.”

Thus, the relationship between the girl and the captain became a crucial, peacekeeping link. Without their unlikely bond, the newcomers might have starved.

Despite persistent mythmaking, there is no proof that Pocahontas and Smith fell in love. In fact, she later married another Englishman, John Rolfe. They had a son, who traveled with them back to London, where Pocahontas died at the age of 21. But storytellers seem unable to resist the possibility that the strength of her relationship with Smith stemmed from a passionate love affair.

The idea proved irresistible to the legendary director Terrence Malick, a filmmaker who is far from prolific. His three previous films — Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line — were released over a 30-year period. But he’s emerged once again to share his version of the Pocahontas/Smith story, and The New World is his most ambitious project yet.

Heavy Oscar competition and New Line Cinema’s lackluster marketing endeavor ensured the film’s burial during its theatrical run. But a new DVD release, and reports of an upcoming expanded edition, have returned the feature to the spotlight. Now viewers have another opportunity to see three compelling performances and an unusually poetic contribution to the cinema of American history.

We trace Malick’s imaginative embellishment through a variety of episodes based on journal entries and historical records: the development of Jamestown; the bewilderment of the natives; the hardships of the disease-stricken, malnourished English pioneers; and the tragic devolution of a cultural truce.

Once upon a time, Hollywood would have portrayed Europeans as valiant heroes driving back a wicked horde of savages. Today, it’s more likely to be the other way around: idealized natives get slaughtered by cruel caricatures of European conquerors. Malick avoids these generalizations. He clearly shares the natives’ devotion to the natural world, and yet, while he seems more sympathetic to their plight than to the sufferings of the presumptuous newcomers, he portrays both sides as being capable of courage, naiveté, brutality, and fear. While we watch Jamestown’s residents descend into anarchy and madness, it’s easy to imagine how this could happen in the middle of such hardship.

But Malick is even more interested in how the intimate romance of Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell) represents a larger human story — the universal longing for a paradise lost. Their journals and thoughts reveal dangerous assumptions: Smith thinks the natives are incapable of jealousy, while the princess believes that Smith has “no evil” within him.

The lovers’ idyllic dreams become unreachable fantasies in view of the growing animosity between their cultures, and their gentle romance is spoiled by the burden of cultivating peace. Where Brokeback Mountain celebrated the individual’s passion as the highest virtue, Malick’s convictions are more profound. He portrays the honor in restraint, the danger of uncontrolled passion, and the wisdom of trust, selflessness, and sacrifice.

Trained to root for rebellious lovers, moviegoers may be surprised to learn, late in the film, that the princess has another worthy admirer. John Rolfe (Christian Bale) is British, a Christian, and a tobacco farmer — three traits that American moviegoers usually associate with villains. But Rolfe is a sensitive, gentle soul, a man of profound faith. Eventually, Pocahontas will face a heartbreaking choice. Should she dedicate herself to a volatile, passionate explorer, or a humble, devoted farmer?

Malick is a rare artist who understands that creation itself “pours forth speech.” As his camera captures the magisterial beauty of water, trees, sky, and sunlight, he asks us to treat these things as more than just scenery. Whether Pocahontas is strolling through tall grass, or blessing a friend with the gift of a feather, she’s telling us things about herself that words cannot paraphrase. Such subtlety may bore those viewers who prefer fast-paced action and more conventional storytelling. But filmgoers who enjoy participating in the experience will be rewarded by this feast of visual metaphors.

Wim Wenders, acclaimed director of Paris, Texas, and Wings of Desire, says he has not seen a film of these proportions since 2001: A Space Odyssey. “I think eventually the film will go down as a classic, and we’ll remember 2005 as the year that The New World was overlooked. We will not even know anymore which movies got the Oscars.” He’s right. The New World may not be designed for today’s short attention spans, but it’s a masterpiece all the same.

— By Jeffrey Overstreet
— Photo by Meire Wallace /  New Line Productions


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