Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki; Editing: Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, Mark Yoshikawa
Production Design: Jack Fisk; Set Decoration: Jim Erickson
Costumes: Jacqueline West; Score: James Horner
Stars: Colin Farrell (John Smith), Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas), Christian Bale (John Rolfe), Christopher Plummer (Captain Newport), August Schellenberg (Chief Powhatan), Wes Studi (Opechancanough), David Thewlis (Wingfield), Jonathan Pryce (King George)
The New World is a cornucopia spilling over with such visual richness that it reminds me of that celebrated line Howard Carter uttered upon uncovering King Tut’s tomb. The first to enter and gaze on magnificent sights buried for nearly 3,300 years, when asked by his anxious benefactor if he saw anything, his awestruck response was “Yes, wonderful things.” Watching this Terrence Malick movie is like that – a bedazzling aesthetic experience that just leaves one enraptured. Painstakingly pieced together, it’s a finished masterpiece of found footage that retains its director’s intuitive appreciation for the unexpected, the accidental, the chance discovery. The New World is permeated by Malick’s own sense of wonder.
He’s the only director I can think of working in the American cinema today secure enough in his talents to bestow on audiences a rare honor. We’re privileged to observe his artistic process first hand, as it unfolds in all its splendor before us. Even within the confines of a tightly structured narrative like The New World, Malick affords us glimpses of reality as sifted through the eyes of a master, allowing us to see his selectivity at work. We feel privy to the choices being made in the editing room, the picking and choosing process, the struggle to find what works and what doesn’t, and his experimentation with different angles and camera movements. We can always see the artist’s brushstrokes and that’s a great part of the film’s fascination. The rewards of a cinema going experience like this one lie not in the emotional catharsis that comes from completion at the finale but in the exhilaration and euphoria of watching a movie that, even in its finished state still seems ongoing, a work in progress.
Malick isn’t afraid to leave his film feeling deceptively loose and formless, as though it were still amenable. There’s a definite sense that the director, who was cutting The New World right up to the premiere deadline and over it (his initial 150 minute print was recalled after five days in limited release and whittled down to its present 135 minute state), might not be entirely satisfied by this first draft. We get the impression while watching that upon our next viewing a shot may have been replaced or a different, even more evocative image chosen to replace the original. Malick is engaged in an odyssey of discovery as well. Nothing about The New World seems stable. It’s developmental, conceptual, a movie crafted in the very spirit of exploration.
The New World is Malick’s own glorious creation myth, not about the birth of the world mind you but about the birth of America, and the movie exists in a nebulous state of evolution, like the country it commemorates, broiling, developing, coming along, taking her initial baby steps, experiencing the pangs of success, failure, the fruits of her labors, striving toward something more, something finer, perhaps even something great. The director’s acute visual sensitivities have always gravitated toward the epically verdant and in this story of the founding of America, he’s finally found a theme worthy of that vision. He’s on lush, fertile ground. The final image of trees stretching skyward is apt. Malick too is left reaching for the moon. His film is an artistic inspiration. The New World is a visionary movie in every sense of the word and one that I think fully justifies such hyperbole and praise. While his contemporaries –Spielberg, Lucas, Altman, Allen, Scorsese, Polanski, Coppola – all the exciting young mavericks who injected some needed fresh blood into the anemic American cinema of the seventies, appear to have been experiencing a hardening of the arteries lately, becoming the very Hollywood establishment they once rejuvenated, churning out conservative, old fashioned epics like Gosford Park, The Aviator, The War of the Worlds, Oliver Twist, or repeating themselves, as Lucas did with his Star Wars prelogy and Woody Allen did with Match Point, Malick alone continues to stay the course with the same sort of challenging, unconventional pictures that first brought him acclaim.
Retaining its director’s seventies sensibility (Malick wrote the scenario in the late seventies and planned the movie’s release to closely coincide with the commemorative 400th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown), The New World looks and feels like nothing else put out on the market this year. Amidst the diversified line up of other politically charged and socially conscious movies produced in 2005, there’s also not another year in recent memory, maybe not since the seventies themselves, when its presence in theaters would’ve seemed more apt or been more opportune. Everything old is new again. Having made too few films over the past thirty odd years for his signature style to have waned through repetition and familiarity, Terrence Malick still seems like the hottest new director on the scene. His long absence has bred affection.
Advancing the most innovative and original means of screen expression since Lars von Trier initiated Dogma ‘95 a decade ago, The New World isn’t edited to the cadence of classical film narrative. Rather, it flows in a stream of conscience fashion as fluid as the river which serves as a central metaphor, drawing us deeper into this cinematic experience, the same way John Smith is drawn ever deeper into the wilds. Voiceover, which has ruined many a good film by over sentimentalizing or editorializing, telling us what to think about what we’re seeing, is applied brilliantly. Virtually all the dialogue was dubbed in post-production, and it forms a rich second layer to the film, an elegiac undercurrent of unfinished sentences, half formed ideas, digressions, asides, and fragmentary thoughts that enhance the meaning of what we’re shown. It’s not the discordant chorus of voices which battled for screen time and attention in The Thin Red Line, but rather three distinct points of view forming a romantic triangle, and a stronger symmetry to the film’s structure. Much of the dialogue for Malick’s screenplay was supposedly culled from the set of books Captain John Smith wrote recording his journey through this strange new world, but I find it hard to believe that the writings of that empirical observer were this elliptic. At first, there’s only Smith’s first person narration, then Smith and Pocahontas, their alternating voices converging (“Two no more.”), along with their bodies, into one. They speak in rhymed couplets:
He: “My true light.”
She: “Can love lie?”
He: “My America.”
Later, once Smith has abandoned his Indian beauty, his voice is overridden by John Rolfe’s, much as the latter’s love takes precedence in Pocahontas’ heart.
The preponderance of handheld camerawork, unshaped scenes, “natural” lighting and sound, and off-center framing comes close to the cutting edge of cinema vérité. The New World frequently appears as though it had been taken on the cuff, as events naturally unfolded around the lens. Indeed much of it was shot in just such a manner. Christian Bale, who plays John Rolfe in the film, has afforded an interesting insight into the director’s working methods, filming his actors when they were unawares, encouraging improvisations, instructing them to do what comes naturally, to wander where they pleased on the set, whether or not they remained in the camera’s line of vision, unmindful of how much footage was expended over the duration (over a million feet of exposed film at last count). There was no need to expedite things. Malick knew all the excess corn would be husked during his laborious editing process, when he ran his footage through the thresher.
The New World and The Thin Red Line are in the forefront of a trend that might take off but, more than likely, will never be fully embraced or adopted, any more than Dogma ‘95 has been. It’s a dead end idea that can only function properly in rarefied settings like ethereal Hollywood romances. Malick’s style is really a romanticized version of von Trier’s; the directors’ artistic aims aren’t so different, despite The New World’s bloated budget. During filming, Malick and cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki adhered to a predefined series of photography rules similar to dogma including:
“1. No artificial light. All is shot in natural light.
2. No crane or dolly shots, just handheld or Steadicam shots.
3. Everything is shot in the subjective view. All shots must be ‘deep-focus shots,’ that is everything (the foreground and background) is visible and focused.
4. You (the camera crew) are encouraged to go and shoot unexpected things that might happen in accident or if your instinct tells you so.
5. Selective shots: any shot that doesn’t have visual strength is not used.”
With more minimalist period pieces like Dogville and Manderlay, von Trier himself has pretty much proven how self defeating such dogma as this can be, so it’s unlikely that other directors would choose to be hampered by them. Rules such as these, intended to liberate the creative process, can just as easily serve to constrain artistic instincts when too rigidly adhered to.
Much as the revolutionary concept of German expressionism was introduced to the mass market through the vehicle of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, only to trickle haphazardly into the majority of movies produced throughout the twenties and thirties, influencing but never quite overriding the cinema’s predominant proclivity for realism, The New World’s technique just jars too harshly with reality to ever meld fully into the moviemaking mainstream. And not surprisingly since it’s a more muted form of expressionism itself. Rather than employing sets, as the early German Expressionists did, The New World uses voiceover to externalize characters’ psychological states for us. Audiovisual impressionism is an apt phrase to describe it.
Just as the Jamestown settlers wrested civilization from raw, virgin land, Malick too qualifies as a pioneer. He’s in the vanguard here, struggling to distill and refine a new, idiosyncratic language from the rudiments of screen narrative, an intense audiovisual fusion of imagery and sound. Lilting to the eye and soothing to the senses, The New World is the cinematic equivalent of a tone poem. It uses moving pictures to lull one into a certain frame of mind the same way painters use colors, or writers imprint with words. It is poetry in motion and, like poetry, this film unfolds at its own leisurely rhythm, every line or image intended to evoke a corresponding associative emotion in the viewer.
Overflowing with sense impressions, it’s disarmingly sensual, appealing to our eyes (with ravishing, baroque visuals that linger with you like a fever dream, this is cinematography to be savored slowly; Lubezski richly deserved his Oscar nomination), ears (not just the voiceovers and rapturous score by James Horner, who hasn’t been in such fine form since Titanic, but also in Malick’s experimental employment of audio, his concentration on the sounds of nature, wind blowing through the grass and trees, the waves breaking on the surf, crickets, animal calls which are imitated by the Indians – sounds recorded on the audio track in the same random way the human ear might pick them up), taste (the importance of food to the starving settlers is made palpable to us), touch (Pocahontas caresses Smith’s features as he teaches her the English words for eyes, mouth, ears, etc.), and scent (the Algonquians sniff at the offensive English upon their first meeting).
Malick’s fusion of the five senses is highly effective for screen romances such as this. It serves to heighten our sensibilities, keeping us securely anchored to the human interest of this sprawling, epic narrative, its heart. Our attention never wanders as it did in The Thin Red Line. That movie had impressive and moving interludes too, but by the time they cropped up our attention had become so diffused and dissipated over the course of Malick’s many other musings that it was impossible to resharpen our focus to fully appreciate them. The director’s style doesn’t mesh so well with traditional genres like war movies. It’s too delicate, cerebral for that. Harsh action shatters the mood he so carefully builds up. It seems rude and intrusive and here, it’s intentionally meant to. Shattering the mood becomes part of sustaining it.
Despite The New World’s lofty aspirations, it’s refreshingly absent of pomp and circumstance. As opposed to most others, this costume drama never seems stuffy or stately. It’s not a hidebound history lesson but rather something vibrantly immediate and organic. Though it clocks in at over two hours it never petrifies into a cinematic monument to national progress, an American pageant, and while it unfolds deliberately, languorously, there’s no sense of ponderousness to this pacing. Scenes have been edited for brevity, lasting just long enough to make an impression, impart essential information, or allow us time to drink in their beauty but they aren’t held too long. They never outstay their welcome or become glorified tableaux. The New World doesn’t feel chopped up or sprawling the way Malick’s The Thin Red Line did either (apparently stung by the criticism accorded that earlier effort from so many quarters, the director has made an admirable attempt to streamline his follow up to it), though there’s evidence that much material has been weeded out along the way.
Christopher Plummer has great presence. In interpreting august, respected historical dignitaries like FDR in Winchell, Mike Wallace in The Insider, Aristotle in Alexander, and Captain Christopher Newport here, he’s far and away to becoming the grand old man of the silver screen, its most distinguished purveyor of patriarchal personages. He carries authority in his very bearing, snapping us to attention with his gravelly voice and perfect, theater-trained elocution, making us believe that his arrival would instantaneously restore order to the Virginia colony Newport founded, and which had been floundering ever since. It’s not the same rigid authority Plummer wielded as the inflexible martinet of The Sound of Music. He’s softened with the years. Facial wrinkles have successfully broken up that fixed, emotionless facade into a thousand different avenues of thought and meditation. There’s a sly twinkle behind those steel cold eyes now. His Newport is a visionary, like Smith (the speeches they make, Smith in voiceover, Newport to the settlers, about what they wish this new world to become are identical in spirit – even presiding over the interracial marriage of Rolfe and Pocahontas), but that’s a fact we don’t immediately realize because his part has been severely truncated.
From all appearances, Newport was intended to be a plum role for Plummer, the character serving as the moral compass of the movie, its conscience and thematic gravitas. It’s he, rather than Smith, who gets to mouth that great line about America not going wrong in her first hours (which appeared in the movie’s trailer but doesn’t in the movie). The director steps on the actor’s big speech to the colonists as well, trailing off while he’s still speaking. Apparently, Malick felt the words sounded too uplifting under the circumstances. He cuts from Plummer, to images of the deserted fort, desolate, flooded, mud caked. It’s a directorial choice necessary to stress the fact that, even at this stage, America has already slipped away from the ideals of her founding fathers, become an aborted gangplank leading out to nowhere, the stump of a felled tree – ideologically, she’s a stillborn nation – but it deprives the actor of what should’ve been his coup de grace. Yet even robbed of his crowning moments Plummer still fares better than most of the other names onscreen.
Half the anticipation in watching a Malick movie, for the cast as well I’m sure, arises from wondering which performances got left on the cutting room floor. There’s plenty to choose from here. Pity the fate of poor Ben Chaplin, who was afforded such a touching interlude in The Thin Red Line as the lovelorn soldier who receives a Dear John letter from his faithless wife. He’s been reduced to a glorified face in the crowd along with John Savage whose presence barely registers (he suffered the same ignominious fate in The Thin Red Line, you’d think he’d have learned his lesson). David Thewlis has a choice role as a twitchy climber whose power goes to his head, but he’s dispatched so peremptorily that the effect is almost comical. Noah Taylor breathes fire into one brief bit, hurling abuse at the Algonquians before the big battle begins, but that’s pretty much the end of him as well while Jonathan Pryce isn’t permitted to utter a single word, his mouth safely buried beneath King George’s bushy beard. Conjecture about the other directions Malick originally intended going with these characters and others, like August Schellenberg’s Chief Powhatan, is tantalizing but pointless. It seems a waste to assemble talented actors if you’re not going to be able to exploit their skills. From the finished film, extras could’ve played these parts as easily.
I. Paradise Lost
We all know the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, we have since we were indoctrinated with it as wee ones in school (and for those who weren’t, there was that Disney cartoon), but The New World is not the same old corn, newly fermented; there’s more than simple historical revisionism going on here. Malick makes everything seem new and unfamiliar. The deeper it penetrates into the wilderness, with that journey up river in search of a rumored city and the mighty king who lives there, the darker and more foreboding the movie becomes. This is Virginia but it feels as forbidding as the Amazon, with strange sentinels silently watching from shore as the ship glides by, and what appears to be a shrunken head hung from a tree branch, warning trespassers to turn back. When John Smith is separated from his party and wades, disoriented, through the reeds of a marshy swamp, unnerved by the weird animal calls of the unseen natives all around him, before being riddled by their arrows, we recall Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God in which Klaus Kinski’s iron clad conquistador likewise journeyed by river in search of the lost city of El Dorado. This is America as seen by a foreigner and it’s never appeared more alien to our eyes, a new world indeed. Malick casts this storied leather stocking tale in a different light than most writer-directors would have, and does with it what only an artist could – in offering a novel take on the all too familiar he expands our horizons, inducing viewers to see things from a different perspective as well, opening a window on the past that makes it appear completely fresh to us. We journey through The New World historical virgins and are born again.
This may be Virginia as we’ve never seen it but thematically it isn’t exactly virgin territory Malick’s mapping here. We stalked through these grassy fields before, when they passed for Guadalcanal, swum through these same baptismal founts in the South Seas, heard similarly abstract ruminations in tandem with lucid, dream imagery. For this movie, Malick has greatly expanded on a subsidiary thread from The Thin Red Line which anticipated, in miniature, the theme of The New World. In that earlier film, an army deserter played by Jim Caviezl (who, coincidentally, would be cast as Jesus in The Passion of the Christ) stumbled across an undiscovered tropical paradise in the Pacific Islands, only to see it increasingly encroached upon and ultimately obliterated by WWII. America is the Paradise found in The New World, but the reckless Jamestown settlers succeed in annihilating it all the same.
“Look beyond these gates,” Newport enjoins his people, “Eden lies about us still,” and indeed the movie stresses the unspoiled beauty of this Promised land and the natives who inhabit it. The English liken them to “a herd of curious deer,” in the racist belief that these indigenous peoples are of a lower order of life, more akin to animals, inferior to and less evolved than whites, but Malick paints their primitivism as a positive thing, even describing them as “naturals,” in keeping with the manner in which they’re depicted. Uncivilized, and hence uncorrupted by the civilized world’s sins, these ‘noble’ savages represent man in his ‘natural’ state, before his fall from grace, living off the bounty of the land and at peace with its animal kingdom, who they see not just as game but as brothers with souls the same as man. They incorporate feathers and hides into their ceremonial clothing and carve animal totems to be revered and worshipped. In their play and pastimes, the Algonquians respectfully imitate bird caws and hold their hands to their forehead like antlers.
“We have escaped the Old World and its bondage,”Newport confidently declares, but however far they may run, these Europeans can’t outdistance the innate corruption that sullies men’s souls, the taint of original sin; they can’t run away from themselves. These voyagers who must subjugate the lands they colonize, taming, and turning it to their will rather than living in harmony upon it, carry the baggage of bondage around with them. The screen is awash in its implements. Ropes, nooses, knots, chains, yokes, stocks, leashes, bolts, locks, litter a liberating landscape where they have no business. The fort itself, comprised of spiked bars, is fashioned to resemble one huge cage, an eyesore that blights the horizon, cutting its line of sight. Sectioning the ground into one square patch of earth, the green, leafy Eden Newport mentioned is securely shut without its imposing wooden walls.
Smith is part and parcel of this Old World; he encompasses both its hopes and its failings. It was he who arrived on these shores in literal bondage, clapped in irons for making “mutinous remarks,” and so it is he who is intended to symbolize the first settlers’ failed search for salvation. Tellingly, when we first clap eyes on him he’s emerging from the inky darkness of the ship’s hold, reaching up toward the heavens and spiritual enlightenment. Washed pure of the sins of the past in this new world, he’s reborn – literally. It’s here where he receives a second lease on life. Sentenced to hang, his hands tied together in the posture of prayer, he’s instead offered a reprieve by Capt. Newport, the chance to start anew. John Smith, the most common of English names, is everyman, the embodiment of all those who made the pilgrimage to this Promised land “under a cloud” of suspicion and doubt, morally corrupted by the Old World, and were afforded the chance to make a clean breast of things, the invaluable “opportunity to repair (their damaged) reputation.” Unshackled, it’s Smith who wishes to “make a new start, a fresh beginning.” His words speak for the collective interests of the colonists.
Sent to establish trade relations with the powerful Algonquian nation, Smith’s journey upriver becomes a revivifying spiritual odyssey (“Who are you, whom I so faintly hear? Who urge me ever on… toward the blest?” he asks). Held captive in Powhatan’s village, where he is condemned to death, he’ll again be resurrected, this time by Pocahontas, who implores her father to spare his life. With the surrounding Indian women rhythmically pumping his chest in time, as if trying to resuscitate him, Smith, who had been this close to entering the light, is snatched back from death’s door, the wind put back in his sails. Malick goes a bit overboard on the religious imagery here, embellishing Colin Farrell’s long, flowing hair and Jesus beard by placing a wreath on his head in imitation crown of thorns, before he’s hoisted by the Algonquians shoulder high, arms outstretched in the traditional stance of crucifixion, but it remains in keeping with the biblical theme (later, he’ll suffer Christ’s Passion as well, when he’s whipped and pilloried by his people). Smith has gone to a better place, discovering a different kind of new world among the Algonquians than he knew at the fort – a heaven here on earth. Encased like a sardine before, in heavy steel armor which proved worse than useless (weighing him down, the visor blocking his peripheral vision) when he was beset by the hostile, lightly clad natives who could move about freely, he seemed self-entombed. Still encumbered by the bondage of the Old World, this suit itself was an aperture of entrapment. But once emancipated from the constraints of civilization, Smith discards its physical habiliments as well, doffing both the armor restraining his body along with the armor of inhibitions encompassing his soul. He dresses lighter and lighter, first only in the vestment of trousers and loose, billowy blouse, then no shirt at all.
An ever more feral Farrell goes all Dances With Wolves on us, throwing in with the Indians, which doesn’t seem quite as peremptory as it might, considering we’d been tipped to his seditious leanings at the outset. Smith goes native, as Private Witt did in The Thin Red Line, submitting to the Algonquian purification rituals, taking part in their ceremonial rites, being decorated with war paint. His ‘captivity’ in the village really affords him his first taste of freedom. For it’s here that he’s finally found what he’s spent his entire life in search of (“How many lands behind me, how many seas?”).
It’s no coincidence that Smith both enters and exits this dream world blindfolded. He’s been blind all his life. It’s only here where he sees clearly how things ought to be. Malick patterns The New World after Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, a philosophy in which man’s search for spiritual enlightenment was compared with the plight of prisoners chained since birth in a cave, their only visual impressions the shadows cast on the walls by figures passing by outside, their “truth literally nothing but the shadows of the images.” This concept is literalized in the character of Smith, who’s introduced chained in the ship’s hold where he dwells in the darkness of his unenlightened state. During his ‘captivity,’ he becomes Plato’s prisoner released from the cave. With the blinders that have blinkered his sight removed, he’s granted a vision of a ‘true’ life as distinguished from the ‘false’ delusion he had previously weathered under.
Malick visually plays with this theme as well. Occasionally he’ll show us a crystal clear image, such as of a line of trees, only to have a slight ripple betray that what we’re actually seeing is their reflection cast off a placid surface. According to Plato in regards to his prisoner, “What he saw before was an illusion, but…now when he is approaching nearer to being and his eye is turned towards more real existence, he has a clearer vision.” Having turned from darkness to day Smith is initially blinded by the light. His eyes unaccustomed to the brilliance, he sees “the shadows best, next the reflections of men and other objects in the water.” Indeed the film opens from Smith’s subjective point of view, with shots of the Indians swimming through the tidal surf as if seen through a misty haze, as airy and inconsequential as a dream. To Malick, their ‘natural’ way of life is the idealized state toward which Smith has been striving, spurred on by his conscience, or God, or both, the ‘true’ life he urges himself to pursue, as opposed to the ‘false’ one at the fort, and the coming civilization it portends (“Give up this false life for a true one. Give up the name of Smith.”) “Here, the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all,” he says, describing the idyllic utopia he wishes the settlement to become, “none need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all and no cost but one’s labor. We shall build a true commonwealth.” Smith’s Socialist rhetoric glorifies the communal agrarian ideal, but while he talks like a New Age, new world hippie, he could just as easily be aspiring to the perfect society Plato envisaged in his Republic. “We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labors. None shall eat up what his friends got worthily, or eat up that which virtue has stored up. Men shall not make each other their spoil.” The Algonquians way of life fulfills these ideals. It is a functional, working model of the utopia Smith envisaged (“Real, what I thought a dream.”). Yet his is a reverie which cannot last. Per Plato: “The business of those who are founders of the state will be to compel the best minds to attain (similar) knowledge…when they have ascended and seen enough…they must be made to descend again among the prisoners in the den, and partake of their labors and honors, whether they are worth having or not,” in order to help lead their fellow man toward a similar state of enlightenment.
When Smith returns to the fort following his epiphany, like a man miraculously arisen from the grave (“We thought you were dead.”), it’s the supposedly civilized white settlers, not the Indians, who now seem like barbaric savages to him and to us. The untended cabin boys are clad like urchins and chatter incessantly like monkeys, while the men senselessly fight amongst themselves over trifling matters, like what day of the year it is, pulling out their pistols at the slightest provocation. Cold, hard reality again begins to sink in as Smith briefs us on precisely how far his brethren have fallen short of utopia during his sojourn away. They have not lived by the ideal of sharing and sharing alike. Thewlis’ Wingfield has been hording the best portions for himself while the others starved, stores of provisions have been broken into, thieves punished by branding or having their ears lopped off. Like the Indians who shared their horn of plenty with the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving, the Algonquians must twice bail the Jamestown settlers out, saving them from starvation. Though Smith had claimed “Hard work and self reliance are our virtue,” rather than being industrious, digging the well necessary to secure fresh water, his men have whiled away their time, forcing him to threaten “Those who do not work, shall not eat.” Like the Israelites in Exodus, these Christians have even resorted to worshipping a golden calf. “While they starve, they dig for gold,” Smith relates, “There is no talk, no hope, no work but this.” Everything has gone to hell.
“God has given us a great inheritance,” Newport claims, “Woe the tide if ever we turn our back on him.” Having rushed in like fools where angels would fear to tread, the settlers have lost the favor of their God as surely as they lose the favor of the natives. Proving himself unethical by betraying the Algonquians trust, leading them to believe the settlers intend to leave come the spring, as surely as he proves himself immoral by leading on their princess (“What are your intentions toward her, toward them?” he asks rhetorically; they turn out to not be very honorable), the unscrupulous Smith has damned himself (“It was a dream. This is reality. Damnation must be like this.”), as well as his people. Having ignored God’s will, he prays for forgiveness in the thick of battle for all the mistakes he’s made in dealing with the natives and the havoc those bad policies have now wrought (“Lord, turn not away thy face. You desire not the death of a sinner. I have not harkened to your voice, let us not be brought to nothing.”). Smith may win the skirmish, but his English have lost their spiritual battle. In corrupting this new world with the sins of the old, they’ve forfeited God’s will, falling from grace. Paradise has again been lost to them.
According to Plato, “You must not wonder that those who attain to this beatific vision are unwilling to descend to human affairs; for their souls are ever hastening into the upper world where they desire to dwell.” Consequently, Smith is gnawed by the call of the wild, drawing him back upriver to the life he’d known (“This fort is not the world. That river leads back there. It leads onward too, deeper, into the wilds.”), so we don’t understand what keeps him rooted to his post, especially after the settlers imprison him and treat him so brutally. This man who arrived on these shores chained like a slave for making ‘mutinous remarks’ is manacled yet again, this time by his mutinous men who proceed to overthrow him, convinced that he intends setting himself up as king over them. “If (the prisoners in the cave) were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves… would (the illuminated one) care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them?” Plato asks. Why should the enlightened Smith continue seeking fame and glory from this white world, abandoning Pocahontas to search for the Northwest Passage just as the settlers had earlier searched for their version of fool’s gold despite the bountiful riches to be mined from the land all around them? He’s chasing after windmills as absurdly as Don Quixote. These delusions of grandeur prove his personal moral failing, why he’s condemned like Moses, who likewise led his people out of bondage, to glimpse the promised land he can never enter.
“Shall you be a discoverer of passages which you yourself refuse to explore beyond the threshold?” Newport nudges him, but it’s the life of abandon he knew in the forest with Pocahontas, the true life that he longed to exchange his false one for, that Smith hasn’t the courage to pursue, believing their two clashing worlds could never be one. “Where would we live?” he asks, when she pleads with him to come away with her. “In the woods? In a treetop? A hole in the ground?” This man marked as a malfeasant is so desperate to prove himself in the eyes of his world that he’s petrified of breaking the most stigmatizing racial rule of the time, that against miscegenation (“Me breaking the rules.” sneers Capt. Argall when Smith threatens him with hanging for disobeying a direct order). We don’t understand why this brave man who risks so much else, who willingly puts his life in jeopardy to journey into the unknown, won’t chance social ostracization by openly embarking upon this taboo romance, and there’s no way that we can understand since Malick, like God, turns his back on Smith as well. After he makes his decision to sail away, instructing his men to tell Pocahontas he drowned in the crossing, he is thereafter deprived of any voiceover to offer us insight. He’s been silenced permanently. It’s the director’s way of passing judgment. Once granted clemency, he’s now condemned to purgatory with terrible finality.
As the test study for those first settlers, Smith, in sacrificing his communal vision in favor of personal ambition, squanders his potential for greatness as well as the opportunity to clear his tainted name. “You knew I had promise, didn’t you?” he asks Pocahontas upon their final meeting, but this man who sought paradise and briefly found it in her arms (“I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest, but it’s the only truth.”), who so briefly shook off the bondage of the Old World for the freedom of the wild, ends up pinioned after all, buffeted by the sheer, unscalable cliff walls of the Arctic before him and the crashing surf at his back. Wedged between this rock and a hard place, he’s forever obstructed from realizing the dreams of worldly glory he’d relinquished paradise to pursue. Expelled from Eden, the road back will now be forever barred to him.
Columbus was searching for a shorter trading route to the east himself when he landed on these shores, mistakenly believing he had arrived in the Indies, his accidental ‘discovery’ of America becoming his lasting claim to fame. Intrepid explorer Smith similarly stumbled across, by pure chance, something far finer than what he’d actually been in quest of, something he’d been unconsciously on the lookout for all his aimless life long –utopia. His search was over, a regretful fact he only realizes once he’s foolishly let it slip through his fingers, once he’s “sailed past” his metaphorical Indies.
Though he has yet to master that damnably disconcerting Irish brogue (his Canadian leading lady, of Native American and Swiss heritage, speaks the Queen’s English more clearly than he does), Colin Farrell, with his role here and in last year’s Alexander, seems dead set on positioning himself as the American cinema’s premiere master of the universe – a one-man world conqueror. But before the I.R.A. revokes his passport, it should be pointed out that he’s working a shrewdly political subtext into these period pieces promoting one-world cultural colonization. Here, he seems to derive undue delight from depicting The New World’s English protagonist as something less than a paragon of virtue.
His disreputable John Smith is far from the wholesome, flaxen-haired demi-god Mel Gibson made of him in the Disney cartoon. With his olive complexion and long, coal black hair, he could almost pass for an Indian himself, one of the subjugated, so it’s not surprising his Smith displays such fellow feeling for them. The bad boy off screen image Farrell’s been carefully cultivating over the past several years never stood him in better stead than it does here (he’s got that smoldering glower down to a science). This John Smith is not the national hero school textbooks write about. “You have the makings of a leader,” Newport observes of him, “but can you be relied on?” The answer, as Pocahontas comes to discover, is a resounding no.
Malick starts out seeing the natives through ethnocentric European eyes, as innocent and childlike, the way the settlers saw them upon their superficial first contact. Later, when they lose the favor of these same ‘naturals,’ they come across as savage, brutal, bloodthirsty, club wielding cannibals. When Smith is brought before Chief Powhatan’s tribal council, the painted, animal clad Indians, with their whooping war cries and exotic ceremonial dress seem as demoniac and other worldly as the Skull Island natives of Peter Jackson’s King Kong earlier this year. These are the Algonquians as the frightened, racist Christian settlers saw them, “Sons of sulfur, devils from the mouth of hell.” Yet as the captive comes to learn more about their culture during his tenure among them, and his respect for their way of life grows, his opinion swings to the other extreme entirely.
“They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery,” Smith soliloquizes, and Malick’s conception of the natives as savage “innocents,” uncorrupted by the sins of the civilized world, is as naïve as his depiction of the Pacific Islanders was in The Thin Red Line. It’s patronizing and condescending, the attitude of a paternal, great white father. They seem to exist for the sole purpose of being disillusioned. No one can live both in the world and apart from it. No man is an island. Original sin taints one and all. The director doesn’t see the Algonquians as real people so much as unattainable ideals, and despite the flattering, nigh reverential representation, that remains an ethnocentric take on indigenous culture. To make the Algonquians seem preternaturally good is, in a sense, to dehumanize them, depriving them of fully rounded, human scope, as surely as old westerns did by making Native Americans seem preternaturally evil. It oversimplifies matters.
“They have no sense of possession,” Smith relates, and it’s only after their contact with the motley band of ragtag English colonists that they’re seen squabbling amongst themselves to claim ownership of worthless trinkets. To hear Malick tell it, you’d think war, death, disease, and famine, all the sins of the world, were introduced by the paleface, like firewater and smallpox, to debauch and demoralize the other wise noble savage. But even the seemingly peaceful Algonquians, who he paints in such rosy terms, urge Smith’s death rather than chance his revealing their tactical strongholds. They aren’t so innocent as Malick’s guilty liberal conscience would have us believe. If they lack guile why do they blindfold Smith so he can’t reveal the location of their village? If they have no sense of possession, why are they so set on pushing the colonists back into the sea, rather than peaceably sharing the land, and banish Pocahontas for giving them the corn that sustains them? The director’s popping some pretty tall corn himself here. Smith, with his limited knowledge of the culture, may plead ignorance for romanticizing the Algonquians out of all proportion, but Malick should’ve seen the self-evident irony. It weakens his Paradise theme. Sin is the common denominator that makes us all brothers, the one great human leveler. Nobody’s immaculate or above it, not even the indigenous natives our forefathers so wronged.
The movie’s main characters are so deeply embedded in the American psyche it’s probably impossible now to treat them in any other way than symbolic standard bearers. Just as Smith is representative of the English colony’s interests, so Pocahontas personifies her people’s plight. The character has been conceived in such a way as to add depth and resonance to our understanding of The New World’s Native Americans, and it’s only because of her that they come off as anything more than the synthetic supermen the picture’s platitudes otherwise makes them out to be. Pocahontas may be depicted in an iconic manner, same as they are, even idealized at first, but her subsequent actions, drives, and motivations make it impossible to stratify her. She’s too conflicted and complicated, too human, for that, a fascinating creature as the picture paints her, a complex contradiction of willfulness and weakness, and it’s in her that our attention is ultimately enrapt.
Pocahontas has become such a fabled and remote historical figure, we don’t know what to make of her at first, anymore than Rolfe later will. She’s undefined, as though her character hadn’t been fully formed (indeed it hasn’t, she’s still virtually a child, passing the time playing make believe). She appears to us as she does to Smith when he’s initially arrested by her unexpected presence in the field, an indistinct figure in the distance who can’t quite be made out amidst the tall, waving sea of grass. When she and her people take him in and he begins to fall in love with her and their way of life, she seems a bird of paradise, like the colorful parrots she keeps as pets, and being as free as a bird herself, the very essence of the liberty he craves. When she saves him from execution and feeds his starving settlers, she’s transfigured into an agent of divine intervention (“She’s been the instrument to preserve this colony from disaster,” Smith indignantly chastises his ungrateful men, “had she not fed us, you would’ve starved.”), as pure as the driven snow which heralds this ministering angel’s arrival. For all intents and purposes, Pocahontas appears to be the perfect woman Smith’s enthralled voiceover rhapsodizes about (“All the children of the king were beautiful but she, the youngest, was so exceedingly so that the sun himself, though he saw her often, was surprised whenever she came out into his presence.”). From his point of view she’s a facetious fantasy figure, playing siren songs on her flute like a wood nymph (“She exceeded the rest, not only in feature and proportion but in wit and spirit too.”), a coquettish Lolita to lead strong men astray. The movie starts out seeing her through Smith’s eyes as well; capturing her likeness, vague and unclear, the camera looking up through the water as a blurry Pocahontas splashes at her reflection on the surface above. Although he doesn’t know it yet, this dreamy, amorphous figure will soon crystallize into the realization of his ideal. Initially deprived of a voice, Pocahontas lacks an individual identity or viewpoint of her own. Yet The New World, which begins as the story of John Smith, his search for spiritual salvation and the paradise he and the settlers he shepherded found here in America, does an about face. The director’s sympathy shifts to the Algonquians, and for a time he throws in his lot with them the same as Smith does. Rather than recapping the tumultuous beginnings of this country from the traditional Eurocentric vantage, the film depicts events from a Native American standpoint, as did Dances with Wolves. But then The New World becomes something else again, something quite unexpected and that, unexpectedly, delves much deeper than the director’s comparatively shallow ponderings on Paradise lost. It becomes the story of Pocahontas, the princess the Algonquians cast out, and her obsessively single-minded, self-destructive love for a man whose unworthiness she refused to acknowledge. This timeless yarn has been made uniquely her own but, knowing as we do what the ensuing centuries hold in store, it also possesses universal reverberations. So that she can be accepted as a broader, more representative figure, the movie by intentional design never mentions Pocahontas by name. In fact Malick emphasizes her anonymity. Upon Mary’s introduction, she begins with “And I believe your name is –” only to be cut off: “She says that’s not her name anymore. She hasn’t got a name.” Pocahontas stands in for all women here, the same as her unspecified tribe stands for all those Indian nations brought to wrack and ruin by European interlopers. Hers is a transcendent tale of tears.
Malick’s account of Paradise lost is really a meditation on the loss of innocence, sexual and otherwise, and Pocahontas cuts right to its core. If she destroys Eden, bringing about the Algonquian’s downfall by stealing those kernels of corn as surely as Eve did the forbidden fruit, then Smith is the snake in the grass who seduces her into doing so. “The words denoting lying, deceive, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard,” he observes of her people, but through her contact with this envoy from the Old World the wide-eyed Pocahontas, so full of wonder and curiosity, will learn the meaning of those words as surely as she’s taught the English words for sky, wind, mouth, ears, etc, and in the process discover their perfidy as well. In acquainting her with his “land across the waters,” Smith has unwittingly corrupted this unspoiled child of nature with its sins. His efforts to enlighten her instead cast her into darkness. Innocent Pocahontas, who starts out the film with a clear conscience and untroubled expression, beloved by all, the apple of her father’s eye (“Her father had a dozen wives, a hundred children, but she was his favorite… All loved her.”), will end up betraying her people, breaking the solemn vow she had sworn to Powhatan to place their welfare above all else, even her own heart. Pocahontas, who had not known the meaning of the word before, ends up beseeching her father’s forgiveness. This sheltered princess’ want of worldly knowledge leads her to be too trusting a soul. She’s the physical incarnation of all those culturally insulted Indians who injudiciously welcomed whites with open arms, believing them, with their miraculous medicines and powerful weapons to be deities descended from the sky, only to be disillusioned by their treachery. “A god he seems to me,” Pocahontas deliriously raves, dazzled by Smith as she looks up to him towering over her, the brilliant sun casting a halo around his head, not noticing that he’s blocking the very light she had earlier been seen reaching up toward. Like her susceptible people, who are compared to “a herd of curious deer,” Pocahontas makes herself easy prey for any self interested predator; she’s a timid fawn, a defenseless, passive victim. Smith has her eating out of his hand.
In Terrence Malick movies, the hand clasp is used as a signifying gesture of absolute trust. After the warring whites had shattered the peace of the Pacific Islands in The Thin Red Line, for instance, a native boy he had earlier befriended fled from Witt in fear rather than shake the hand extended out to him. The hand clasp here likewise denotes Pocahontas’ complete confidence in Smith, her certainty that, despite his claims to the contrary, he’s really a good man at heart. When he momentarily loses her trust, she unconsciously shrinks away when he reaches out to her but, catching herself, makes a desperate lunge for his hand, reaffirming her faith in him.
The Algonquians spare Smith’s life only because Pocahontas assures them that he’s honest and upright, fully believing this herself (“You have no evil.”). Deluded by the thumping beat of her heart (“Can love lie?”), she glorifies him into something far finer than what he is. Pocahontas willingly blinds herself to the truth, convinced that this false image of Smith she holds in her heart is accurate (“I have never been the man I appeared to you to be,” he tries reasoning and recognizing himself for what he is, warns her not to trust him). She too is watching shadows on the wall. By continually questioning what is real and what is illusory (“Mother, how do I know what is from you and what is not?”), this character too embroiders the thread of Plato’s cave allegory. Ultimately, she’ll concede her opinion of Smith to have been an illusion, like the reflection she sees in that mirror he gives her, and which eventually she can no longer bear to gaze on, unable to look herself in the eyes, to face up to what she’s done. This man she thought a god turns out to be all too human. “Look up,” she’ll implore but, ashamed of himself, Smith can’t look her in the eyes either. Having invested her ‘teacher’ with all the unfounded fancies of a silly young schoolgirl, she sells out an entire nation’s interests to impulsively follow her own foolish heart. In the throes of first love, she’s exploring a brave new world all her own. Swirling in a whirlpool of confusing emotions she can’t fully understand, she’s swept off her feet by the hot passion pulsating in her veins, deafened by the raging blood rushing through her ears (“You’re like a river coursing through me,” she tells Smith), willingly submerging herself (“Let me be lost.”) in the morass of sensations he rouses in her. “Where am I?” she’ll wonder in breathless ecstasy when she comes up for air, disoriented by the heady rapture taking possession of her senses, but by then she’s too far gone to ever regain sure footing. Rather than fighting this overwhelming feeling, she goes with the flow and is carried away on the current.
Her father having washed his hands of her, Pocahontas lays down to die on the forest floor, amidst the other fallen leaves, where she’s seen in state, eyes closed, hands folded across her chest. However, unlike Smith, who ascended to paradise upon his ‘resurrection’ and captivity in Powhatan’s village, the life into which Pocahontas is spiritually reborn, proves far from the heaven she imagined it would be. The settlers who bowed in deference to this cast down angel when she fed them before, now gaze hungrily at the new captive when she reenters the fort, their eyes raking over her as if she were just another piece of meat. Having once soared through the heavens as a bird of paradise, she’s now grounded and earthbound, confined to the stuffy settlement, a jailbird cooped up in a wooden cage. To a wild child who once had the run of the land, this self enclosed plot of earth is as deadening as the grave (“You have taken my life with you,” she declares when Smith abandons her for dead.). Though the lovesick Pocahontas, who shuffles about stilted and unsteady in her high heeled boots, feels on shaky, unfamiliar new ground, the foot worn, well beaten path she treads will be instantly recognized by the many women who can relate. “Am I as you like?’ this insecure Indian maiden, the embodiment of Smith’s ideal at the outset, asks after his growing distance has eaten away at her self confidence to the point where she’s made herself over in the image of a white woman, endeavoring to please him. In order to conform to the standards of a man who won’t deign to acknowledge her publicly, Pocahontas willingly demeans herself, sacrificing any sense of pride and racial identity by discarding her immodestly brief deer hide dress to be fastened into the ill-fitting apparel of the oppressor. When the hem of her skirt momentarily rides up high enough to uncover a telltale tattoo, she hastily pulls it back down, like the blushing Eve reaching for a fig leaf, suddenly self-conscious of her exposed flesh.
Converted, baptized, and rechristened ‘Rebecca,’ Pocahontas, who once claimed “I know myself,” discards her identity, her given name, as readily as she does her religion and the rest of her heritage, all for a man who had himself, in turn, refused to “give up (his) false (way of) life for a true one,” to “Give up the name of Smith,” then shrunk from bestowing that name on her, as she’d expected, by making her his wife. This native princess, regarded as something less than the dust by those around her, unconsciously mocks her own attempt to fit into his unaccepting society when mourning custom decrees she scourge herself upon receiving news that Smith drowned in the crossing. The results affected by the powdery ash she applies resemble a ghastly Kabuki mask. Pocahontas is a minstrel in white face instead of burnt cork, and there’s a name for that alright. It’s called being a Tom. Pocahontas’ adoption of the settlers’ girded manner of dress and mode of living anticipates the enforced assimilation of Native Americans into the anglicized mainstream in the centuries to come, at which time their traditional cultures, rituals, customs, polytheistic religions, and belief systems would be forcibly suppressed in the interest of ‘civilizing’ them. In this respect, Pocahontas, like Smith and Newport, also proves a visionary, as opposed to the short sighted Opechancanough (in playing him, Wes Studi revisits his militant Magua from The Last of the Mohicans).
Opechancanough once saw clearly too, silencing Parahunt’s “It’s only abit of swampland they want,” with “For now, but what will they take in the future?” Yet at story’s end, he’s still clinging to his foolhardy belief that the invaders can be repulsed long after it’s become obvious they cannot. Pocahontas anticipates the inevitable, getting a jump on things to come, even if doing so could hardly be construed as being in her own best interest by later lights. Her compulsion to remain near Smith allows the English to use Pocahontas as leverage in keeping the hostile Algonquians at bay. They know Powhatan, who had unwittingly played right into their hands when he disowned his favorite daughter, won’t attack the fort so long as they hold her captive there. She becomes their bargaining chip in maintaining an unsteady peace, and the upper hand, over her people. Smith partook of the sweet freedom Pocahontas offered him in the wilds, but he returns the favor by standing by while his people make her a slave. Her need for him proves so strong that she sacrifices her liberty for his constrictive life style. Her hair, which once hung loosely about her shoulders, is now wound up into braided buns. She’s physically restrained as well, cinched into whalebone corsets, laced into tight bodices, and buttoned into high heeled boots. In Premiere magazine, Q’orianka Kilcher, the young actress who plays Pocahontas, revealed that she “had them put my corset extra tight and my shoes a size too small in order to feel how I imagined she felt, because she went from running in the woods every day to [life as] this confined Englishwoman named
Rebecca.” Giving herself over freely and fully, body and soul (“I belong to you,” she declares) to Smith, who represents exploitative interests, Pocahontas’ peonage signals, in effect, the subjugation of her vanquished kingdom and conquered land to his English. Smith tried to lead his followers out of bondage, Pocahontas spearheads the Algonquians eventual subordination. The New World’s love story has the same intoxicating swoon to it as the one in The Piano, and Malick treats the founding of America in much the same way as Jane Campion did the colonizing of New Zealand, as a clash of opposing cultures. Like Ada, the mail order bride of that movie, Pocahontas is delivered to this colony of settlers as if she were chattel, an acquisition bought and paid for. She’s a captive tied to their interests by benefit of her love for Smith, a love that will itself eventually become representative of a form of bondage. Unlike the headstrong, iron willed Ada, however, Pocahontas is a character defined by her extreme submissiveness. “Mother, you are my strength,” she proclaims, “for I have none,” and indeed she falls to pieces when, after giving up everything for love, turning her back on freedom, family, culture, race, the gods themselves (“You have killed the god in me,” she says before renouncing her idols and accepting Christianity), the impetuous young Pocahontas still finds herself betrayed and abandoned by the one man she had trusted implicitly and who had meant the world to her (“What is life but being near you?” she’d asked). For a delicate wildflower incapable of putting things in their proper perspective, this proves a crushing blow, leaving her inconsolably devastated. Having loved and given all of herself, lacking the restraint to hold anything back, there’s nothing left over to subsist on.
It’s heartbreaking the way this princess is humiliated and abased by a deceptive man so far beneath her. In mourning for Smith, she’s reduced to wallowing in the mud of the public square and, insensible, wanders through the byways of the fort in her bedraggled nightgown, a ravaged figure barely noticing “the others about her,” as Rolfe observes, recalling Isabelle Adjani’s intensely withdrawn, love obsessed heroine from The Story of Adele H., who likewise strode in benumbed trance through the dusty streets of colonial Barbados after taking leave of her senses. For a ‘natural’ once so attuned to her environment, the now despondent Pocahontas’ complete detachment from the world around her indicates a disturbing descent into madness. This path finder who recognizes every tree and every branch in the forest, has lost her way. Her dramatic downward spiral is every bit as spectacular as the fall of the Algonquian nation, with which it’s correlated and intercut. After her people are driven into the swamp, the director fades to a slow track through a flourishing field of planted corn, eerily enveloped by the smoke from their burning village, then a jump cut to Pocahontas, who harvested this bitter crop, lying like a discarded rag doll in the shallow dirt ditch separating a fence from a wall. This narrow fissure signifies the in-between state of a woman wedged in the middle of a cultural divide. Banished from a tribe to which she can never return, and not accepted by the settlers to whom she’s tied in ‘captivity,’ she seems fated to wander forever between the winds, neither here nor there.
In sharing those kernels that allowed the settlers to sustain themselves on these shores, Pocahontas, who had once compared her people to a “field of corn,” unwittingly sewed the seeds of their very destruction. The fruits of her lamentable transgression are egregious, but we can’t completely condemn her, anymore than Powhatan can (he won’t sentence his daughter to death, though his village is put to the torch by the same English who had claimed “We are not here to pillage and raid.”). She may be errant, but she’s not wicked. Her unselfish gesture was benign enough, she just wasted it on people unworthy of help (“You don’t have to put yourself in danger,” Smith had advised her, “Not for us.” No truer words ever rolled off his forked tongue). Too much power, the power to bring about the end of all things by toppling a throne and laying waste a nation, had been placed in the hands of a child lacking the foresight necessary to fully appreciate the far reaching consequences of her actions. She’d been playing with fire and ends up getting burned as badly as anyone.
“He’s left you, princess. He fed you a pack of lies,” Mary will commiserate, and when Smith plays Pocahontas false his shocking act seems like more than a broken promise to a woman who had harbored the unquestioning faith of a child in him. That would’ve been disgraceful enough. It also reverberates down through the ages with all the false pacts and discarded treaties his people would make with indigenous natives, in order to cheat them out of lands, possessions, their birthright. It’s almost as though he were setting an appalling precedent here, the first of many, not so little, white lies.
The unspeakable Smith screws Pocahontas over as surely as his men rape the virgin environment this flower child embodies, denuding it of vegetation, razing its trees (“Chop down every tree within half a mile of the moorage,” they’re instructed), stripping it of its precious resources, taking everything the earth has to give without replenishing it. Recklessly depleting her abundant store of fish, clams, and fresh water, they destroy the delicate balance of nature, and are left freezing and starving all within the span of a single season. Terry Malick has become the most ecologically minded of tree huggers. The New World is his hymn to conservationism, a eulogy to the desecrated landscape, and Pocahontas is nature in all her wonders. Like Chinese harvester O-San in Pearl Buck’s novel, she is an outgrowth of The Good Earth itself, symbolic of its bounty, continuity, and resilience. Pocahontas draws her strength and spiritual nourishment from the very soil, praying to her “Mother,” earth, with “We rise from out of the soul of you.” She seems such a sentient being, so alive to her surroundings, that her bared emotions are like raw nerves, as exposed and vulnerable as the roots of an upturned tree.
Pocahontas is directly associated with the ‘wilds,’ the deep forest of greenery that fringes the shore. Malick frequently places her in proximity to trees, for instance, climbing them, racing across a branch, standing in a desolate clearing of stumps, scattered saplings, and timber felled by foreign hands. Often, she’s framed from below, her arms outstretched to the sky like spreading branches. The trees are photographed in a similar forced perspective, these rhyming shots visually linking the two together. It’s a correlation made explicit when Mary offers these sage words of advice, following Smith’s desertion, “Forget about him…Think of a tree, how it grows round its roots. The branch breaks off, it don’t stop, but keeps reaching toward the light.” Pocahontas is at one with the land seen to be so mercilessly laid waste by the ravening colonists. Like it, she is in a state of transformation, being made over into someone new, the same as these land developers (“This earth was made for such that shall improve it.”), are irreparably changing the face of the country, trying to tame its topography, harness its power. Manipulated to their ends, her trees will be pressed into perverse service to form wooden forts, log cabins, watchtowers, pens, split rail fences, yokes, stocks, the same way the body of this once ‘naked savage’ is now straight jacketed into tight, binding clothes of European design.
Trees subsist through photosynthesis, they need the light to survive. Pocahontas, on the other hand, is boarded up in a gloomy log cabin where the sun is shut out by the wooden shutters and heavy plank door. As in Plato’s Allegory, she’s descended from the realm of enlightenment, “come out of the brighter light,” into the darkness of the cave. It’s Rolfe who rekindles the flame in her that was nearly snuffed out, his attentions and tender ministrations putting the spark back in her dull eyes, giving her a reason to go on living. “When I first saw her she was considered someone finished, broken, lost,” he relates of the ravaged shell he espies foraging the fort for food. A tobacco farmer who’s devoted his life to cultivating the soil, replenishing the nutrients depleted from it, nursing it back to health, he proves the one man in the world who could’ve restored the soul of this woman so closely linked with the good earth. He’s the perfect panacea for the America she embodies. He nurtures the land that’s been left lying fallow. She speaks of him in suitably agricultural terms. “He’s like a tree,” she claims, “He shelters me.” Confined as she is to this dusty patch of earth, Pocahontas can’t grow. Rolfe offers her a kind of liberation, freeing her, in essence and in fact from her captivity at the fort by taking her to work in his tobacco fields, situated at the edge of the forest, an intermediary place between the civilized and the wilds, reuniting her with the earth from which she derives her strength. He respects her enough to propose, which is more than the dallying Smith ever did, but her bitter experience has left Pocahontas, who once gave her heart completely and unquestioningly, guarded and suspicious of white men’s motives. “Are you kind?” she asks Rolfe when he begins courting her, closely searching his features, attempting to ascertain whether his response can be trusted, when his corn fed smile and straw colored hair should tell her everything she needs to know.
Pocahontas’ love for Smith proves a bond so powerful she’s induced to remain faithful to his memory even after she believes him dead. Having sacredly sworn “I will be faithful to you, true,” as thunder rumbled ominously in the distance, with what trepidation this convert (Pocahontas brings water to a man placed in stocks, practicing the mercy these Christians only preach) listens to the words Capt. Newport reads over her marriage ceremony to Rolfe, as the church bells toll atonement, “I require and charge you as you will answer now and on the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be known, if you know of any impediment why you should not be lawfully joined in matrimony, confess it.” She has good reason to quake and tremble. She’s already witnessed, first hand, the devastation begat by this vengeful Christian god of wrath and fury. Pocahontas is plagued by a biblical sense of guilt. “Conscience is a nuisance, a fly, a barking dog. If you don’t believe you have one what trouble can it be to you?” asks Capt. Argall, who himself represses any remorse he may harbor over the mutiny he led to overthrow Smith. But Pocahontas does have a conscience, and she’s tortured by it (“Take out the thorn.”), a fact that helps expiate her complicity, to our minds at least, in the great wrong committed against her people. How she visibly starts when an Algonquin fur trader, sighting her, bows reflexively to his deposed princess. “Once false, I must not be again,” she resolves, determined never to give sway to temptation a second time, and that precludes giving her heart to any other man, even Rolfe. Upon learning Smith is still alive, she states with resigned solemnity, “I am married – to him,” upraised eyes revealing to her taken aback husband the deeper meaning those simple words can’t convey. Cate Blanchette similarly deepened her voice a register, making it heavy with import and ulterior meaning, when she informed the court, for the benefit of traitor Dudley, “I am married – to England,” in the concluding line of Elizabeth.
Pocahontas’ journey to the Old World, where she is to be presented to the king like visiting royalty, much as Smith was brought before Chief Powhatan, is a mirroring echo of the voyage to America at the beginning, only the angle has shifted. We’re now seeing things from Pocahontas’ perspective, the Old world through new eyes. Somewhere along the line, the script was flipped on us. She too makes the crossing by ship, still in bondage as Smith was, to the sins of her past, and the England she arrives in seems every bit as alien to this native who was born in America as Virginia initially seemed to him. The director revels in the contrast of Smith’s Old World with her New. The tangled, sprawling scenery of the American wilds gives way to the maddeningly ordered, over-sculpted gardens of the palace grounds, with their carefully pruned hedgerows and trees, laid out at intervals with mathematical precision. The scenery has become as cultivated as the now cultured Pocahontas (“It seems as though I were seeing you for the first time,” states Smith, now aware of her full worth). The Algonquian ceremonial tent, with light filtering through the open flap at the top, and decorated with pagan idols carved from wood, becomes the stained glass window of a church cathedral, fringed with religious iconography and wooden crosses. The English on the street stop and gawk in slack jawed disbelief, arrested by the astonishing sight of these war painted Indians in full regalia, the same as the Algonquians gathered at the outset to watch in wonder the strange English ships approaching their shores, while Pocahontas, who had never seen a white man before Smith, now lays eyes on her first black one.
Although she is received at court, her official acceptance into Smith’s white world a victorious vindication, this spurious achievement does not leave Pocahontas with any lasting sense of purposeful accomplishment (“Mother, why can I not feel as I should?” she asks). This is because The New World’s captive princess is only being marched out for show, a vassal trailing in the wake of the conqueror’s triumphal procession. The representative of “My America,” to both Smith and director Malick, and earlier associated with soaring birds of paradise, Pocahontas is now linked with a bird of a different feather, another classic emblem of America, the bald eagle tethered in King James’ court, its wings closely clipped to prevent its taking to flight. She’s just another exotic curiosity on exhibit, akin to the animals brought over for the royal menagerie, as caged as that frightened raccoon she displays such affinity for. Pocahontas remains chained to Smith, and it’s a bond that the sympathetic Rolfe, rather than being threatened by, can empathize with. After all, it was their shared sense of bereavement that drew him to her in the first place. “The loss of my wife and daughter has led me to understand her loss as well,” his voiceover had stated and he’s haunted, just as Pocahontas is, by the memory of his first love which still lingers about the house before being tucked safely away in the attic of his mind, following his remarriage.
Christian Bale, who usually plays abrasive characters and whose icy acting style in movies like Empire of the Sun, Shaft, American Psycho, Batman Begins, etc. generally leaves me cold, even when I admire his slick technical expertise, has genuine warmth in this part. Usually over wound and wolfish, he seems unduly relaxed under Malick’s more free wheeling guidelines, and despite the leanness of the role, I believe this just might be his best work to date. Certainly it’s his most personable. The belated third wheel in this epic, swelling romance, Bale functions in the same capacity as Sam Shepherd did in Malick’s Days of Heaven. He’s the well intentioned farmer who stumbles into an affair far over his head, ending up duped by love for a woman whose affection belongs to another man. We feel for his character’s longing to break the fetters of fidelity to a tragic lost love, only to find his unresponsive young bride still chained by hers. This poor guy just can’t win. On her own premature deathbed, Pocahontas lies in the exact same position as Rolfe’s first wife when she passed away, and the bitter irony is not lost on us. These people from two different worlds meet on common ground, which is how Rolfe recognizes Pocahontas’ unyielding faithfulness to Smith, in life as well as death, to be a form of bondage (“Love made the bond. Love can break it too.”), one that has prohibited her from moving on with her life. Her determination never to breach a promise again has become a monomania. Trying to hold her by the bonds of matrimony would be futile.
“In my vanity I thought I could make you love me,” Rolfe realizes, turning the dilemma over in his mind, “and one cannot do that, or should not.” She will never truly be his if she doesn’t choose to come to him of her own free will. Rolfe offers Pocahontas her freedom, unlike his polar opposite Smith, whose tainted love becomes a tie that binds her, her word becoming her bond. Rolfe is willing to relinquish his claim on Pocahontas, to chance losing her by orchestrating her reunion with her former paramour, aware of how important it is for his wife to confront her past if she’s ever to lay it to rest. Malick plays the color card here, using these two ‘Johns,’ who share both the same first name and, at different times, Pocahontas’ love, as physical and moral contrasts to each other. The good, blonde one is all sunshine and smiles, the dangerous dark one gloomy and sinister. He even dresses the men alike, paving the way for one of the most exquisitely understated romantic resolutions in recent memory, in which we’re initially misled to believe she’s chosen to remain with one rather than the other. If Smith, whom she wrongly thought decent, destroys Pocahontas’ faith in the pale face, the gentle and sincere Rolfe restores it. “You are the man I thought you were, and more” she sighs, as if truly seeing him for the first time. This woman who fell in love with her false illusion of Smith, who “walked blindly into a situation (she) did not anticipate,” has at last opened her eyes to the romantic truth in the most unlikely of places, finding her ideal in the plain and simple person of her own unassuming spouse.
The central dramatic conflict revolves around whether that promise Pocahontas made so long ago to be true to Smith will continue to hold her, and all she represents, to him into perpetuity. When she chooses Rolfe, she’s really opting for freedom over bondage, the choice to break her vow to the unworthy Smith absolving her, in Malick’s mind and ours, of that first pledge of allegiance to the Algonquin nation she reneged on with such disastrous results. This one was the right decision for her to make, and because of it she’s granted the absolution Smith sought, the spiritual salvation each, in their own way, had been searching for (he prays to a heavenly father, she to a mother, both are introduced with heads and hands uplifted, beseeching enlightenment from the heavens), the answer to her oft repeated query “Mother, where do you live?”
“The new world princess, new life brings,” the troubadour had heralded during her reception at court, and indeed Pocahontas, who once gave Smith his life (“She risked a beating in of her own brains to save mine.”), acquires the wisdom of the ages by becoming a mother herself, a nourishing, life giving force of renewal and replenishment. This woman who worships a nature religion, who’s associated with the fertile soil and the trees that gather their sustenance from the sun she ritually invokes each morning, finds the mother she had often prayed to for guidance now alive within her. Being laid to rest in the ground, she has truly become ‘Mother’ Earth, at one with it and the waters that flow over it, following the river (the source of life), its rapids, eddies, streams, back to her homeland, drawn back into the deep wilds from which she emerged. This is The New World to which husband and son, an offshoot of her ‘family’ tree (“It is enough that our child should live.”) as well as symbol of the future, will return and help build into the great nation to come. This most native of Americans becomes the figurehead of a country that can, despite such shaky beginnings, still realize her early promise if she keeps on reaching for the light. This branch broke off early on, but the tree kept right on growing.
It was daring to cast the crucial part of Pocahontas so young. Q’orianka Kilcher is all of fifteen, about the same age the historical Pocahontas was when she met John Smith, and if she were any older, one might be inclined to laugh off Malick’s naive child of nature conception of her character. Kilcher’s age tends to make it work however (her freshness to the screen helps too), and her considerable achievement in this exacting role serves to strengthen a theory I’ve been formulating. There seems to be some ineffable quality about budding young actresses of Kilcher’s particular age range that makes it easier for them to relate with the ungovernable sensibilities of passionate girls in the emotional turmoil of frustrated first love than for women at any other stage in life. It’s preternatural, Dionysian – the Ophelia complex. Jean Simmons won international recognition when she played that part in Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, and even actresses of more limited range have displayed unexpected depth in similar straits. Natalie Wood never surpassed the shattering portrait she rendered of a sexually frustrated girl next door, coming unstrung for love of Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass, and Kate Winslet’s frazzling turn as sensibility (opposite older, wiser Emma Thompson’s sense) in Sense and Sensibility remains among her finest creations. She was nineteen when she played it, twenty when it led to her being cast as Ophelia herself in the 1996 Hamlet directed by Kenneth Branagh, dubbed his generation’s own Laurence Olivier. I don’t believe I’m going out on a limb when I state that this largely inexperienced new actress’ Pocahontas ranks right up there among the cream of the crop. Kilcher submitted her promotional photo for the Steven Spielburg produced T.V. miniseries Into the West and it caught the eye of that show’s casting assistant who, thinking she resembled “an Indian Julia Roberts,” recommended her to Malick, who’d already looked over a reported two thousand hopefuls without finding his Pocahontas. Kilcher doesn’t resemble Julia Roberts, Indian or otherwise (even at her age she’s already more curvaceous), though like Roberts she boasts a wide, incandescent smile that can light up a room. Kilcher does warrant more age appropriate comparisons to the fifteen year old Olivia Hussey however (apt for a film which frequently plays like an interracial Romeo and Juliet, especially when Pocahontas is disowned by her father, when the man she’s secretly ‘married’ to kills her kinsman, and when she mistakenly believes Smith dead), and when he photographs her walking alluringly through the grasslands, Malick may be intending to recall the lead in Valerie and Her Week of Wonders, Jaromil Jaires experimental 1970 film about a young woman’s sexual awakening, but never mind. The New World has been fashioned into a superlative showcase for this emerging actress’ talent, in the same way Pretty Woman was a revelation of Roberts’ captivating charms. Pocahontas is meant to embody the childlike innocence of her people but Kilcher far exceeds the limitations of a child actress. Initially, her inexperience adds greatly to her appeal. She’s not seasoned enough to have developed the tricks and temperament of a polished performer, and her unaffected artlessness comes across as sincerity, directness. Her wide eyed ingenuousness suits the part; she seems like the unspoiled child of nature she’s playing, which isn’t to say she lacks the skill to persuade us that she’s anything other than what she is. Rather, in so effortlessly convincing us that she is this ‘natural,’ she proves to be a born actress –a natural – herself. No mean feat in a part where she’s stranded at one early point imitating a tree blowing in the wind, as if Pocahontas were Jodie Foster’s backwood Nell.
Kilcher’s got great instincts, keeping in character by responding to her part as a primitivist might, wresting a great piece of primal art out it, and she’s attuned to Malick’s spontaneous style. She wades smoothly into the flow of his stream of conscience, and Malick manages to wring some exceptional work out of her, finessing the newcomer with delicate care, not overburdening her, resorting to judicial cutting in her more demanding moments, where she might’ve been tasked to overreach herself. Rather than being overwhelmed in the role, among this veteran company of pros, she more than holds her own. She’s in safe hands. Malick even had certain scenes between Smith and Pocahontas excised when there were worries they might violate U.S. child pornography statutes, though how well this attempt to discourage prurient interest paid off is debatable (Woody Allen’s already cast Kilcher in his next film).
Malick similarly fostered an equally bright, unconventional looking new actress, Sissy Spacek, through her first leading role in Badlands, over thirty odd years ago (Kilcher’s voiceover here is every bit as dewy eyed and dreamy as Spacek’s was there, but she has the advantage in that he’s playing a much more sympathetic character, one with a conscience and a heart). Like Spacek, and the young Jodie Foster too, there’s a maturity about Kilcher. Not just in her self possession and bearing, unusual traits to find in such a young girl, but in her ability to sound emotions beyond the limited scope of her tender years. She appears to have been blessed with the wisdom of the ages, as does her Pocahontas. She has a very old soul.
Kilcher, who hasn’t really grown up herself yet, is challenged with playing a carefree child at the age of exploration, who must grow up before our eyes. Miraculously she pulls it off, with poise and grace under such pressure, shooting up toward the sky like a cornstalk. Let’s see what develops. If she gets the right roles to suit her, and isn’t limited to ‘ethnic’ parts, there could be great things laying in this actress’ future. She has something on screen that’s inborn and instinctive; she’s a fresh spring of talent just waiting to be tapped. Q’orianka Kilcher, an unusual name worth remembering, is the real find here, Malick’s most wondrous new ‘discovery.’ ~3/1/2006