There are many who complain that all Hollywood puts out is trash, films that are bankrupt morally, intellectually, and spiritually. They want films that espouse goodness and beauty, that are works of art. However, chances are that when a film does come out that meets those requirements, it’s apt to be shunned for being too demanding of its viewers, too confusing, too artsy, too… whatever. At least, those are complaints that could be easily laid against Terrence Malick’s The New World, a film loosely based on the life and story of Pocahontas.
Malick isn’t exactly going for historic accuracy with The New World, despite slavish attention to detail concerning the customs and culture of both the English settlers of 17th century Jamestown and the Algonquian Indians with whom they clashed. This is not a documentary. Rather, it is ultimately a prayerful meditation on what happens when cultures and world collide.
Are such encounters only capable of evil, resulting in bloodshed and death? Or can such encounters also be vehicles for understanding and compassion?
If you paid any attention to your 3rd grade history classes, you should know the basic story. A group of English settlers led by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) have arrived in what will become known as Virginia. Despite seeming like a new Eden filled with food and resources, it is still an alien and potentially hostile land. A fact that is made even more pressing as the settlers make contact with the indigenous natives. The settlers only have one real soldier amongst them, a man named John Smith (Colin Farrell), who has arrived in chains and whose hanging is at the top of Newport’s list upon arriving on land.
Newport, however, deciding not to mark what should be a new start with bloodshed, spares Smith’s life on condition that he lead an expedition to the native’s city and their chief, Powhatan. En route to the city, Smith is separated from his companions and is captured by the natives. Convinced that the new settlers won’t stop until they have driven out everyone else, the natives decide to kill Smith. He is spared, however, at the last moment by the Powhatan’s favorite daughter, Pocahontas (who is actually never called that in the movie).
Pocahontas is considered to be the tribe’s shining jewel, a young girl who is as inquisitive and kind as she is beautiful. Caught up in the young girl’s otherworldly charms, Smith slowly begins to fall in love with her, and soon begins to question how he has lived his life so far. Until this point, he has been a soldier, knowing only death, blood, and violence. To him, the simple lives of Pocahontas and her people, with their reverence for nature and communal living, seem like his only possible chance for redemption.
But such things cannot last, it seems. Despite being welcomed into the tribe, Powhatan is still unconvinced of the settlers’ motives, and so Smith is sent back to Jamestown to tell them to leave. Upon arrival, Smith is immediately distrusted by the settlement’s leader. While he has been away, living a dream life, Jamestown has become a shell of what it was supposed to be, its settlers ragtag and worn down. A mutiny ensues, and it is decided that Smith, due to his knowledge of the natives (and the fact that he brought with him considerable stores), should be made leader.
Some order is reestablished. However, Smith is unable to forget Pocahontas and the idyllic life that he experienced. His feelings are given more fuel when the princess arrives in the harsh winter with food and supplies, thereby allowing the settlement to survive through to the spring, when they begin planting again. Angered at this betrayal, Powhatan exiles Pocahontas and prepares to attack the settlement. Though warned by Pocahontas, Smith and settlers take a heavy toll from the natives’ assault. Only by essentially taking Pocahontas hostage can they ensure peace. When Smith objects, he is stripped of his leadership and put to hard labor.
Even though they can now be together once again, Smith remains distant. Worn down by the trials he has suffered, and still plagued with guilt at his earlier life, he is convinced that he no longer deserves the idyllic life they shared. And when reinforcements arrive from England in the spring, bringing news that the king of England wants Smith to lead another expedition, he accepts the new chance at fame and fortune.
Devastated by the loss of Smith, Pocahontas becomes undone. Though she has become accepted within the settlement, even becoming baptized as a Christian and gaining a new name (Rebecca), she is still alone and outcast. That is, until a young Englishman named John Rolfe (Christian Bale) takes notice of her. He is also suffering from loss — the death of his wife and child — and so believes that he can be of some aid and comfort. He begins by helping Rebecca with her education, invites her to help him on his tobacco farm, and eventually asks her to marry him, even though a part of her is still in love with John Smith.
One of the best and finest things about The New World is that it is no simple black and white story. The clashes within The New World are not portrayed as simply struggles between selfish white man and noble savages. The English settlers do often wallow in greed and selfishness — even at the height of their starvation, they would rather search for gold than dig wells or hunt for food. But what drives men such as Smith and Newport is the chance for redemption, of building a new society where a man can start a new life and live in peace, where his worth is determined, not by his status, but by his worth and own hard work. All of which makes the failures of Jamestown all the more painful and glaring.
Meanwhile, the natives do live seemingly idyllic lives. Compared to the English, their communities are true communities, where jealousy and greed are unknown. And unlike the English, who tramp through the grass and cut down umpteen trees to build fortresses that ultimately prove worthless, they hold a deep reverence for nature, living in harmony with the land. But they are also prone to fear and acts of great brutality.
It is this complexity that ultimately makes The New World so rewarding. True, the film features many other noteworthy qualities. There is the strong acting all around, with special notice going to Q’Orianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahantas with a spellbinding mixture of innocence and sensuality. And of course, this being a Malick film, it looks absolutely gorgeous. There are many long shots of nature throughout the film, and Malick seems to absolutely relish capturing the wild in all of its glory. Truth be told, there’s one scene of leaves fluttering down from the trees that is one of the most arresting shots I’ve seen in months.
But it’s that complexity and ambiguity that I keep returning to. Several speeches and pleas in the film, primarily by Smith and Newport, seem to be almost prayerful pleas that the new world become truly that, some place new, some place unstained by blood, hatred, and jealousy. Some place where the abundance provided by God could be harnessed by men seeking new starts. Which makes the bloodshed and misunderstanding in the film so heartbreaking. And, when I think about how it all has turned out, several hundred years later, it’s again heartbreaking to realize how far we’ve fallen short of such lofty goals and ideals.
Thankfully, the film does not end on such a depressing note, but rather in a slow dénouement that celebrates love, sacrifice, and commitment in a manner that should make all of those “family values” folks applaud the film to kingdom come. This is not a film of cloying, grandiose, “moving” statements about the human condition, even though it speaks mightily to that effect.
It celebrates the ideals of life — community, harmony, peace — while also speaking to the oftentimes too harsh realities of fallenness, bloodshed, and death. And it does so in a manner that moved me throughout the film, oftentimes with eyes rimmed with tears at the remarkable Edenic promises life can and should hold, at all of the horrible ways in which we’ve compromised them for much cruder things, and finally at the fact that hope, love, commitment, and compassion still remain strong.