At one point, probably about a third of the way into Terrence Malick’s ravishingly beautiful but inordinately slow film, The New World, Maureen leant towards me and whispered: ‘Not so much manifest destiny as manifest bollocks.’ Let that be our judgement on the film.
The New World is the heavily romanticised story of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. Visually Malick captures the look of the period, particularly the Jamestown colony of 1607 which was the first successful British colony in the New World, and the Powatan village, with great beauty and, one assumes, considerable veracity. But veracity isn’t much in evidence elsewhere. Why give John Smith an Irish accent when he came from Lincolnshire (or is it simply that Colin Farrell can’t do anything but an Irish accent)? Why imply that John Smith wasn’t his real name? Why have Smith encounter Inuit when he never got further north than New England? Why have him arrive in America in chains, and have the first words spoken in the film relate to his hanging? (Actually I can answer that one: dramatically it equates the New World with freedom, another life, and it forms a mirror to Smith’s rescue from execution by Pocahontas. But there are ways of doing that which don’t trample over the historical record – as for instance when one of the colonists remarks: ‘In England I wouldn’t treat my servants like that.’ To which the reply comes: ‘In England, you were a servant.’ An exchange which says more about America as a new life than the whole of the rest of the film.)
As for the Powatan tribe (‘Powatan’ is the name generally given to Pocahontas’s father, in fact it was more like a title: as the leader he took the name of his people) again visually this is superb. MKS noted that the cloak Powatan wore is modelled on the one she had seen in an Oxford museum. But again there were things that gave us pause. Like the fact that only one female is among the Native Americans who first spot the English ships arrive: Pocahontas. Why was she present but no other women? In fact the role of women throughout the film raises disturbing questions. The subtitles did not translate everything that the Native Americans said, though body language often made it clear what was meant. But what was translated seemed carefully angled. For instance, the very first word that is translated, spoken by a young male gambolling in the long grass with Pocahontas, is ‘Sister’ – all at once we are told that her later relationship with Smith is okay because she is not romantically involved. (The film quietly ignores the fact that Pocahontas was around 13 at this time.)
Where there is a choice between fact and legend, we get the legend. Thus Smith leads a small expedition to make contact with the locals to help feed the nascent and starving colony, then inexplicably he is pushing on alone. He is captured, bundled in front of Powatan, and instantly readied for execution until sexy Pocahontas throws herself across him. (The latest thinking is that this was actually more an initiation than an execution, and the role of Pocahontas as the chief’s youngest daughter was probably ritual.)
The colony barely clinging to life through its first winter is superbly visualised, as is the delivery of food by Pocahontas which saves them, and the subsequent attack ordered by her father (who seems preternaturally aware of what might follow after). The attack is the one part of the whole film where things actually move quickly, though despite the muskets firing (I was unconvinced by the historical veracity of the European tactics at the opening of the battle), and the number of arrows and spears and war axes deployed by the attackers, the tiny handful of English settlers didn’t seem to diminish at all. Then, come the spring and more ships arrive from England, and with them women settlers. Instantly a colony barely clinging to life is transformed into a leisured society. We do not get another scene set in the colony which does not feature well dressed people standing around or slowly sauntering by. Everyone there, men women and children, would still have needed to work hard virtually every moment of the day just to survive – but we see none of that.
Finally Pocahontas marries another English planter (Christian Bale), and they visit England, where Pocahontas is presented to James I. She, by now, is elegant in European dress, but she is accompanied by two or three of her father’s people. For them, in their robes and painted faces, England is also a New World, a perspective that Malick hints at briefly but sadly does not develop. Instead we get a series of exquisitely framed scenes (wherever Malick can show a scene through a doorway or window or arch, he does not resist the temptation) in which Pocahontas is reunited with Smith, turns back to her husband and child, then dies. I suspect the reunion is another invention, it is just too romantic. And the death is sugar-coated: a split-second of her lying decorously on a bed followed by a longer shot of an empty bed.
I say again, the film is glorious to look at. But it is slow, portentous, faithful to the look but not the facts. It is also the first film we’ve been to for a long time where people actually walked out.
First published at Livejournal, 20 February 2006.