The New World (2005)


(director/writer: Terrence Malick; cinematographer: Emmanuel Lubezki; editors: Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa; music: James Horner; cast: Colin Farrell (John Smith), Christopher Plummer (Capt. Christopher Newport), August Schellenberg (Powhatan), Q’orianka Kilcher (Pocahontas), Christian Bale (John Rolfe), David Thewlis (Captain Edward Wingfield); Runtime: 135; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Sarah Green; New Line Cinema; 2005)
“A film for dreamers.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is the retelling of the Pocahontas story (don’t expect things to be factually correct, as it shoots to explore ideas instead), the first American for all intensive purposes, which is the beginning saga of the genocidal American history and the rape of a peaceful people by the so-called civilized newcomers. This is the fourth film in the last thirty two years by writer-director Terrence Malick (“The Thin Red Line”/”Badlands”/” Days of Heaven”). All his films are uniquely brilliant and majestic visually. This one, no exception, is the work by a master filmmaker who has created a splendid tone poem in mood, emotion and vision but has wandered all over the map making it difficult not to become restless (too much scenery -tall grass and lush landscapes, and chirping birds-to admire) and is almost a test of one’s will to keep the focus on the intended prize–understanding how America was spawned. It plays as a primal experience, where the viewer is expected to become transfixed into a state of childhood innocence to catch the filmmaker’s personal reaction to the human subjects he puts under a proverbial microscope. It induces a transcending state of awareness of how men who were taken by the primitive pure beauty and freedom in the “new world” could not accept things as they were (nature) and inflicted on the natives their anti-nature ways of guile, greed and genocide. That it doesn’t always work (at least not for me) doesn’t mean that there are not parts that have an unspeakable beauty that is most compelling, which made it a film to be cherished.

It opens with the starchy Brits arriving in April 1609 in Virginia in three wooden boats and suits of armor to the strains of Wagner’s prelude to “Das Rheingold.” The 100 or so men have been contracted by the Virginia Company to find gold and establish a colony in the name of King James, and are led by the austere Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer); they are greeted by the curious indigenous Powhatan tribe–called the “naturals” by the Europeans. The welcoming dreamlike scene is memorable; it’s something that has to be seen (words are inadequate to describe its power) to realize its full effect in conveying what both the natives and the colonists first envisioned when they encountered each other. The stark contrasts between them shows the innocence of the Indians compared to the ulterior darker motives of the colonists.

We learn of what happened through the diary kept by Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell).

Smith is a dishonored professional soldier who arrives in chains but is given a chance to start fresh in the “new world,” and soon shows an ability to relate openly with the Indians. When Newport returns to London to get more supplies, Smith is placed in charge and told to relate to the Indians by going upstream to get food and supplies so the colonists can survive. Smith ventures out of the colonists’ fort and is imprisoned by the Indians where he meets Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher, the newcomer is a mature looking 14-year-old), a free-spirited teenage beauty (the real princess was only 10 or 12) and the favorite daughter of the chief of the Powhatans (August Schellenberg). Pocahontas becomes not only very real as a person but as a metaphor for the unspoiled, as her openness and ability to change is compared to the sky which is used as a recurring motif to enhance her strong spiritual nature.

Pocahontas feels for Smith who is captured and is being tortured in an Indian ritual, and after she saves him and teaches the other Brits how to plant corn the two begin an innocent romance. Her chief father wants her to pump him for all he knows and to find out the intentions of the settlers, and when she complies Smith is returned to the fort and told by the Indians to get the settlers to leave for home, but they refuse. Pocahontas will then warn them of an Indian attack and this will cause both lovers to suffer at the hands of their own people, as they will become permanently separated. Smith is sent on a new journey by the king and she is banished by her father and her own people, and as an insurance of not being attacked by the settlers she’s sold to them. We follow Pocahontas as she’s taken in by the Brits in their fort and dressed in European clothes and transformed into a European lady. It’s hard to know how she feels about her culture being taken away from her and Malick to his credit doesn’t pretend he knows the answers, but what he shows is that she has the ability to adjust to change and that the myth of her being so compliant to European culture is given the director’s closest scrutiny as he attempts to change the way we were led to believe the princess was from our school texts. In due time, Pocahontas will marry the kindly John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a gentleman tobacco farmer, even though she doesn’t seem to love him at first. They have a child in America, and return to the “old world” by 1616. There we see Pocahontas, now known as Lady Rebecca, gleefully playing hide-and-seek with her child in a manicured English garden. Pocahontas will be surprised to learn that Smith is alive and living in London, and the two will meet as arranged by her husband to reminisce about the recent past. Soon after this meeting Pocahontas takes ill and the young princess’s short life comes to a sudden end, but her myth lives on.

Whatever the historical truth, this film is not going to answer such questions. It’s a film for dreamers, those concerned with myth making and poetical truths. For a commercial film about a subject that seems almost impossible to put on film and one that seems an almost impossible task to get right, Malick somehow manages to do both right. It’s pulled together through its unusual flavorings, its curious nature of digging out insights through observation, its strong emotional way of seeing what’s good and evil, and its sheer beauty. Whatever its drawbacks, it’s a film that stays with you and deserves many viewings.