LOS ANGELES — There are a lot of reasons not to like Terrence Malick’s new
movie, “The New World.” The melodrama is thick, the internal monologues are
endless and the soap operatic overuse of the thousand-yard stare is
But probably the best reason is this: The story is tired.
In this latest version of the founding of Jamestown, Malick spins the same
tale about the explorer and the explored that white men have been hawking
since Shakespeare: he’s just dressed it up with historically accurate
The production crew says “The New World” is not a history, but a fictional
love story between Captain John Smith and Matoaka, aka Pocahontas, daughter
of Powhatan, the powerful chief of the Powhatan Confederacy of Tidewater
Algonquian tribes. But it’s not really a love story, either. With Smith
playing the colonizer and Pocahontas the “good Indian,” it’s actually a
metaphor reinforcing the tragic inevitability of the conquering of America
— a story we’ve heard too often already.
The film opens with a voiceover of Pocahontas, played by then 14-year-old
Q’orianka Kilcher, saying: “Come, spirit, help us sing the story of a
land…” as the camera captures shots of a pre-colonial paradise: grasses
swaying in the breeze, happy Native people swimming in clear water. Then
come the Englishmen — dirty and sweaty, loutish and loud.
The Natives are fascinated. They jump. They point. They look at each other
in awe. They approach these strange people, sniffing around and fingering
their clothes. The Englishmen, on the other hand, seem nonplussed. They
suffer the attention of the “naturals” until Smith (played by Colin
Farrell) spies Pocahontas and falls instantly in love. He rubs his eyes. Is
she a dream?
No, but she is a myth.
What little we know about Matoaka is pieced together from the historical
accounts of others, especially Smith. The real Pocahontas was probably
about 10 or 12 when she met the bedraggled colonists in 1607. They were
camped on the disease-ridden lowlands near the James River. More than half
of them died by the end of the first summer. More were murdered in periodic
fighting with the Powhatans. Pocahontas visited the fort during the
peaceful times, and Smith befriended her, likely because he knew the land’s
inhabitants were the key to his settlement’s survival.
Whether or not Pocahontas actually saved Smith’s life, or if it was ever in
jeopardy, is much debated. But Pocahontas often served as ambassador
between the two communities, bringing food to the starving colonists and,
most controversially, letting them know of her father’s plan to ambush the
settlement and be rid of them once and for all. In return, the colonists
kidnapped her. She converted to Christianity and married a tobacco farmer
named John Rolfe, played in the movie by Christian Bale, who later paraded
her around England with their infant son to woo potential investors. She
died in her 20s, in England.
While the movie pays lip service to these life events, it never delves into
Pocahontas’ character. Her kidnapping, conversion and move to England are
given a cursory nod. Her only real grief is for her lost lover, John Smith.
One of the few things historians agree on in this story is there was no
romance between the two. So why is that star-crossed love the crux of this
“We chose to go with that powerful myth of this great love affair that
couldn’t be,” said Producer Sarah Green.
“This wasn’t about telling every bit of that history; this was about
explaining love and the consequences of rash actions and letting that
metaphor speak in a larger way about our country.”
So how is this movie different than older versions like, say, the Disney
“To be honest, I don’t know that I’ve seen them,” Green said. “I only know
the story from grade school.”
Not everyone is buying the metaphor.
“It’s not my cup of tea,” said Cherokee actor and activist Wes Studi, who
plays Opechancanough in the film.
Studi, who is also a spokesman for the Indigenous Language Institute, said
he got involved in the “The New World” because of the original script (the
final cut of the movie is missing most of his character’s development) and
the historical research that went into it. The production team hired
language expert Blair Rudes to research the indigenous language and use it
for much of the film’s Native dialogue. The resulting lexicon is being used
by the Pamunkee tribe. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much used by Hollywood.
“I’m a bit disappointed that so much of that reintroduced language wasn’t
used in the film,” Studi said.
“A lot of my scenes are on the cutting room floor.”
Studi said the original script went into much more detail about his
character. By the time Malick was done cutting, it was hard to tell if
Opechancanough is Pocahontas’ brother or her boyfriend. Actually, he was
her uncle, and a great leader who went on to lead a nearly successful
charge against the colonists.
So what will it take to write a new story about the “new world”? A
different director? Another 400 years?
“What it would take is for me to edit it,” Studi said.