Up to a point, there is a level of artistic kinship between The New World, Terrence Malick’s dreamlike origin myth of the American colonies, and another recent, visually poetic meditation on a foundation story: Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ.
Imagery and atmosphere, more than history, plot, motivation or character development, are what matter in these films, both of which use language in unusual ways, including non-subtitled stretches of dialogue in dead languages.
Where Gibson relied exclusively on ancient languages to foster a sense of historical otherness and spiritual significance, Malick uses voiceover and inner monologue to sustain a mood of philosophical introspection. Malick’s use of voiceover also corresponds to The Passion’s reliance on flashback, adding layers of depth and contemplation to outward events.
Both films portray the interactions between two populations in a stylized, morally simplistic way. Gibson depicted the Jewish hierarchy as uniformly corrupt and malevolent, and the Roman authorities (with the crucial exception of Pilate) as relatively indifferent and capable of searing brutality. Malick contrasts the uniformly proud, noble “naturals” or American Indians with the generally grungy, offensive Europeans, the exceptions here being Capt. John Smith (Colin Ferrell) and later John Rolfe (Christian Bale, Batman Begins).
Finally, in both films an iconic female figure of history and legend, played by a previously unfamiliar European-born ethnic actress, has an almost mystical relationship to the male hero. In The Passion, this was the Virgin Mary, transcendently represented by Romanian-born Jewish actress Maia Morgenstern. In The New World, the Indian princess Pocahontas, played by 14-year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher, a German-born actress of American Indian descent, has an even more crucial role.
Where the two films most obviously differ, of course, is the nature of their imagery. Where The Passion is a blood-soaked, horrifyingly graphic immersion in torture and execution as well as visions of ultimate evil, The New World is a study in natural splendor and colonial desecration. Magnificent vistas of rippling grasses and pristine forests are juxtaposed with the trampled mud and rude wooden bastions of the stockade in which the Europeans immediately enclose themselves upon their arrival while the Indians look on, bewildered but not uncomprehending.
Although the film opens with the arrival of the Jamestown settlers, vividly evoking the tingling sense of mutual strangeness and fascination as the buckskinned Indians and armored Europeans gingerly make first contact in a grassy field, there’s a clear sense in which the Europeans arrive with a backstory and baggage of conflict and evil.
The first, most immediate token of this imported grief is the fetters binding John Smith as he first sets foot on the soil of what will one day be Virginia, and the noose prepared for his neck shortly after arrival. Not a particularly auspicious beginning for a new world, especially one with such utopian hopes attached to it by its colonizers, who rather naively see it as a potential new Eden, unspoiled by the woes that they have inevitably brought with them.
Smith escapes hanging only to fall into the hands of the Powhatan Indians, among whom, following the legend, he is apparently spared a second death sentence through the intervention of Pocahontas, and is adopted into the tribe. As Smith goes native, his impressions reinforce the notion of the New World as an unspoiled paradise: The naturals, Smith declares, have no sense of possession or jealousy, no slander or envy, no word for forgiveness (i.e., no sense of guilt).
These idealized perceptions of the Indians and their world might to a certain extent be ascribed to the European characters, not necessarily to the film itself. Yet if Malick dissents from the notion that evil and violence were essentially European woes imported to the Americans by the colonists, The New World offers little hint of it.
Although at first the white men lay claim only to a bit of undesirable land, the Indians shrewdly guess that it will not end there, and Pocahontas’s father Chief Powhatan deems that the immigrants may stay through the winter, but after that will have to leave. Watching the film, it’s hard to see this as anything but an utterly appropriate prudential judgment; and when the following spring it becomes clear that the white men aren’t leaving and the Indians mount an attack, this too seems a justifiable preemptive strike.
As the Indians storm the fort, Malick’s camera admires their leaping bodies and swift, deadly movements, and mourns their falling to European gunfire, while affording no similar interest or compassion to the Europeans. The violence is nowhere near the level of Gibson’s film, but what violence there is is no less clear an index of its point of view.
So far we seem to have a diagrammatic, wooden inversion of the old imperialist picture of civilized white men and barbaric Indians, i.e., the equally insipid model of noble savages and contemptible Europeans. Even Disney’s Pocahontas managed more ambiguity than that in a musical number (“Savages”) depicting both sides as capable of comparable unreasonable behavior and prejudice against the other.
What ultimately elevates The New World beyond these stereotypes is three things. First, its frank depiction of Pocahontas’s willingness to accept and help the Europeans and ultimately to cast her lot with them. Second, the unexpectedly sympathetic light in which it regards the late arrival of John Rolfe and of his marriage to Pocahontas, now christened Rebecca. And finally, a third-act visit to London, where the Powhatan princess finds not squalor and grotesquerie, but a world of beauty and even splendor wholly different from that of her own land, yet not incomparable to it.
On a hard-line anti-European reading of things, for a Brit like John Smith to go native and become an honorary Powhatan is to be ennobled and enlightened, whereas for an Indian princess to be baptized into the invading culture’s religion, to say nothing of adopting their dress and way of life, can only be seen as a tragic betrayal of her own identity. Even her willingness to help the Europeans would seem to be a disastrous treachery against her people.
Indeed, Chief Powhatan is deeply grieved by his daughter’s actions, so much so that she asks his pardon — an exchange that, on the face of it, would seem to give the lie to Smith’s belief that the Indians lack the concepts of blame and apology. (On the other hand, is it an accident that we see apologies required among the Indians only in connection with the Europeans? Have the invaders at least poetically brought the concepts of grief and regret to these shores?)
Is The New World finally a tragedy, the story of the fall of Pocahontas? I think only the most ideologically committed will choose to see it this way. Malick’s Pocahontas is no victim, but a strong-willed, open-hearted young woman who makes daring but heroic choices, and who ultimately finds happiness and peace in those choices. Her father Powhatan’s attitude toward the whites is not unjust, but Pocahontas’s approach goes beyond justice, and rises to a kind of grace.
Pocahontas, or rather Rebecca, is not demeaned by European dress or customs. She is not desecrated by baptism (though it’s admittedly unclear how complete her conversion is, especially given that her interior monologue continues to be addressed, not to God, but to her “mother”). There are probably any number of films in which the donning of a corset serves as an obvious metaphor for social oppression of women, but The New World doesn’t seem to be one of them. Malick sympathizes with his heroine in her times of loneliness and grief, but never reduces her to victimhood on the altar of European imperialist guilt.
Then there is marriage to Rolfe. In a glowing review for ChristianityTodayMovies.com, my friend and colleague Jeff Overstreet mentions some of the strikes against this poor man: an unreconstructed Christian Englishman without even a whiff of honorary Indian status, a tobacco farmer no less, a widower desirous of marriage, unloved by the heroine, and a late suitor for her affections (and played by a less well-known actor taking third billing).
By every unwritten Hollywood law, Rolfe ought to be the unwelcome interloper, the unworthy rival for Pocahontas’s first and true love. Yet, in defiance of expectations, Rolfe is a good and gentle man whose love for Pocahontas is affectionate and kind, who marries her in the hope that she will one day forget John Smith and learn to love him. Yet can she really forget Smith? Where does her heart truly belong? What would be a foregone conclusion in almost any other film receives generous and thoughtful consideration here.
Without a doubt, the most polarizing aspect of Malick’s work is not his politics, but his unique cinematic style, for some a transcendent revelation, for others a crashing bore. I find myself not quite in either camp. Malick’s painterly images and meditative voiceovers are not for me the overwhelming force of nature they are for some, but I’m willing to be swept along by them, if what they have to say is potent enough. For me, that makes The New World a partial success, an intriguing if flawed film.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.