White men invade. Native peoples resist. Tragedy results. It’s an old story, certainly, with history and fiction alike dominated by imperial projects. In the fabled case of John Smith and Pocahontas, this story is not only familiar but also consequential, a kind of map for the lands, futures, and cultures that would be so completely reshaped by their collision in a seeming 15th-century paradise.
Terrence Malick’s version of this legendary collision, The New World, is ambitious and gorgeous, the landscape serving as a kind of objective correlative for characters’ cravings and astonishments. Malick’s propensity for poetry, brilliantly realized in Badlands and The Thin Red Line, here assumes an allusive structure. It’s possible to read The New World as another of the filmmaker’s subtle post-romances, set against backdrops of unspeakable beauty. And yet it is less stunning, more mundane than his previous films, in part because the myth it takes on remains disturbingly intact.
That myth, so broadly meaningful and so trite, is the circa 1607 romance between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’Orianka Kilcher), real name Matoaka. On the one hand, The New World refutes this pretty story by making Smith overtly a problem, an arrogant, only momentarily diverted adventurer who can’t commit to a precocious native girl, who happens to be the daughter of local king Powhatan (August Schellenberg). As he looks on the wild woods before him, Smith’s voiceover names the calamity he represents: “Men shall not make each other their spoil.” How idealistic he sounds, and how ironic.
For her part, Pocahontas falls in love with the handsome white man, even as she recognizes that he brings with him men of lesser faith and character, men who mean to abuse her people and the land to which they belong. (Native historians, as opposed to, say, Disney, suggest that Pocahontas would have been 10 or 11 in 1607.) “Come spirit,” Pocahontas says in English, one element in the film’s sinuous, intermittent, multipart voiceover. “Help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother, we your field of corn.” Smith seems almost to answer her in his voiceover (“Who are you, whom I so faintly hear?”), as they seem drawn to one another, metaphorical forces, emblems of cultures that will be unable to accommodate one another or the resources both covet.
Pocahontas can’t know that the idyll of sun and water and windblown fields will come to an end, that the men who arrive in ships will ruin everything. Neither can she know that the man she saves from death at her father’s hands, the man she comes to love, will abandon her, leaving her to be reshaped, reframed, and re-costumed by the resiliently ignorant populations of Jamestown and then London, where she will expose (again) her ferocious generosity and capacity for forgiveness.
Impressionistic as his films will be, Malick brings to bear on this saga a fascinated (and at times, fascinating) patience, as his camera wafts over natural woodsy scenes or dense rainfalls. The romance occurs as Smith stays for months with the tribe — whom the Europeans deem “the naturals” — in an ostensible effort to help his own men survive, to win favor and learn strategies of living with the land rather than pitted against it. As he learns to handle a spear, Smith begins to resemble Tom Cruise finding enlightenment through martial arts in The Last Samurai, a poser enthralled by his own naked-torsoed beauty.
Though Smith extols the new-landy values of the naturals (“They no jealousy, no sense of possession”), he can’t absorb them. Instead, he is bedeviled by his ambition, enticed by a new voyage to discover the Indies, leaving behind a lie for Pocahontas, that he’s died at sea, so he never need return to her. He seems a predictable white man after all. “It was a dream and now I am awake,” he says. “I let her love me. I made her love me.” Whether you read this is self-awareness or -delusion, she is in this story robbed of agency, only a function of his longing.
The film shows Pocahontas as just this sort of projection. In her seeming innocence and iconoclastic splendor, she articulates (always, in voiceover, in English) the film’s symbolic and moral weights. In her assumption of this burden, she’s both like and unlike other female narrators in Malick films, wise beyond her years but though neither so odd as Badlands‘ Holly nor as bleak as Days of Heaven‘s Linda. Instead, Pocahontas entrances with her love for The New Land‘s “nature,” her deerskin outfits and lithe beige legs objects for the camera, standing in for Smith when he’s not on screen, asking viewers to appreciate her through a haze of nostalgia for a time none can know.
Yet Pocahontas isn’t only gorgeous and untouchable, she’s also vivacious and astute, all making her the ideal object. She understands Powhatan’s disapproval of her attraction to the enemy, but she also knows her father can refuse her nothing, not even disaster. Powhatan rationalizes that his youngest, most beloved daughter’s affiliation will, in time, provide her an education about the world past their own shores. At first, this seems a good thing.
The New World goes on to show just how bad it can be — Pocahontas learns treachery from Smith and then, stern devotion from her eventual husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Though she mourns for her lost love, still thinking him dead, she agrees to work in Rolfe’s tobacco fields, that is, to take the first step to a more formal intimacy. “There are things you don’t know, she warns him, “Things you could not guess.” Ah yes, but her ripe mystery is so captivating that he can’t not want her. However Rolfe or Smith or even you comprehend her, Pocahontas’ tragedy is just this desire, that has so little to do with her.