Around to it at last.

The New World


Finally got around to seeing this, and I’m glad I did. It’s kind of hard to believe that Terrence Malick was being hailed as a genius of cinema before I was born, yet I’ve managed to see half of his feature-length directorial filmography in theaters on their initial releases. The magic of non-prolificacy at work. This film, a retelling of the tale of Pocahontas, actually existed in some script form since the late ’70s, when Malick was in the midst of his first wave of filmmaking - curious the things we take with us through the years, though this subject matter seems eminently appropriate for Malick’s contemporary style. After all, the Pocahontas story, while based in fact, has long since passed into the realm of legend, tellings and retellings dotting the US cultural landscape; I presume that most elementary school students could tell some version of the story, as it’s one of those Early American History standards, though many of those kids might tell it differently. By way of example, I certainly didn’t know of Pocahontas’ later life as the bride of someone other than John Smith until a ways later - the Disney version has no doubt muddied the waters further.

Or, as I ought to say, muddied the historical waters. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend,” as the cinema says, and there’s surely something to the power of legend to inform our thinking. Malick seems to understand this; The New World sets out quite capably to let a battery of grit and what we might dub ‘realism’ (for lack of a better term) smash into the story, but he’s not content to let the pieces then sit on the ground. Rather, he rebuilds it from old parts and new, treating it very much like a fable, rather than any sort of factually comprehensive dissertation; in this way, the material becomes naturally receptive to Malick’s personal brand of cinema stylization. All of the clipped, poetic voiceovers and rhapsodic shots of character running and swimming and contemplating deep things with deep eyes are present and accounted for, though I dare say the effect is much greater than in Malick’s prior The Thin Red Line, where all of that personal introspection and nature-washed wandering seemed primed to clash with the enveloping brutality of war - at times, it smelled faintly of trickery, of aesthetic contrivance for the sake of simple tonal contrast. There is none of that here.

Focused in terms of plot on Pocahontas’ experiences with a foreign encroachment (and ultimate domination), the film is actually about the land itself, the geography’s face and tenor irreversibly altered by the growing foreign settlement - the film’s very title can be read from the point of view of either the natives or the settlers, though what is clear from our modern perspective is that the world will indeed soon be new. Malick presents events as almost detached from any historically particular point of view, preferring to ask the modern American to see their own development through the actions of various historical characters - the lovely pre-title sequence has our native protagonist, arms stretched to the sky, asking her spiritual Mother to raise us up, and it’s a fitting opening for a story of a land’s growth from one form into another.

Thus, we have the ever-familiar conflict between the natives and the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith present and accounted for. Smith here arrives ashore in irons, though it’s clear that there will soon be little in the way of formal rule of law in this wild new place. The initial weeks for the settlers don’t go very well, and Smith is coerced into leading a party up the river to go find the local ‘king’ of the ‘naturals’ and try and institute some form of trade. This is after a tense sequence of natives touching armored settlers (human-to-human contact will become a huge recurring visual motif), and the nasty shooting of one native over stolen goods, the concept of minor goods ‘theft’ being forwarded as a European cultural thing. You can’t get more blatant with the culture clash than that, but Malick refuses to emphasize this sequence as a Major Turning Point! or anything - it’s just another piece of the puzzle, another moment in a painful metamorphosis.

So naturally, Smith meets up with the native ‘king,’ and falls madly in love with a daughter of his, after the girl saves Smith’s life. It’s very important that the girl is never referred to as ‘Pocahontas’ in the film proper, that name saved only for the closing credits. She’s called the ‘princess’ in accordance with the settler’s European point of view, and she’s ultimately baptized into another name, Rebecca. We maybe catch faint bits of her native name, though it’s very hard to tell, as very little of the near-extinct Algonquin tongue as employed in the film is translated, all the better to enhance the uncertainty of those early days. The only names we can truly know the girl by are inventions of the settlers, which is fitting since the film is ultimately about the assimilation of native peoples and forces into modernity.

Pocahontas here is the earthy, kind and wild spirit of the land. Both of the peoples we are shown are fundamentally suspicious of one another, and both plot great violence; as expected, Malick throws in all sorts of luxurious shots of natives romping and frolicking, but it’s not really the romanticization of a people, as their tendency toward violence is as present as the settlers’ own (it’s just that the oft-desperate settlers are far less in control of their surroundings). Rather, it’s the romanticization of a state of mind, the young belief that all peoples can love and get along. There’s a great, rather sensual scene between Pocahontas and Smith, in which they brush against each other in sharing their differing terms for parts of the body; it ought to be stated now that the film, which somehow got away with a PG-13 despite some rather vivid violence, is also rather frank (if entirely non-explicit) with depicting the physical attraction between characters played by 30-year old Colin Farrell (and later 31-year old Christian Bale) and 15-year old Q'Orianka Kilcher, perhaps another nod toward a form of ‘reality.’ Ah, but then there’s a gorgeous sequence in which the camera gazes upon them embracing, each quick cut putting them in a different position, our view dancing back and forth and around, as they caress and hug, the thrill of romance from multiple angles.

The entire editing rhythm of the film is really quite superb, Malick’s four-person crew whipping up some truly excellent use of fast cuts and sustained montage, like the multi-cultural witnessing of the initial landing, James Horner’s droning, effectively repetitive score pulsing like a timid heartbeat. There’s a constant breaking of the spatial reality of a scene through editing - our viewpoint will suddenly cut to seemingly unrelated images of additional characters and faces in the middle of seemingly focused scenes; it reminded me a bit of Mike Mignola’s tendency to insert close-ups of statues or knickknacks in his pages, and the effect is the same: to build atmosphere and a sense of place, beyond that which you’d think a mere camera, a mere human view can allow. It’s really well done, and adds so much to the film’s appeal.

Anyway, we hit on all of the expected plot points - Pocahontas defies her father and aids the desperate, starving, often religiously insane settlement in their winter survival. This leads to war, Pocahontas’ being cast out by her people, the settlers’ mass burnings of native property, and the ultimate departure of her love, John Smith, who wants badly to escape this life he has, but maybe feels too much guilt over what he’s brought. Literally purchased by the settlers, Pocahontas then encounters the development of the modern American accoutrements of ‘civilization,’ proper dresses and shoes and the like. Malick does a good job with observing the settlement’s growing walls and houses, but he does a great job with simple language - pay attention to Pocahontas’ manner of speaking English, because the moment she suddenly infuses irony into her speaking is a big development in her character. Ultimately she shacks up with the somewhat aloof but fundamentally kindly Captain John Rolfe (a later arrival who uses the progress made by earlier settlers to strike out with the newly Christened Rebecca on their own, and trade with the remaining natives), and goes on a trip to England, which is really a glimpse of the future.

Now the trees are perfectly manicured, and parks all controlled, the devices much more modern, the dress ultra-fancy. It’s what America will soon be, and Rebecca is maybe a bit lost when confronted with the royal court (and a surprise cameo by Jonathan Pryce as the King) - note the bald eagle trying to fly away but strapped to his master’s arm, though the bit with the raccoon in (wait for it!) a gilded cage was a bit much. And yet, she finds her happiness, and finds where he Mother is. It’s in human love, of course, and as soppy as such a revelation can get, it’s made perfectly palatable by Malick’s mastery of the screen - when Smith remarks that his time with his princess was the only true thing he’s seen, you’ll believe it. And then we get a frankly breathtaking final montage, a pounding (yet somehow graceful!) return to the wordless opening, as the dead Pocahontas (our point of view) seems to soar through all she’s seen, everything moving backwards from modernity to the natural state, until a final silence among the tall trees, her spirit again with the earth’s heights. It’s still with us, material for storytelling, and while Malick is wise enough not to demand a return to purely natural values, he understands that our peace in America can withstand the shaping of foliage and the erection of structures. A fine telling of such old things.