#1 in my ranking of Terrence Malick’s films.
For about the last thirty minutes of Terrence Malick’s The New World, I’m a mess. The emotional connection that Malick creates between me, the audience, and his characters is so complete that the final emotional motions that the princess Pocahontas goes through as she finishes out her story affect me at levels I find very rare in film. On top of that, the production is so intricate, the editing so evocative, and the performances so restrained but emotional that I find the mass audience resistance to The New World both completely flabbergasting and entirely understandable. This is an art film, for sure, but it works just so very well.
This movie is about the story of Pocahontas and John Smith much the same way that The Thin Red Line is about the Battle of Guadalcanal. In other words, not really. Yes, Pocahontas is the main character, John Smith and John Rolfe play large supporting roles, and we witness the early clash of civilizations around the founding and formative years of Jamestown, but they’re window dressing to the actual story Terrence Malick was trying to tell which is about the loss of innocence, or, to put it in an idiom that more closely aligns with his overall thematic obsessions, it’s about the expulsion from paradise, from Eden.
I’ve read critiques, intelligent critiques, mind you, of The New World that talk about how Malick over-idealizes the natives, or the naturals as the English call them in the film, of 1607 Virginia, but I feel like that’s missing the point. There’s a larger thematic point about the effervescent nature of utopia on Earth, but there’s also a character point. When John Smith is allowed to live by his native captors, he’s put in the hands of Pocahontas, a fourteen year old girl who sees nothing around her but nature, which she calls Mother, in all its glory. She’s almost a sprite in a certain way where she moves with the wind and the water around her. She acts as Smith’s translator and view into the world of the natives, and because his lens is built a certain way he fails to see the more realistic side of the naturals.
There’s a moment as Smith is brought into the longhouse, ready for judgment and death, when, in the corner of the frame, a warrior handles a human hand cut from its arm. We also see other examples of the natives desiring possessions like a copper kettle that conflicts with his voiceover statements while he was in his own personal Eden when he said that they had no sense of possession. His sense of utopia is built on perception, but like the treehouse in Badlands or the village in The Thin Red Line, this utopia is of the world and contains the seeds of its own destruction.
So, the English arrive in Virginia and set up a colony, and we can see the normal progression of plot familiar to the Pocahontas story. Smith gets captured and saved. The English nearly starve in the winter. Pocahontas brings them food to keep them from starving. Smith goes away, Rolfe shows up, Rolfe and Pocahontas marry, and they go to England where Pocahontas dies. The movie isn’t that terribly interested in the details of the stories on their own. Every event is used as a vehicle for Malick’s thematic ideas as carried through by his characters. We don’t need films to act as our history textbooks, so Malick using the Pocahontas story to explore his own ideas is a wonderful fit.
One of the interesting things about the film’s structure is that up until a little over the halfway point, John Smith is by far the most central of characters. We mostly see Pocahontas through his eyes, getting smaller moments away from him for her here and there, but it makes sense when you see what Malick is trying to do. Smith is the one who discovers and experiences that new innocence and paradise on Earth when he arrives in America. He loses it before Pocahontas does, and when he’s called away by the king to look for a north passage to the Indies, it’s her turn to feel like everything is lost.
Not only has Pocahontas been cast out from her tribe, but now she’s left along among strangers with strange ways in a place that had been her home but now no longer looks like it. Instead of the forest, she lives in a house. When she receives the false information that Smith has died, she has literally nothing left. Her entire world has been taken from her. What does she end up doing? She ends up moving forward. She gets a servant woman, Mary, who helps her learn how to read and write. John Rolfe appears and courts her to the point of marriage. She rebuilds as a new woman in a new world. The first time she smiles and chases after some flying insects on her tobacco farm with Rolfe, it’s a marvelous moment. She feels like she’s finally becoming alive again.
The final section of the film deals with Pocahontas going to England with Rolfe and their son. It’s here that the movie fully embraces the idea of the new world, especially in how we also follow Opechancanough who goes to count the white men and find this God that the English are always talking about. The wilds of America were beautiful and untamed, but the gardens and cathedrals of England contain their own awe inspiring beauty for the newly arrived man. It’s also here that Pocahontas, now called Rebecca, meets John Smith again, and this heartbreaking scene is the core of the film.
Smith still clings to the paradise he knew with her years before, but she finds that she’s become detached from the same place. Smith has nothing else, feeling like he’s talking to her for the first time, but Pocahontas is able to see beyond it, beyond the dream. She has a loving husband and a small son, both of whom are very real and very present, and that’s what she can cling to. She has something real, but all Smith has is a dream. And even then, Malick gives us her final spiritual moments as she dances around a rich English country estate in her full gown as though she were just the same sprite from the beginning. She’s still the same woman, but fuller now that she’s found something real to cling onto.
When I first started writing about movies on the Internet, I formalized my thinking on how all stories are built. They consist of four major elements: character, plot, style, and theme. Every story has all four in different amounts, and every audience member has a preference, though they may not be able to vocalize it this way. Malick’s films are heavily stylized, for sure, but they have very firm foundations in character and theme. Plot is incidental to his moviemaking, but for many, I think most, filmgoers, plot is the single most important element of storytelling to them. When they encounter a film that has no plot, they think there’s no story or that nothing’s happening, and they disengage. I find this unfortunate because someone like Malick is telling stories, just in a different way than many people expect. Opening up to someone like Malick can lead to rapturous experiences like every time I watch The New World. Malick may have a process that almost no one else can get their minds around (stories of Malick pissing off actors, directors of photography, and even composers are kind of the stuff of legend), but his end products show an artist in full command of his art, even if his methods are far from traditional.
The New World is a work of art. It’s one of my favorite films. It hits me emotionally like very few films can. It is the work of a visionary and a genius. I adore this film.