Terence Malick’s The New World: A Creation Myth for a Lost World

Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.

Historians often cringe when the term “new world” is used for the contact between Europeans and Native Americans. The employment of this language assumes a European perspective; as if indigenous peoples were not already living in the Western Hemisphere. Director Terence Malick’s The New World, however, attempts to tell the story of contact from both a European and Native American point of view. Malick’s film gets a head start on the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown settlement in 1607. It seems a little strange that Malick’s film is the first entry in the Jamestown commemoration as the filmmaker is notorious for his visually stunning films and a perfectionist streak which has limited his output to Badlands (1974), Days of Heaven (1978) and TheThin Red Line (1998). Indeed, The New World is beautiful filmmaking, complete with introspective voiceovers and narration, but Malick’s history lesson is rather disturbing.

It is not necessary for an artist to accurately portray all the historical details. More important is whether the director depicts the big historical picture in a faithful manner. In his creation myth of America focusing upon the legend of Pocahontas, Malick unfortunately tends to perpetuate the notion that American history began when white Englishmen entered the stage in 1607.

Malick’s version, of course, is considerably better than the historical fraud perpetuated by the Disney production of Pocahontas in 1995. In this animated feature, the Indian princess is a voluptuous young woman in her late teens or early twenties who falls madly in love with Englishman John Smith and saves his life. Through the efforts of Pocahontas there is reconciliation between the Natives and English. The Indian hating and greed of the English are reduced to the bad influence of the evil Governor Ratcliffe. Once Ratcliffe is deposed by Smith’s men, it is possible for the Indians and English to part as friends. A wounded Smith must return to England for treatment, but the beautiful Indian princess decides that she must stay with her people. Disney makes some concessions to cultural sensitivity, but essentially the Indians in Pocahontas fall into the noble savage trope. There is no mention of her marriage to John Rolfe and journey to London; an oversight which Disney attempted to address in a sequel film for DVD distribution. And anyone unacquainted with the subsequent history of America might miss the point that the real sequel to Pocahontas deals with the assault upon Native American culture through disease, genocide, and territorial acquisition.

The Pocahontas of Malick’s The New World is at least somewhat closer to the historical story. Pocahontas is played by fourteen-year old film newcomer O’orianka Kilcher, who looks more like a young teen-age girl than a Native American Barbie doll. She still, nevertheless, falls in love with the older John Smith (Colin Farrell—who after Oliver Stone’s Alexander appears to be mired in muddling historical epics) and saves him from being killed. In Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma, historian Camilia Townsend casts doubt upon the John Smith rescue myth; a story whose authenticity many scholars question. Townsend also raises questions regarding the nature of Smith’s sexual interest in Pocahontas, observing that the Indian maiden was probably about 10 or 11 years of age at the time she met Smith. Most importantly, Townsend argues that Pocahontas was a patriot who did not betray her people through her passion for Smith.

In The New World, Malick has Pocahontas exiled by her father Powhatan after she warns Smith that an assault upon Jamestown is imminent. Then the English trade for Pocahontas against the wishes of Smith in order to blackmail Powhatan. When Smith leaves Jamestown and instructs friends to inform Pocahontas that he has perished at sea, the Indian princess wallows in despair. She ends her depression by converting to white ways and Christianity, accepting the name of Rebecca. Although still passionate about Smith, whom she learns is still alive, Pocahontas marries the widower John Rolfe (Christian Bale) and bears him a son. The King then summons Rolfe and his bride to London, where Pocahontas dies.

Scholars of Jamestown, such as Townsend, argue that Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English, while her conversion to Christianity and marriage to Rolfe, along with the subsequent trip to London, should be interpreted as acts of deception, resistance, and espionage against the English invaders. Instead, Malick’s Pocahontas urges Smith to flee with her into the wilderness. The adventurer is tempted. In a voiceover, Smith envisions the new world as a place where the poor of Europe may seek peace and refuge, while living in harmony with the Native Americans whom Smith respects. But after a sojourn with the Indians, Smith returns to Jamestown and finds the settlement mired in violence and greed. The colonists murder one another and starve; searching for gold while ignoring the planting and hunting that would sustain them through the winter. Even Smith gives in to these dreams of glory and riches. He deserts Pocahontas to search for a route to the Indies which will bring him fame and fortune.

In Malick’s vision of The New World, Smith ultimately seems to represent the greed motivation for English colonization. On the other hand, John Rolfe is portrayed as an entirely different type of Englishman. He is interested in the Native American cultivation of corn and tobacco. Rolfe is kind, patient, and understanding in his relationship with Pocahontas. He wants her to be happy, and he even offers Pocahontas an opportunity to renew her relationship with Smith. Of course, before her death Pocahontas recognizes the loving nature of Rolfe, and she is reconciled with her husband and son. Yet, in many ways the gentleman farmer Rolfe was a far grater threat to Native Americans than the adventurer Smith. The farmer needs land upon which to expand his crops and family. The cultivator of land seeks to displace the Native Americans and their way of life. This Christian European civilization is based upon private ownership of land rather than living in harmony with nature and the indigenous peoples. The world represented by Rolfe desires to destroy Native American culture, which is symbolized by Pocahontas’s conversion Christianity and the wearing of European clothing. Instead of being repelled by the urban squalor of London, Pocahontas is awed by the magnificence of the English landscape and architecture.

On her deathbed, Pocahontas tells Rolfe that her death is not to be mourned. She is happy that Rolfe and her son will continue to live and prosper. The film concludes with Rolfe’s return to Virginia, and shots of running streams and forests are used as visual symbols of Pocahontas and her enduring legacy. Pocahontas recites the parable that even if a tree loses some branches it will continue to grow. But for the creation myth of America which Malick appears to embrace it is necessary that Pocahontas and the Native Americans be the branches which must be discarded.

Related Links

  • James E. McWilliams: Forthcoming Titles in Colonial/Early American History (part I)

  • comments powered by Disqus

    More Comments:

    Peter K. Clarke - 10/9/2007

    It is hypocritical of columnist Briley to decry film-makers' myths while deluging readers with his own. Most native American populations fell victim to the unplanned effects of European diseases, for example, so it is irresponsible and asinine to apply the term "genocide" as though Jamestown were some kind of early modern colonial Auschwitz. It is similarly lazy of commenter Keuter to recycle the obsolete myth that artificial and obsolete mid 20th century American political dichotomies (such as "left wing") have any lasting bearing on understanding the facts of what happened here three or four centuries earlier.

    William R. Everdell - 2/19/2006

    "What evidence we do have of existing societies (say Aztec empires) is not conducive to the left wing Paradise Destroyed myths that have become conventional wisdom among the pseudo-educated."

    The evidence is slim--partly because Europeans after Columbus found it so easy to Destroy Paradise--nor could anyone but an Aztec defend the Aztec Empire; but try reading Las Casas on the Tainos, or even on the Caribs (the Tainos' earlier brutal conquerers), both now pretty much wiped out by methods described in stomach-turning detail by the estimable Fr. Las Casas, whose works were used by the likes of Raynal and Diderot to condemn the whole European colonial enterprise in the Americas back in the 1780s.

    There's also some interesting stuff from Fr. Diego de Landa on how the Maya lived before he saw to their conversion and burned their books. Then there's John White and James Harrington on 1580s Virginia. Not exactly Paradises, of course, and certainly not peaceful; but possibly, I think, preferable to the Viceroyalty of New Spain or even the London Company. Fewer mortal diseases, for one thing, and a lot less slavery.

    For a general reader's survey of the evidence, try reading "1491" now that it's out in paperback. If this be Leftism, make the most of it.

    Jason KEuter - 2/8/2006

    Mr. Clarke,

    You misread my posting, which argues that political ideologies only contribute to misconstruing and distorting history. In other words, modern ideologies have no bearing on what happened in the remote and, arguably, mostly irretrievable American past.

    Jason KEuter - 2/7/2006

    The most obvious creation myth is that of an idealized Indian society preceding European conquest. Left wing historians can

    "argue that Pocahontas was kidnapped by the English, while her conversion to Christianity and marriage to Rolfe, along with the subsequent trip to London, should be interpreted as acts of deception, resistance, and espionage against the English invaders".

    And are aided in doing thus by the scarcity of evidence. Those who say that the words "discovery" and "new world" imply (well there less guarded) that there was no history prior to European arrival themselves can only present their own fantasies of a more idyllic time prior to Euorpean conquest. What evidence we do have of existing societies (say Aztec empires) is not conducive to the left wing Paradise Destroyed myths that have become conventional wisdom among the pseudo-educated.

    And in a technical sense, there really was no history and study of Native American societies (a misnomer as those groups were not 'native") more properly belongs to the field of anthropology. But then again, most of what passes for "history" these days is really just left-wing moralizing. I would say "in disguise", but the moralizing is really to obvious and blatant to merit that term.

    I recommend reading Eric Hoffer's discussion of the uses fanatical True Believers make of history, in particular his discussion of the necessity to reach into an obscure, pre-civilizational past in order to find something that is truly disconnected from the present society, against which the fanatic harbors a deep-seated loathing that masks the fanatics own psychological pathologies. The vogue of NAtive AMerican studies fits uncannily into Hoffer's theory.

    History News Network