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Film Review: The New World, Pocahontas's story

Updated: Feb 23, 2023

by Alberto Sclaverano for Citiplat

When it opened in theatres at the end of 2005, The New World was only Terrence Malick's fourth film in more than thirty years. The original idea for the story dates back to the 1970s, but it took a long time to be finally filmed. The New World presents common elements with the director's previous effort, The Thin Red Line (1998). Malick retells the story of princess Pocahontas (1596-1617) but with a realistic approach never employed in other movies about the same subject, including Walt Disney Pictures well known and fable-like cartoon (Pocahontas, 1995).

As the title suggests, Malick's film deals with the discovery and occupation of America. In 1607, a group of English colonizers arrived in Virginia and established a small colony that would become the city of Jamestown. Life is very harsh, and the Europeans survive the winter only thanks to the help of the indigenous tribe Powhatan. While highly accurate in the historical reconstruction, the movie presents the story's version that includes the love story between the daughter of Chief Powhatan and explorer John Smith. While in the custody of the tribe, Smith falls in love with her. Many historians have proved this false, but it does not weaken the movie's message. Smith eventually abandons Pocahontas. Her father also disowns her for the help she gave the English, now at war with the Powhatan. In the end, Pocahontas finds a new love in John Rolfe, whom she follows to London. There, Londoners treat her as a sort of "foreign curiosity" to the point of being a guest of the King. But after finally seeing the "old" world, she dies at a young from an illness.

Malick used the story of Pocahontas as an allegory for many things. The New World is, first and foremost, a reflection on the violence that man often commits against nature and the difficulty of reaching a peaceful coexistence instead of war. The Powhatan tribe seems to live happy lives in a perfectly harmonious relationship with the natural world. Smith reflects on how they have no sense of possession or greed and share everything. His experience is the same that Private Witt had with the natives of the South Pacific Islands in The Thin Red Line. The arrival of the Europeans changes everything. While Smith is driven by a desire to explore, his compatriots seem only to care for gold and land to occupy. The natives help them, but soon a violent clash happens, and a war begins. The genocide of the indigenous is only alluded to in the film as something that will occur shortly as an inevitable consequence of Western Europeans' mindset when they "discovered" America. This avid and violent attitude is symbolized by the notes of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold (The Rhinegold), which opens and closes the movie.

Pocahontas's story becomes a tragedy. She is a victim, even if indirectly, of the violent way Europeans colonized America. While she is happy at the end with Rolfe, her existence can be compared to an animal put in a cage. When she meets the King and the Queen in London, another symbol of the new world, a golden eagle, is also presented in front of the Royal court. But the giant bird is tied up to avoid it flying away. Pocahontas and the eagle are both victims of the predatory mindset that too often humankind seems to have against nature or that more technologically developed societies have against other ones. The New World uses its striking images to reflect on our behaviour. The increasingly severe climate crisis has given more profound importance to Malick's movies and their pro-environment messages.


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