|The story of Pocahontas is enshrined in popular American history as a great romance across different races and cultures, a view bolstered by the 1995 Disney cartoon that had added talking animals and cliff-diving into the mix. When Terrence Malick crafted a film made of the same basic material, unsurprisingly without the talking animals, in 2005, he called it The New World, a double meaning for his lead character would be in the so-called "New World" for the European invaders, while when she went the other way across the Atlantic to England, that was the "New World" for her. So what you had was something of a high concept conceit.
Malick had started his career as a screenwriter, one of the hands who applied themselves to try and whip Dirty Harry into shape, though his material was not used and he ended up writing oddities like Deadhead Miles in the early nineteen-seventies. But write he did, producing a number of scripts he had actually set his heart on directing himself, and once Badlands, his debut, was an instant cult classic, he offered up the more arty Days of Heaven five years later, and then... he went to France to lecture for almost two decades. In that time, his fans believed he would never direct again, and as he never gave interviews after the seventies, how were they to know he was planning a comeback?
That comeback arrived in 1998 with the Guadalcanal World War Two epic The Thin Red Line; it was well-regarded as much as it was a genuine shock to be able to go and see a new Terrence Malick film, at least for film buffs. And then came The New World seven years later, which was critically acclaimed but for the general audiences, somewhat too married to its art to really relate to or get much out of as far as entertainment went: "boring" was a word often used to describe it, while Malick himself in a rare interview admitted those viewers were left to fend for themselves in any try at navigating its mixture of legend, fact and an obvious love of Mother Nature, as with his other work.
But as ever with this creator, of such material are cult movies made, and The New World went on to be highly rewatchable for his aficionados who loved to immerse themselves in its recreation of the flora and fauna of the Americas as seen through the prism of the early seventeenth century. This was genuinely the film's strength, it was hugely atmospheric if you wanted to lose yourself in lovingly conveyed imagery of trees, grass, rivers, endless skies and the wildlife that inhabited it. What it was not, was an accurate depiction of the romance between Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (never named as such, played by relative newcomer, fourteen-year-old Q'orianka Kilcher)
Kilcher was energised by her cult fame in this to become an activist and advocate of admirable causes, though she was not actually Native American, yet she came to embody the promotion of the Earth and its nature as something it was imperative to preserve, partly off the back of the abundance of shots of her wandering through fields and forests, happily getting in touch with the natural world, or alternatively using it to comfort her when things went wrong for her character. Which if this had been more authentic, would have taken up more of her time than anything else, since the real Pocahontas had a particularly miserable time of it once Smith and his "settlers" showed up on the shores of what they would rename Virginia.
To be fair, Malick did allude to the destruction and violence that came with them, but any factual depictions of the mass murder and mass rapes that were inflicted on the Natives was soft-pedalled even to the point of making Disney look acceptable. This would not have been so much of an issue had The New World not come across as the "real" story in comparison to the legend taught naively in American schools, and it was at the initial forefront of a movement of twenty-first century movies that tackled historical colonialism as a theme, but that merely made it more problematic when it was keen to make the locations look beautiful, and by extension everything in the movie look just as beautiful, when this was a very ugly tale indeed, one of exploitation and degradation.
No matter what indignities are inflicted on Pocahontas (including being renamed Rebecca, which did happen in life and in the film), she reverts to her dreamy, hallo trees hallo sky persona, even when she is transported to England with John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who became her husband - whether she wanted him or not. In this, the three-way relationship between him and Smith is predictably shown as a love triangle, despite the facts telling us Smith and Pocahontas' romance was invented by Smith's self-serving books, seeing as how there was an almost twenty-year age gap between them and she was basically a child when he rocked up to ruin her tribe's party. Not that, horribly, being a child made the Natives immune for sexual assault by the Europeans. When you were aware of the ghastliness left out by Malick, no matter how attractive it was to look at, there seemed a dishonesty about The New World that maybe it would take an extremely revisionist - and very successful - Western to move past; but this director was not the man to do it. Basically, Native Americans needed their Roots.
[Criterion release this on a three-disc, three version extravaganza with the following features:
New 4K digital restoration of the 172-minute extended cut of the film, supervised by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Terrence Malick and featuring material not released in theaters, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-rays
High-definition digital transfers of the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 150-minute first cut of the film, supervised by Lubezki, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks on the Blu-rays
New interviews with actors Colin Farrell and Q'orianka Kilcher
New program about the making of the film, featuring interviews with producer Sarah Green, production designer Jack Fisk, and costume designer Jacqueline West
Making "The New World," a documentary shot during the production of the film in 2004, directed and edited by Austin Jack Lynch
New program about the process of cutting The New World and its various versions, featuring interviews with editors Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, and Mark Yoshikawa
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: A book featuring an essay by film scholar Tom Gunning, a 2006 interview with Lubezki from American Cinematographer, and a selection of materials that inspired the production.]
Click here to read about the real Pocahontas's terrible life.