Even while she was alive, Pocahontas was draped in myth. The daughter of an Algonquin tribal chief, she befriended the English settlers at Jamestown, all but bouncing on their knees, and she's been tossed around ever since. Was she in love with John Smith? Did she save his life? Not likely, given that she was only 10 or 11 years old when this allegedly happened. But Smith may have had his reasons for trying to convince the people back home that an Indian princess had welcomed him with open arms full of corn: It made the idea of crossing the Atlantic Ocean to start a whole new life in a whole new world seem less frightening. And the Pocahontas myth has been handed down from one generation to the next for a similar reason: It makes us feel better about having stolen the country from her.
Now here comes Terrence Malick's The New World sailing into the multiplexes, its cargo hold stuffed with newfangled notions of what it was like when Europe and America were just getting to know each other. That very first moment, when three ships suddenly appeared in the glittering harbor, must have been a doozy. And Malick, who's not afraid to let time ebb and flow, like the tide, lingers over it, allows us to see how strange it all was, both for those on the ships and for those on the shore. Shot along Virginia's Chickahominy and James Rivers, The New World makes us feel like we're seeing this territory for the first time. The sky is swarming with fowl. The grass is taller than the people. And the trees seem to have been there for centuries, reaching for the heavens, a veritable forest primeval.
But it's the people who grab our attention and refuse to let go. Relying on God knows what historical sources, Malick, who also wrote the screenplay, has concocted some of the most intriguing Native Americans in the history of film ' fierce warriors when they have to be, peace-loving pantheists when they don't. So in tune with nature are they, sniffing and nuzzling the new hairy beasts in their midst, that you have to agree when Colin Farrell's Smith, looking a lot like a cocker spaniel himself, compares them to a herd of curious deer. As much of a mythical figure as Pocahontas, John Smith may have been any one of several different men. In The New World, he's an earnest and yet callow fellow ' a born soldier, a born leader and a guy who goes completely gaga over a certain Indian maiden.
One might not have expected Malick to buy into that whole love-connection thing, but having done so he can hardly be accused of playing by Hollywood's rules. Yes, boy meets girl, but boy doesn't exactly get girl unless you call lying around in the grass making goo-goo eyes at each other getting the girl. Theirs is such a chaste affair, a higher form of puppy love, that you start to wonder why Malick didn't make Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher) 10 or 11 after all. You also start to wonder exactly what's going on between them. (The question that kept popping into my mind: Are they doing it or not?) Kilcher, a newcomer to the big screen, has wonderfully exotic features; try as you might, you can't pin her down to a set of ethnic groups. But her performance is a little shapeless, a little inchoate, as if she isn't quite finished with it.
That sort of works for the movie, though, since Pocahontas must have had to continually improvise her role as a go-between for the natives and foreigners. Exactly what that role consisted of ' did she betray her people, switch to the other side? ' is lost in the mists of time. In the movie, she seems like a bit of a pawn, booted out of her tribe for warning the colonists of an imminent attack, then left behind by Smith when he goes back to England, finally heading to England herself as the wife of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a tobacco farmer who apparently saw an actual woman where Smith had seen a wood nymph. The transition from Indian princess to English lady has to have been one of the more bizarre switcheroos in American history, and the movie does full justice to the strangeness of it.
Of course, everything back then seems strange to us today, and the movie does full justice to that as well. How Malick has managed to re-enchant the landscape is between him and his maker, but at least some of the credit should go to James Horner's score and to Jack Fisk's production design. The use of a Mozart piano concerto seems slightly anachronistic, Wolfgang having not gotten around to composing it for another century and a half, but it nevertheless fills the air with the sickly sweet sound of European civilization, a sonic boom that brings home the idea of two cultures meeting for the first time. As for Fisk's pair of settlements, the English one at Jamestown and the Native American one nearby, they're models of imaginative reconstruction, as real-seeming as the houses down the street from us today.
"We're going to live like kings," the settlers say when they first set foot on shore. They're as enchanted as we are by this new ' new to them, anyway ' world, with all its abundance. But it doesn't take long for disease and starvation to set in, and Malick all but rubs our faces in it. He has a flair for creating an aura of authenticity. Of all the movies I've ever seen, only The Black Robe and Aguirre: Wrath of God have done a comparable job of transporting us to that faraway time period. But there's a fuzziness in Malick's approach as well, a trippy-hippie transcendentalism that may give Mother Nature more credit that she deserves. And the extensive use of interior monologues (heard in voice-over narration) may drive some viewers nuts after a while. It's like listening to a conversation spoken only in diary entries.
For all that, though, The New World is still a wonderfully eerie piece of work, as far from Disney's Pocahontas as one could have hoped for. Instead of just singing about it, Malick actually seems to have painted with the colors of the wind.