Screens They’ll always have Virginia

The New World forsakes creation myth for romantic tragedy

Like George Washington tossing a silver dollar across the Potomac River or William Travis drawing a line in the sand with his sword, Pocahontas leaping in to save the life of John Smith became an enduring American legend. Its only historical source is brief and dubious, the fragment of a sentence published in 1624, 17 years after the events. Recounting his capture by Chesapeake Bay Indians, Smith tells of how he was on the verge of being clubbed to death when rescued by the princess: “Pocahontas, the King’s dearest daughter, when no entreaty could prevail, got his head in her arms and laid her own upon his to save him from death, whereat the Emperor was contented he should live ... “

Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, left, and Colin Farrell as John Smith, right, bring two American legends to life in Terrence Malick’s The New World.

Smith makes no mention of this incident in anything he wrote earlier, and some historians have speculated that the English adventurer misinterpreted a ceremony initiating him into the tribe. Yet, in a screenplay that until now remained unproduced for almost 30 years, Terrence Malick seizes on the myth of the Pocahontas rescue to create a romantic colonial fantasy, a spectacular drama of interracial love doomed by cross-cultural discord. His Smith (Farrell) is smitten by the sprightly native gamine (played by 15-year-old newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher), and she adores the handsome stranger. Though Smith never seems to learn the local Algonquin language, Pocahontas acquires enough English to relieve Malick of the need for subtitles in her scenes with the settlers. Yet the first part of the film is dominated by shots of Smith and Pocahontas communing silently amid the meadows and woods. They are accompanied by the plangent, slow movement of Mozart’s “Piano Concerto Number 23”; since it was not composed until 1786, it is as anachronistic as the use of Mozart’s “Concerto 21” in Elvira Madigan, which is set in the 19th century and also gushes over two lovers at odds with the world.

“Where would we live?” asks Smith when Pocahontas yearns for their own private amorous space free of the clash between settlers and natives. They’ll always have Virginia, suggests Malick—if Rick and Ilsa can always have Paris. Such love is utopian, i.e., suitable for no place. The New World is built on the paradox that Virginia, founded as a utopian alternative to Europe, is not for lovers. There is no escape from old woes in the New World.

The New World is driven by awe at first encounters—between Europeans and the wondrous North American continent and between newcomers and natives. In the opening sequence, as three ships from England arrive at the Virginia coast, Smith beholds a burst of radiance. It is especially luminous through the bars of the brig, which is where Smith, insubordinate during the voyage, has been confined. The only professional soldier among any of the settlers, Smith, at 27, has already fought for Dutch independence from Spain and for Austria against the Turks. Captured in battle and sold into slavery, he killed his master and made his way alone back home. Now, on North American soil, he not only avoids hanging but manages to take control of Jamestown, the first permanent English colony in the Western hemisphere. “We shall build a true commonwealth,” he proclaims. “Men shall not make each other their spoil.”

The New World

Writ. & dir. Terrence Malick; feat. Colin Farrell, Q’orianka Kilcher, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, August Schellenberg (PG-13)

Spoiling Smith’s idealistic vision are maggots, scurvy, and human frailty. The New World is a drama of intentions, misperceptions, and deflections. “It’s only a bit of swampland they want,” says one of Powhatan’s sons, underestimating English objectives. Literally sniffing each other out, Powhatan’s people and Smith’s begin in mutual awe. “They’re lacking guile. No sense of jealousy, no sense of possession,” says Smith, whose sentimental view of the Indians as noble savages does not survive full-scale war. “A god he seems to me,” says Pocahontas about Smith, but her deity turns out to be just another wandering Judas. Many years after he abandons her to continue his quest for the opulent Orient, Pocahontas, now baptized as Rebecca and married to aristocratic tobacco entrepreneur John Rolfe (Bale), encounters a forlorn Smith in England. “Did you find your Indies, John?” she asks. “I may have sailed beyond them,” he replies.

The New World is a film about ambitions that sabotage their own fulfillment. It is most successful in representing the physical challenges of survival in the North American wilderness in the 17th century. Though infatuated with Pocahontas, it respects her people enough not to reduce them to a single stereotype, and it resists becoming a mere diatribe against colonial oppression of tribal culture. But Malick has epic aspirations. “Come, spirit, help us sing the story of our land,” chants a voice in the opening moments. However, the spirit is feeble, weakened by giddy interior monologues and inane montages. The New World is not an Aeneid of the Chesapeake Bay. It is Romeo and Juliet lifted from Verona and lost in the woods.

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