If I have not done so already, one of the things I like to rail against is long and pointless dialog. It is one of the reasons why I have never been a fan of Pulp Fiction (1994). I watched Quentin Tarantino’s arguably most iconic film once long ago, and I am not eager to repeat the experience. Never mind the scenes of ball gags, torture, and other forms of violence to which the director gives better direction in his other films. What I find so distasteful from a movie-watching perspective about this film is how the conversations between the characters seem to go on and on and on without really advancing the plot. Take Samuel L. Jackson’s famous roaring speech as Jules Winnfield, waving a gun and asking if he is being heard. Yes, I am sure they can hear you in outer space. Yet this oration is preceded by a plodding monologue about hamburgers and fast food. The only reason I bring up these irksome cinematic moments is to underscore how very different is The New World (2005). Movies are good because they capture the imagination. As a historian, I have spent years envisioning what the past was really like. While I am not here to say that Terrence Malick produced a completely authentic period piece, it is nice to just sit back and listen to the film as the dramatic events of the early seventeenth century unfold.
The New World starts with the English landing in what is now known as Virginia and encountering the local native people, the Powhatan. While here is the first of many historical liberties (by 1607 when the English arrived, neither Europeans or native peoples were entirely unfamiliar with one another), it is interesting to see how the first encounters are handled. The person the film focuses on is John Smith (Colin Farrell), at least at first, and he is eager to redeem himself after coming to North America in chains. Thus he agrees to lead an expedition into the interior that results in his capture by the Powhatan. They are about to execute him when he is saved by the young (actually younger than is portrayed in the film) Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher), the daughter of the tribal leader also named Powhatan (August Schellenberg). So far, everything had been pretty faithful to the history, but here it delves into the make-believe as it conjures a romantic relationship between Smith and Pocahontas for which there is no historical evidence (sorry Disney). Nonetheless, this interaction proves key to the whole story. After a period of captivity, Smith returns to find the Jamestown settlement in shambles. The inhabitants decide to make him their leader, which prevents him from going back to the Powhatan. Not to be denied, Pocahontas arrives in the middle of Winter bringing supplies to the starving garrison. This move also angers her father as he expects the English to leave. Instead, he finds a group of foreigners intending to stay against his wishes. When Spring comes, the Powhatan attack the fort, a move about which Pocahontas warns Smith. This is revealed to, and now she is cut off from her own people. Eventually she ends up in Jamestown, but soon after this Smith is called away to lead his own expedition. Not wanting to face her, he asks a companion to tell her that he drowned crossing the Atlantic. After a period of mourning, she catches the eye of a new suitor, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who is there to set up a tobacco plantation on the outskirts of Jamestown. This relationship has a bit more historical documentation for it, and through it we see Pocahontas take her place in English colonial society as Rebecca Rolfe. Her story becomes known across the Atlantic as well, and she is summoned to an audience with King James I (Jonathan Pryce) and his queen (Alexandra W. B. Malick). Not long after this royal meeting, Pocahontas passes away, but not before one last meeting with Smith. Despite her untimely death, it is interesting to track the life of a girl from Virginia and where she ended up.
There is one thing about the New World that I would be remiss if I did not mention, and makes watching it somewhat awkward. As I mentioned above, Pocahontas was younger than what she is first portrayed as in the film. Regardless, the actress who plays her, Kilcher, was just fourteen when it was filmed. Thus in the intimate scenes between Pocahontas and Smith or Rolfe, you are watching an adult and a minor. Thankfully there is nothing overtly sexual about their interactions, amounting to a few hugs and soft kisses. It is still somewhat puzzling that they could not get an older actress for this role, particularly when they were going to go against the historical record as they did.
All the same, as I alluded to before I like The New World for the quiet. As the credits were rolling, the word I used to describe my feelings on the subject to my roommate was “uncluttered.” What a great metaphor for the Spiritual life. As I mentioned yesterday, I have watched a great deal lately about the lives that nuns lead, particularly those in the cloister. The word that they use so often as to what attracts them to that life is “silence.” Only by entering into the stillness do they feel they can hear the voice of God. I can attest to this in my own prayer life. As for the characters in the movie, particularly Smith, one of the reasons they state for seeking out the New World was to escape the hubbub of their lives in Europe, and to make themselves anew. There is a certain analog between this desire and crossing the threshold of the monastery to become a male or female religious. For colonists, that threshold was the Atlantic Ocean. It is just unfortunate that they could not treat those who were already here in a more Christian manner.
The New World is probably not for everyone. I used this film a lot when teaching American History courses in person, and I often noticed my students nodding off as it went along. Then again, try finding a young person these days who has any appreciation for moments of quiet and serenity. Not that all moments in the film are peaceful. Far from it. It does show the tension and open warfare that broke out between the English and the Powhatan. So if it is historical action you are in the mood for, you could do worse than this one. You can also do better because it does take many liberties with the history. As strange as this might sound, probably the best way of “watching” it is to just sit there and close your eyes. Just try to stay awake, unlike my students.
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