Pocahontas, by Albert W. Vogt III

It may seem counterproductive to praise somebody else for somewhat similar work, but earlier today I saw Screen Junkies’ “Honest Trailer” for Pocahontas (1995).  It was fantastic.  The review, I mean, not the film.  The movie is every bit the steaming pile of hot garbage I had heard it to be.  It was the “Honest Trailer” that inspired me to finally do what so many people had been trying to get this older historian but more recent film critic to do: watch what Disney, and some of its fans, will still head-scratchingly insist on calling a “classic.”  My initials thoughts, formed barely ten minutes into its blessedly short run time, went straight to wondering why this film was made in the first place?  Disney is usually painfully careful with its output.  This has made its legions upon legions of fans devoted to their products, and given its critics, equal amounts of fodder with which to heap ridicule upon the Mouse.  Yet, they went ahead with a film aimed at children that is so bad with history that I could almost be convinced that it should be banned from being seen in public (or private).  The film deals with a very tense time in Native American History and they turn it into a musical farce.  And what of the kids who might watch this and take it as historical gospel?  You can call me crazy, but some stories are too important to get wrong.

The first misstep in Pocahontas is how, instead of going straight to the title character, we start in England.  It is 1607, and everybody in London is talking about the newly formed Virginia Company, and how great will be the New World.  They are singing songs, loading the boat, and having a grand time, especially with the arrival of famed explorer and soldier John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson).  Among the other leaders of the soon-to-be colony of Jamestown is one with ulterior motives, Governor Ratcliffe (voiced by David Ogden Stiers).  He literally cannot talk about anything other than finding gold in the New World.  To get there, they make a stormy Atlantic crossing because what fun would it be otherwise?  On the other side of the ocean where Jamestown is to be founded are the Powhatan people.  Their principal chief, also Powhatan (voiced by Russell Means), is returning from war and wondering where his daughter, Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard), could be.  She is off doing what the movie tells you are typical Pocahontas things, which means, I guess, being a hippie sans marijuana.  Dad wants her to marry Kocoum (voiced by James Apaumut Fall) in the wake of his victory.  She sees a different path for herself, encouraged by a talking willow tree she calls Grandmother (Linda Hunt). She also speaks to animals like raccoons and humming birds, but they do not seem to respond in words.  See?  Hippie. Either way, she is the first to see the moving clouds that are the sails of the English ship when it arrives.  Governor Ratcliffe sends Smith out to reconnoiter the surrounding areas and to find those “savages,” while most of the rest undertake a fruitless quest to find a gold deposit.  It is on this walk in the woods (and mountains and waterfalls of a part of Virginia that is laughably the opposite of what you see in this joke of a film) that he finally encounters Pocahontas.  After a few words, they can miraculously communicate with each other.  This comes conveniently in time for John to explain to Pocahontas why she is a “savage,” and for her to respond with a colorful song about spirits and wind that proves John wrong.  Meanwhile, Powhatan has sent scouts to take a look at what is happening at Jamestown.  As soon as they are spotted by Ratcliffe’s men, the English open fire and wound one of the scouts.  Upon returning to the village, Powhatan declares that these interlopers need to be destroyed and calls for his allies to join him in attacking the new settlement.  This makes the budding romance between John and Pocahontas more complicated because she must keep it secret lest Powhatan get even angrier.  John, too, has his own issues to deal with among his own people.  When he gets back to Jamestown, he tries to explain to anyone who will listen that there is no gold and that the native peoples are not the fiendish caricatures they have been led to believe.  Ratcliffe quickly hushes John, and orders them to continue constructing the fort and preparing for war.  Later, John slips out to go see Pocahontas and warn her of the English settlers’ intentions.  He is followed by one of his friends among the colonists, Thomas (voiced by Christian Bale), who kills Kocoum after John and Pocahontas kiss, the result of our star-crossed lovers being spied upon.  John orders Thomas to flee before he is captured by the Powhatan.  Despite Pocahontas’ pleadings, Powhatan orders John’s execution at dawn before the rest of the English.  At the appointed time, the two sides meet prepared for war.  What saves the day, for the moment, is Pocahontas throwing herself unto John before the executioner’s blow can land.  Seeing this, everyone stands down, except for our mustache twirling villain Ratcliffe.  Instead, he takes aim at Powhatan, but is saved by John, who is wounded by the shot.  The rest of the settlers turn on Ratcliffe, while Pocahontas’ people tend to John.  Still, for some reason, he has to return to England (there was no good place to recover from a gunshot in 1607).  He tries to convince Pocahontas to come with but she refuses.  The end.

To say that Pocahontas is historically inaccurate is like saying that the sky is blue, or water is wet.  The same applies when talking about how bad it is in general.  The movie also ends pretty early in the story of our title character, or what we know of it from historical records.  This is another pretty glaring omission because in reality, Pocahontas was probably twelve or thirteen when she first met John Smith.  Yikes, Disney.  There is a somewhat interesting aspect of the film, though, that speaks to history and my Catholic sensibilities.  As Pocahontas explains, there is an individual spirit that imbues everything in nature.  Remarkably, this is basically in keeping with what we know of Native American religion from this time.  It is also worth noting that one of the stated goals of the Virginia Company, they literal corporation that founded Jamestown, was to bring Christianity to native peoples.  Unsurprisingly, the film makes no mention of this aspect.  In real life, the Virginia Company did not seem to care much about evangelization.  The ones who did, though, were the Catholic missionaries, and by the way, there were some in the area of the Powhatan before the arrival of the English.  These Jesuits and Franciscans integrated themselves into Native American villages across the Americas and used what they already believed in order to explain God to them.  It was not so much a reproval of their previous ways, but rather a reframing of it to show that there is only one Spirit, God, that is at the center of everything.  Because of this approach, Catholics were able to win far more converts than their protestant counterparts, who took more of the “my way or the highway” tactic.  As for our film, again, it ends before the point in Pocahontas’ life when she, too, converts to Christianity, albeit as an Anglican.

When Disney gets something wrong, they usually try to erase its memory.  Go ahead, try to find Song of the Southanywhere.  Give up yet?  I would not be surprised if Pocahontas one day suffers a similar fate.  It is so wrong on so many levels that I cannot see the value in keeping it around.  If you want to see a better representation of similar events, watch The New World (2005).


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