And so it goes, until later in the film Wes Studi’s Opechancanough accompanies Pocahontas on her journey to England, carrying a handful of sticks onto which he plans to make notches for each white man he sees, eager to meet that God that the English are always talking about. The sight of English ships approaching Virginia years earlier is nothing compared to what Opechancanough encounters now, as he enters this highly evolved and settled world full of massive brick buildings, glass windows, stone streets and manicured gardens, etc. The New World may not be entirely devout in its historical authenticity—Pocahontas’s formfitting buckskin outfit is conveniently tailored to appeal to modern sexuality—but it does a far better job than most historical dramas when it comes to portraying the emotionality of its setting.
EH: Yeah, I think that’s true. The New World isn’t a faithful-to-every-detail historical drama, but it definitely gets the feelings right. The scenes of Opechancanough wandering around the Old World initially seem like a Malickian contrivance or invention; the effect of those short, wordless scenes is almost surreal, as this New World native in his simple clothing is confronted by the bustling culture and massive man-made cities of Europe. The concept is based on real events, though, right down to the wooden sticks which the native naïvely plans to use to count Englishmen. Malick shifts the events to a different character from reality for some reason, but otherwise he’s faithful to the spirit of the true story. And why not? This little anecdote is a near-perfect realization of this film’s theme of civilizations coming into contact for the first time, confronting each other with mingled awe and distrust.
Malick is capturing, with his usual transcendental aesthetic, not just what happened but how it felt—and how it felt from particular subjective points of view. As in The Thin Red Line, there are several narrators here, though not as many as in the earlier film. Instead, Malick provides only the internal narration of Pocahontas, John Smith and, later, Pocahontas’s husband John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The limited number of perspectives prevents the characters from melting into the surroundings as they often do in The Thin Red Line. The characters are still vehicles for Malick’s philosophy more than fully developed people in their own right—especially Pocahontas, whose voiceover is mostly a series of abstracted ruminations on love, nature, spirituality and mortality—but there’s a lot more to them than most of the individual soldiers in the previous film. Even beyond the voiceovers, subjectivity is a big part of the film, starting with those over-the-shoulder shots of the natives eyeing the approaching English ships. So many shots in the film are the visual equivalent of Malick’s love of characters narrating their thoughts: the imagery is implicitly skewed by the point of view of a character or characters.
JB: That’s true, but I think it best applies to the smaller supporting roles than to the three main characters. Malick, working with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, uses shots that evoke distance, caution, uncertainty or confusion when chronicling all those awkward periods of discovery and cohabitation, whether it’s showing the natives approaching the settlers’ early camps or the shot from the perspective of one of the Englishmen who, after watching a native stroll through their camp and pick up a tool as if it was his own, guns him down from behind—the first of many unfortunate acts of violence. In contrast, when Malick captures the three main characters, the shots seem less about subjective perspective than about pure emotion. The romance between Smith and Pocahontas is dominated by intimate closeups, often showing their faces in close proximity to one another or their hands on one another. It’s increasingly rare for them not to be captured in the same shot, as if they are indeed joined at the hip, to borrow the expression. This is quite different from the way Rolfe and Pocahontas are captured: Even when they’re in the same shot, the camera never hugs their bodies quite so tightly, and often they are captured in alternating shots, even when in the same physical space. On top of that, there are numerous shots that if not always taken from Rolfe’s first-person perspective manage to evoke it just the same: shots showing Rolfe watching Pocahontas from afar, clearly enchanted by her but also aware of the distance between them. The relationship between Rolfe and Pocahontas is sweet, caring and indeed genuine, but it’s worlds apart from the passion, aching and trembling rawness of the relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, and while a good portion of that is conveyed through the performance of Kilcher, who subtly evokes her character’s swirling emotions, most of it is conveyed through the film’s compositions.
Of course, not to be overlooked is the impact of the score. Somehow we’ve made it this far with only passing references to Malick’s musical selections, which are so diverse and so consistently redolent that we could have an entire sidebar conversation on that topic alone. In Badlands, George Tipton’s original marimba-dominated score flows effortlessly into Carl Orff’s Gassenhauer, suggesting a kind of haunting whimsy that merges well with the violence and naïveté of the main characters. In Days of Heaven, Camille Saint-Saens’s The Aquarium, likewise, is both playful and dark, suggesting the thin (red?) line between heaven and hell that makes for the principal dramatic conflict of the film, while Leo Kottke’s acoustic guitar performance of the upbeat “Enderlin” captures the rambling spirit of the drifting laborers, leaving Ennio Morricone’s original score to fill in the gaps. In The Thin Red Line, Malick bookends the film with those Melanesian songs and mixes in Charles Ives’s “The Unanswered Question” (a perfectly titled piece for a Malick film, no?) but relies mostly on Hans Zimmer’s magnificent original score, which Malick reportedly demanded to be in mostly finished form before shooting began, so as to inform the acting and cinematography. And then in The New World, James Horner’s typically self-derivative score gives us romance that’s both epic (“Pocahontas and Smith”) and intimate (“Rolfe Proposes”), with significant support on both counts from Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 and Das Rheingold.
I struggle to think of another filmmaker who uses music with such care and purposefulness while also packing his soundtracks with ambient noise, whether it’s chirping crickets, buzzing cicadas, whizzing bullets or creaking ships. (As if in a nod to this, some of Horner’s pieces on the official soundtrack come complete with birdsong, as if the two cannot be separated.) To listen to the music of The New World is to feel that optimism for the human spirit that I mentioned earlier. The New World concludes with Piano Concerto No. 23, Horner’s love theme and Das Rheingold running into one another as Pocahontas has her tender goodbye with Smith, warmly embraces Rolfe, as if for the first time, and then celebrates her small immediate family in a sequence that suggests she finally knows her place in this much larger world. Das Rheingold carries us like a river through those final minutes, which show Pocahontas playing with her son in English gardens, accepting her death next to a tearful Rolfe and then running playfully through the garden on her own, turning a cartwheel, spinning around and wading into a small pond—all while wearing a proper English gown, yet showing a freeness of spirit that hadn’t been on display since very early in the film when she pranced through tall grass to mimic a deer. From there, Malick gives us another ship heading back toward Virginia, and rushing rivers and tall trees. Suggested here, both explicitly and symbolically, is the regenerative nature of the world, where death is a constant, but so is birth.
EH: I love your description of the ways in which Malick’s cinematography captures the emotions of the film’s two very different romances. That’s what I really meant by subjectivity. Malick’s shots don’t always evoke the literal first-person perspective, but they do always evoke what the characters are feeling. One of my favorite sequences in that regard is the way that Malick intensifies the disappointment that Smith feels upon being returned to his own people after spending a long time with the natives. The time that Smith spends with the natives, falling in love with Pocahontas and enjoying the company of her people, is an idyll much like the deserters’ holiday at the beginning of The Thin Red Line. Like Witt and Train’s stay in that island village, the constant threat of losing this pleasure hangs over everything. Smith knows, of course, that he can’t stay here indefinitely, as much as he’d like to. The scenery is lush and green, and Malick accompanies these scenes with typically romantic music and poetic voiceovers, further magnifying the sensation that Smith has found Eden—has found his Indies, which later he will regret having sailed past.
The heightened romanticism of these scenes then crashes jarringly against the moment when Smith returns to the English fort. When the doors of the fort are opened, Malick unveils a horrific scene of squalor and desolation that makes it seem like Smith has descended into Hell. The lush greens of the surrounding area are replaced by monochrome grays and browns, and the place seems to be on its way to becoming a ghost town, populated by gaunt zombies who stagger through the muddy, barren ground as though they haven’t eaten in weeks. Smith is almost immediately accosted by a gang of kids chattering at him in such heavily accented jargon that much of it is impossible to decipher, even though they’re speaking English. It’s a striking effect: Smith has spent so long among the native people that his own people now seem foreign, and even his own language is harsh and strange to his ears. Malick embodies Smith’s discombobulation in his stylization of the scene. Confronted with this frightening wasteland and these ugly, aggressive people, one immediately longs for the tranquility of the native village, just as Smith longs to be in Pocahontas’s arms, lounging in the grass with her once again.
This contrast between the English and the “naturals” is developed throughout the film. At one point, Smith says about the natives: “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.” It’s a particularly blatant expression of a familiar idea, the concept of the “noble savage” who is at peace with nature and who complements the more “advanced” and “civilized” cultures that might have lost touch with the natural communion that the savage experiences so intuitively. In a way, so many of Malick’s characters, in all of his films, are noble savages, people like Witt and Linda who are innocent of the modern world, who respond with open-mouthed ingenuousness to everything they encounter. The New World walks an especially fraught line, though, since the idea that the pre-colonial natives of the Americas were some kind of pure, idyllic society is an especially prevalent colonialist cliché. So my question for you is, does Malick regurgitate some of these clichés about the “noble savage” or is he merely presenting the perspective of John Smith, who does see the natives in such a rosy, paternalistic way?
JB: Good question. We’ve already acknowledged that the film isn’t a scathing commentary on the eradication of the Native American way of life (not to mention the eradication of Native American lives themselves), and considering that what we’re watching here is, historically speaking, the roots of a future genocide, I have no problem with anyone objecting to the picture on the grounds that it goes easy on the white-skinned invaders. Likewise, I think it’s fair to accuse The New World of relegating these Native American characters to “noble savage” roles in which their behavior, idyllic or violent, seems tied to a kind of childlike idiocy—as if the “naturals” are dumb in their trust and naïve in their aggression, foolishly believing they might have a fighting chance against the tsunami of gun-bearing white folk who will be traveling west for hundreds of years to come. I’m also fine with people feeling at least uncomfortable, and perhaps enraged, with a film that suggests that Pocahontas had her life in any way enriched thanks to the English. And I understand why someone would take offense that Pocahontas’s trip to England is portrayed as some kind of personal triumph, rather than as a disturbing traveling circus in which she plays the role of the dancing bear. So, sure, there’s plenty of room to take issue with the way this film adopts a rather simple, placid, elementary-school-textbook approach to this complex, turbulent and not entirely flattering period of our history.
But to answer your question: Although Malick looks away from controversial issues that I wish he’d wrestled with, yes, I think he does establish that what we’re seeing here is Smith’s perspective—a perspective that’s grounded in the actual Smith’s descriptions of these events. The best evidence is the scene in which Smith comes before Pocahontas’s father, the chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg), and believes that Pocahontas saves him from being executed: “At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me,” he says. The real Smith believed this is what happened to him, but many historians suspect that Smith was simply caught up in the middle of an elaborate ritual. Malick films the scene in such a way that, yes, Pocahontas intervenes, but seconds after she does Smith is surrounded by women from the tribe who seem to be going through ritualistic gestures. In that moment I think Malick establishes that Smith has a perhaps faulty view of what’s going on around him. Likewise, what Smith doesn’t know is that while he’s being welcomed into their company, the “naturals” around him are trying to decide just how long they’ll put up with the presence of the English before they strike. Smith believes them to be inherently peaceful, and he tells us so. But thanks to subtitles, we know otherwise. And the subsequent attack on the fort makes it obvious that the “naturals” have been in a fight before.
So while it’s true that The New World winds up perpetuating these stereotypes and clichés to some degree, I also see this film as documenting the start of the developed world’s fascination with the old Native American lifestyle, which was certainly different in appearance, if perhaps quite similar underneath.
EH: That’s pretty much how I feel. The film struggles with some obvious contradictions in its portrayal of the natives, but Malick at least seems aware of these tensions. That awareness has to be enough. To wish for a more substantial and complex treatment of these issues is to wish for a different film than the one Malick set out to make. Malick is pretty much the last director from whom I’d ever expect a real deep engagement with the politics and history of the colonization of the Americas and the genocides conducted against the continent’s natives. Malick doesn’t seem to have that kind of detailed historical narrative in him. His aesthetic is emotional and spiritual rather than cerebral, and if he were to get bogged down in a more complex examination of these kinds of ideas, I suspect it would detract from the dreamy aesthetic that his films are all built upon. He doesn’t have anything especially profound or insightful to say about the specific circumstances of the colonization of the Americas, and part of me thinks that’s a problem, perhaps even a big problem.
But another part of me recognizes that Malick is simply after something different. He’s interested in this specific moment in time because it’s such a potent realization of the confrontation between different cultures, as well as a rich opportunity to elaborate on his favorite theme, the relationship of humanity to nature. He’s an abstract thinker, and as a result his films can seem vague, and more than occasionally they get mired in lite-philosophy discourse. I’m of two minds about this tendency: on the one hand, yes, the ideas in Malick’s films tend to be simple, but on the other hand there’s an undeniable visceral and emotional intensity to his work that makes it very easy to be swept along in the grandeur of his aesthetic, to bask in his obvious rapture over images of the natural world and humanity’s uncertain place within in. This is especially apparent in The New World, which deals in abstract, general terms with humanity’s tendency towards distrust, betrayal and warfare, setting these ruminations in the context of a dual love story that’s as thematically and structurally important to the film as any of the English/native conflicts.
That’s telling, because Malick really privileges emotional experience over all else. The way love feels, the way it feels to lounge in the grass enjoying the breeze, being warmed by the sun. His films—and especially The New World, which is luscious even for him—don’t just present breathtaking images of natural beauty; they attempt to replicate what it would feel like to be a part of these landscapes, to luxuriate in the bristles of the tall grass, to be dwarfed by those trees that always seem to be reaching heroically toward the heavens, to gape before the majesty of a field that stretches endlessly towards the horizon. His films privilege the subjective over the objective, and the subjective feeling that he is intent on exploring, more than any other, is the feeling of being small and insignificant, a tiny cog in the complex machine of the world.