The good news about Terrence Malick’s The New World is that we didn’t have to wait for his new movie for two decades, as we had to between Days of Heaven in 1978 and The Thin Red Line in 1998.
As visionary, poetic, and sumptuously made as his previous films, The New World nonetheless may be Malick’s most narrative film, one with a clear beginning, middle, and end; a discernible plot that unfolds chronologically; fully fleshed characters with arcs; and an extremely touching and powerful conclusion.
The New World may not be as ambitious as The Thin Red Line, Malick’s personal take on WWII, but overall, it’s a more satisfying movie. The narrative structure, with its shifting perspectives and multiple voice-over narrations, two of Malick’s most distinctive devices, is both more coherent and effective.
Situating the story in an era that’s seldom been portrayed on screen, the early part of the seventeenth century, Malick has made a personal film that integrates all the elements of what could be described as his worldview, his philosophical-artistic vision.
As with all of Malick’s work, the film is about much more than what its deceptively simple story suggests. Thematically, The New World bears all of Malick’s recurring motifs.Through the bloody encounter and culture collision of European and Native Americans during the founding of the Jamestown settlement in 1607, Malick examines primitive versus modern society, the wilderness vs. civilization, the purity of nature versus the humanity’s inevitable flaws.
As any Malick film, The New World can be interpreted in different, even contradictory ways, which attests to the richness of its ideas and visual imagery. “The New World could be seen as an elegy for America of yesteryear, and a critical view of the America that was yet to be created. On one level, it’s a story of our history as Americans, our flaws, virtues, and growing awareness of other cultures.
Structurally, The New World centers on a romantic couple and its conflict with its social surroundings. As such, the tale establishes a direct link to Malick’s Badlands, in which a young couple (played by Sissy Spacek and Martin Sheen), goes on a senseless murder spree in Dakota and Montana, and Days of Heaven, in which the romantic duo of migrant laborers (Richard Gere and Brooke Adams) pretending to be siblings (See reviews of these films).
It’s noteworthy, that all four of Malick’s films are period pieces: Badlands was set in the late 1950s, Days of Heaven in the pre-industrial revolution America of the early 1900s, Thin Red Line during WWII, and The New World goes back even further, to one crucial decade, 1607-1616, in the formation of the New America. Yet each film reflects the era and zeitgeist in which is was made. Hence, the 1973’s Badland is as much about youth’s anger and disillusionment with America society in the post-Vietnam and Watergate era as it is a commentary about its fact-inspired criminals of the 1950s.
Malick suggests that, historically, America didn’t begin with Columbus, or the Pilgrims and the Mayflower. Nor did it begin with the settlers of what became known as Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement, which predated the Plymouth Rock landing by 30 years. There were thousands of years of habitation and culture in Virginia by indigenous peoples who found their world turned upside down by the arrival of newcomers from distant shores.
Inspired by the historical characters of John Smith and Pocahontas, Malick has transformed a classic story into a sweeping exploration of love, loss, and discovery. Against the historically rich backdrop of a pristine Eden, inhabited by a native civilization, Malick has dramatized a tale of two strong-willed characters, a passionate and noble young native woman and an ambitious English solider of fortune, who find themselves torn between the requirements of civic duty and the dictates of their hearts.
In the early seventeenth century, North America is a land of seemingly endless primeval wilderness, populated by an intricate network of tribes. Although these tribe-nations live in graceful harmony with their environment, their relations with each other are strife with tension, even before the intrusion from the outside, which upsets the balance even more.
On a spring day in April 1607, three ships containing 103 men sail from the kingdom of England, 3,000 miles to the east across a vast ocean. On behalf of their sponsor, the royally charted Virginia Company, they are seeking to establish a cultural, religious, and economic foothold on the coast of what they regard as the New World.
Shackled below the decks of the lead ship, named Susan Constant, is the rebellious John Smith (Colin Farrell), 27, sentenced to be hanged for insubordination. A vet of countless European wars, Smith is a soldier of fortune, though fortune has turned its back on him. Too talented and popular to be hanged, Smith is freed by Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer), who knows that surviving in this wilderness will require the work of every man, particularly one of Smith’s abilities.
Most of the 103 in the group are aristocrats ill prepared for life in the New World, and the settlement struggles to survive. Smith is entrusted to lead a food fathering expedition up the Chickahominy River, on which members of the Powhatan tribe, the ruling tribe of the region accosts him.
All but Smith are killed, and he is taken to the Native American village, where he encounters Pocahontas (QOrianka Kilcher), the daughter of the Native chieftain Powhatan (August Schellenberg). The long chapter that follows is one of the most poetic and beautiful courtships seen in American films. Set outdoors, in the fields and by the river, this segment captures the physical landscape in a unique way, using natural lighting to maximum advantage.
Since they don’t even speak the same language, most of the communication is conducted through gestures, looks, and eventually delicately erotic touches. (The film refrains from showing the sexual passion between Smith and Pocahontas, perhaps due to her very young age). Pocahontas teaches Smith the culture and customs of her people, and he, in turn, instructs her basic words in English (wind, earth, lips, hair), which she demonstrates gracefully.
Months later, with enough food to help the settlement survive the winter, Smith returns to the Jamestown colonies. The following spring, Powhatan, upon discovery that the settlement intends to stay, prepares for battle. Pocahontas alerts Smith of the impending battle. When the tribe is thwarted, Powhatan realizes that it was his daughter who betrayed them and as punishment she’s banished from her tribe and family.
Forced to live with a neighboring tribe, Pocahontas eventually is traded to the English as an “insurance policy” against further attacks by her father’s tribe. She lives among the settlers, slowly adapting to their way of life. Soon, she’s dressed like a young English lady. The scene in which she is forced to wear high heels, after years of running in the fields barefoot, has both humor and pathos.
During this period, Smith is called back to England to lead other expeditions, and a devastated Pocahontas is told that he died during the trip. Malick is excellent at capturing her deep sense of loss. The color palette changes from green and yellow to gray and brown, and Pocahontas is seen crying and mourning, lying on the dirty and muddy ground, in shots that stand in diametric opposition to the previous images, in which she was literally at one with Nature.
After three reels, in which the pacing is deliberate and the tone contemplative, the next segment picks dramatic momentum but loses in emotional and poetic impact. Among and new colonists who arrive in Jamestown with supplies is a widowed English aristocrat, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who becomes one of the first to farm the tobacco that soon became Jamestown’s crash crop. Drawn together by a shared sense of personal loss, Pocahontas and Rolfe eventually marry and have a son.
The last reel again suggests culture collision and disorientation, albeit of different kind. Rolfe brings Pocahontas to England, where she is presented to the King and Queen as the Princess of Virginia; for a brief moment, she becomes the toast of London. Malick resorts to faster tempo and sharper camera movements that go from high angle to low angle, framing Pocahontas against ominous churches or huge buildings that convey her isolation and outsider’s status.
The last meeting between Smith and Pocahontas, orchestrated by Rolfe, is nothing short of brilliant. Arriving on a horse in the estate where they live, a soulful and remorseful Smith does most of the talking, while she remains silent. Malick follows Pocahontas in a series of shots that depict her standing atop a tree, the physical (and symbolic) site of their love affair. She then goes back to Rolfe and for the first time addresses him as “my husband and means that. With newly regained peace of mind and consciousness, Pocahontas seems to have resolved the conflict between love and marriage.
It’s no coincidence that the film’s last image is a low-angle shot of a huge tree, the only surviving witness to a great love story and a unique chapter in the historical evolution of America as a new state.
In a brief montage, we learn that Pocahontas was struck down with disease and died on her voyage back to America at age 21. Rolfe, fearing his son would not be able to survive the arduous voyage, left him in England and never saw him again. Rolfe died in the wars that Powhatan’s brother, Opechancanough, unleashed against the English. As for Smith, he never married and never left England, despite plans to return to New England.
Since not much is known about the actual events, the script is based on the writings of the few people who were there, though their accounts are often contradictory. Some of the narration is taken from John Smith’s own writing, based on Edward Wright Hale’s edited volume, Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony: The First Decade, 1607-1616, published in 1998. Other details draw on David A. Price’s Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation, published in 2003. According to Price, it would be another year before the colonists would learn the extent of their naivetegarding Opechancanough, who would kill at least one fourth of the settlers.
Malick has taken the myth of John Smith and Pocahontas to serve his vision of cultures connecting and colliding, and the powerful consequences of misunderstanding. Those who search may find biblical allegory in The New World, and may fault its characters as symbols of larger cultural forces, though the film is not as burdened by those elements as Days of Heaven. Though not as haunting and provocative as Badland (arguably Malick’s best film), The New World is a visually stunning and lyrical evocation of a bygone time, replete with images that will linger in memory for a long time.
Malick’s idiosyncratic approach to narrative filmmaking has been embraced by critics and cinephiles, but has not succeeded in eliciting commercially viable audience support. By standards of mainstream Hollywood, The New World has too many monologues, too many pauses, and too many repetitions of images of birds, fields, and the ocean. Yet every single scene is meticulously staged, photographed, and framed. Literally hand-made, the film doesn’t contain a single image that’s computer-generated.
Malick’s kind of beauty has been criticized as artsy, self-indulgent, and even greedy, but I don’t see his imagery as stately or decorous. An inventive filmmaker with a painterly-poetic sensibility like Malick, who imbues every frame with immaculate attention to detail, should be encouraged to continue making personal films.