Whenever history is adapted for film, there are certain elements that are unknowable. We may know what Lincoln revealed in his correspondence, but we don’t know what he said in conversations or what feelings he may have found too personal to record on paper. Therefore, filmmakers invent and interpret as they see fit to create a story. When they are in doubt, it is fashionable for them to assume the worst of any traditional American hero and any traditional American religion.
In this regard, writer/director Terrence Malick’s latest release, The New World, is nothing if not fashionable.
The film retells the tale of Pocahontas, the Indian princess who as legend has it, saved John Smith from being murdered and as history has it, converted to Christianity and married tobacco farmer John Rolfe. Because Pocahontas was not disposed to diary-keeping or letter-writing, almost everything we know about her comes from her actions and other people’s descriptions of her.
We know, for example, that she was the daughter of a Powhatan Indian chief. We know that she warned John Smith and the Jamestown settlers of her tribe’s plans to attack their fort. We know that later in her life, she willingly converted to Christianity and then willingly wed an Englishman.
What we cannot know is how she felt, within the quiet of her mind, about these decisions. But since never was she coerced, it seems reasonable to assume that she was genuinely enamored by the English and genuinely dedicated to her Christian faith.
Unfortunately, this kind of reasoning isn’t too popular in the movie industry today, and that’s where a little creative revisionism comes in.
During his 30-year career, Malick has never granted interviews, and the recent press event to promote New World was no different. However, like Pocahontas, his choices and the words of those around him go a long way to illuminating his intentions.
Fifteen-year-old Q’Orianka Kilcher, who plays Pocahontas, interprets (we can assume at Malick’s direction) her character’s embrace of all things Anglo as yet another imposition of our darn Western culture. Describing her feelings at her character’s becoming more English, Kilcher reveals, “[I] felt like a caged bird, like freedom was torn away from [me].”
She holds similar suspicions (we can assume, again, at the direction of Malick—the girl is 15 after all) over Pocahontas’ change of religion: “When Pocahontas was converted to Christianity and she lives with English it was kind of sad for me [sic]…It was kind of an instinct for survival, and it was sad … She was trying to forget who she was in a way and she left her entire life that she knew before behind…”
Megan Basham is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide To Having It All
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