The 'Real' Pocahontas Story

Megan Basham
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Posted: Jan 20, 2006 12:01 AM

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…”

Why, if it made her happy (and afforded her countless new luxuries to boot), should Pocahontas’ second life be cause for sorrow, Kilcher didn’t say.

Producer Sarah Green echoes by more diplomatic means Kilcher’s contention that Pocahontas’ conversion was more pragmatic tragedy than heartfelt acceptance of redemption. Asked why, after her profession of faith and baptism, the film still shows Pocahontas praying to native spirits, Green replies, “We didn’t have time to go into her choice to convert but I imagine that she melded those two [her native religion and Christianity]. That’s often what happens in native cultures, they meld what they know as their spirituality with a new spirituality.”

It’s a strange defense for a movie that spends a good 40 minutes focused on waving grass and watery sunsets to claim there wasn’t enough time to explore documented background about its central character. Perhaps it was a marketing decision, since a noble savage clad in buckskin is much more likely to draw that lucrative teen male demographic than a Christian lady in starched collars.

Green finishes by espousing the view of our founding that has been popularized in university classrooms: “They’re [the English] over there stamping out this other culture in order to take that land that they believe God gave them.”

Then there are those who not only reinvent history but reinvent the present as well. Veteran Native American actor Wes Studi (Into the West, Streets of Laredo and Dances with Wolves) links Malick’s questionable take on history to a positively irrational take on current events.

Apparently, he sees a beleaguered kinship between Native American groups of the past and terrorist groups today: “There’s a war going in Iraq and Afghanistan and they’ve been criminalized—our adversaries. The people that we’re attacking have been criminalized for their behavior. And that’s exactly what happened here in the United States beginning with the development of America.”

“Because we [Native Americans] lived here and were defending our land, we were criminalized…they’re attacking us [the Indians in the film] just like they’re attacking Iraq and Afghanistan. We’ve been there, we understand that. Can we empathize with it? I think so…We’ve been in those shoes. We’ve been attacked by America. We know what its like and I think the worse thing they [the administration] do is criminalize. It’s like we [the United States] are the big boss and we can criminalize your action rather than honor it as an opponent to us.”

Before I could ask whether by “criminalizing” the Islamo-fascist culture Studi was referring to the administration’s decision to criminalize the insurgents’ tendency to strap bombs to themselves and murder innocent people, studio nymphets came and whisked him away.

No matter. There’s history and then there’s fantasy. And I think most people already know by now which one Hollywood specializes in.