Terrence Malick's The New World is a big, ambitious film that explores an abundance of topics, but the one it returns to most frequently – and the one I can't stop thinking about after watching it – is how easily paradise slips through our fingers. It shows us English settlers starting life in a rich, fertile new land, and shows us how easily that land turns oppressive due to the settlers' inability to live in harmony with the world around them. It shows us a joyous relationship between people of vastly different cultures, and shows us how easily that relationship curdles. It shows us people who privately communicate with God, and shows us how easily God's voice can be lost amidst the chaos of life. It shows us a tender romance between two people, and shows us how life cuts that romance short. Still, sorrow never overwhelms the movie: it drifts in and out of the film with the steady rhythm of gentle waves, leaving us with dazzling images of awe-inspiring beauty each time it departs.
The film tells the story of Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher, Sons of Anarchy), and largely sticks to the romanticized version of her life (unfortunately, there aren't a lot of verifiable historical details available). Even so, the film itself is by no means a whitewashed adventure tale or a melodramatic romance, but an insightful and realistic examination of an important chapter in American history, using Pocahontas – a young woman who ultimately receives a broader look at the world and the complexities of human nature than anyone else in the film – as its heart.
This is a Malick film, which means that traditional storytelling often takes a backseat to spiritual inquiries, stunning footage of the natural world and lots of scenes in which the characters wander, frolic, reflect and embrace. Still, The New World offers something much closer to a straightforward narrative than any of the films he's made since, beginning with Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell, In Bruges) and his fellow Englishmen arriving in Virginia in 1607 and concluding with Pocahontas living in London a decade later.
During its first half, The New World more or less divides its time evenly between Pocahontas and Smith, drawing some fascinating parallels between them as they move into the same orbit. They meet in dramatic fashion, as Pocahontas flings herself on top of Smith to save him from execution at the hands of her father Powhatan (August Schellenberg, Free Willy). Smith spends an extended period of time with the Native Americans – usually referred to as “the naturals” or “the savages” - and learns much from what he sees. Pocahontas spends an extended period of time with the English, and learns much from what she sees. When they are together, they walk through grassy fields, look deep into each other's eyes and teach each other their respective native languages. When they are apart, they seek divine guidance: “Mother, where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign.”
The relationship between the English and the Native Americans hardly mirrors the affection Smith and Pocahontas have for each other. Things quickly grow tense, and despite the best efforts of our two lovers, that tension eventually boils over into violence. As we see white men and natives tearing each other apart in and around the English fort, we reflect on the images of Smith and a group of friendly natives playing with each other, imitating each other, learning from each other. In those peaceful moments, we see a glimpse of a beautiful future that will never arrive. Pondering whether or not the English should be killed, Opechancanough (Wes Studi, Dances With Wolves) wonders aloud how much more land they'll want to take if they're permitted to stay. If only he knew.
In the film's second half, we turn our attention to the relationship between Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale, The New World), a kind-hearted settler who helps pull Pocahontas out of a deep depression. Though a new romance and meditations on the complications of the human heart are placed in the foreground (“Love made this bond, love can break it too...”), a host of fascinating subjects are explored in the background: the way societies impose their cultural beliefs on the people they conquer (the image of Pocahontas struggling to walk while wearing a corset and heels is a powerful piece of symbolism, particularly when contrasted with the earlier images of her cartwheeling so freely across grassy fields), the power of selflessness, the fragility of life.
This is a period of history that hasn't been frequently explored cinematically, which is part of why it can be easy for Americans to forget they're watching something set in the same country they live in. There's a whole continent that these settlers know nothing about, filled with many cultures that will eventually be destroyed. Within this relatively intimate story, you see the seeds of greed and fear that will eventually ravage the country. Still, Malick never gets too heavy-handed in foreshadowing the historical stakes of everything we're seeing. This is a new world filled with new challenges that require new solutions, and for a time, a peaceful utopia feels like a possible outcome.
This is the first of Malick's collaborations with Emmanuel Lubezki, and it easily ranks as one of the cinematographer's most consistently gorgeous works (no small feat when you consider the rest of his filmography). There are images here rapturous enough to give you goosebumps, particularly when paired with Richard Wagner's glorious “Das Rheingold” (which accompanies the stunning opening and closing sequences of the film, in addition to a couple of other key scenes). Composer James Horner also provides one of his most consistently beautiful scores, though large chunks of his music were removed in favor of pieces from Wagner and Mozart. Horner was understandably upset by the whole experience, but it's hard to fault Malick for making the decisions he did: every piece he uses fits perfectly.
Horner wasn't the only collaborator who disliked the way the finished product turned out. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) – who plays Captain Christopher Newport, the leader of the settlers – was furious when he discovered how dramatically his role had been trimmed and that Malick had used one of his big scenes as mere background noise while voice-over narration floated across the soundtrack. Such is the nature of Malick films: individual efforts are downplayed for the sake of a richer whole. In more ways than one, his films are about more than individual people.
There is more than one “new world” in the film: Virginia is the first, and London is the second. Both seem imposing to the people visiting them for the first time, and both come with challenges that people from other places will struggle to overcome. There's one kind of sadness in seeing the pathetic settlers on the verge of starvation, and another kind of sadness in seeing Opechancanough wander through carefully-manicured palace grounds (after seeing so much untamed natural beauty, the precisely-trimmed trees of London look absurd). Even so, the possibility of joy also exists in these places, because love exists in these places: “Mother, now I know where you live.”
Note: three different versions of this film are currently available on home video. This review was written after a viewing of the 172-minute "extended cut."
The New World
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 172 minutes
Release Year: 2005