The New World (2005)
Peasants, Townspeople, and Social Life
The New World (2005) is the story of the Jamestown settlement and their interactions with the Powhatan Indians during the colonization of Virginia, though the historical context of the film is almost completely hidden behind the story of the romance between the Powhatan Chief’s daughter, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) and Captain John Smith (Collin Ferrell), as well as the marriage of Pocahontas to John Rolfe (Christian Bale). The film received mixed reviews, favored by critics that enjoy long, scenic camera shots that highlight the depiction of what life was like in the Jamestown settlement, with its famine, hunger, homo-social life, and English customs. It was reviewed unfavorably by those that did not appreciate a movie with minimal dialogue, long camera shots, and its portrayal of indigenous people, with its unfocused colonization storyline. It scored a 62% on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.7/10 on IMDb, which is generally not a terrible score though it was a divisive film, with some critics rating it a masterpiece and others a masterpiece of trash. The film was released on December 25, 2005 and grossed 30.5 million worldwide against a budget of 30 million.
The film itself is based on the story of Pocahontas and the aid she gave English colonists in the development of the “new world.” The film seems largely adapted from John Smith’s “A True Relation of Virginia (1608),” which is itself a rosy, propagandist’s picture of what occurred with Pocahontas. Historians have been long skeptical of Smith’s reporting of Pocahontas’ involvement. Historians note his exaggerations (particularly the story about Pocahontas saving his life and warning the colony of native attack), as well as contradictions that present themselves when examining Smith’s book and his subsequent letters about his travels. One of my favorites was Pocahontas’ age. In his “A True Relation of Virginia,” Smith notes that she’s around 10 years old, though in a proceeding letter he says, “14 or 15.” Love knows no age though, right? Historians have also noted that Pocahontas’ time with the colonists was not always peaceful and was, in reality, harsh; she was more of a slave than the movie made it seem and was a victim of abuse.
This movie is generally seen through the lens of the colonists—after all, the movie is based on the narrative that Captain John Smith himself had written! Although the film is primarily about the colonizers’ new world, it is also a narrative about Pocahontas’ transition into her new world. What was once a life of skin-painting and dancing through the fields with no shoes on, turned into a life tending crops in the field, wearing English clogs and body-concealing dresses.There is one scene where Pocahontas first arrives in England (London) in which we get to see her perception of the new world she’s in, with its weirdly shaped trees and its strange customs and people.
After colonists reported back about how influential she had been in the process of colonization, they referred to her as “Princess” and praised her for what she had done for English survival on her land. This scene is emblematic of the way women are represented in the film. Although the English praised her, her character is thinly drawn: she is silent, beautiful, and shows little character development. We see her constantly observing the world around her but she never appears to be hurt or offended by anything other than the way a man (mainly, Smith) treats her. She’s more affected by the way her two lovers treat their romance with her than she is about these same lovers being the leaders in the destruction of her people’s way of life. The only other woman in the film takes care of Pocahontas in the colony, teaching her to be “white” and everything she needs to do to fit in.
In addition to its poor representation of women in the film, the director also depicts indigenous people in a way that’s more animalistic than expressive. They’re constantly seen half-naked, dancing around in the field, and are said to be unable to feel emotions of greed, jealousy, or any vices that may give them some humanity. They’re constantly covered in paint and (Pocahontas included) often appear in trees randomly. Only Captain John Smith is able to understand their speech, and seems to learn their Algonquin dialect. The director, Terrence Malick, tried to make the speech of indigenous people in the film as accurate as possible by teaching the actors to properly pronounce their native tongue. These efforts at historical verisimilitude aside, in the scene where the colonists lit the indigenous people’s homes on fire, the indigenous merely scatter into the forest like deer and we never see them again. We only get a view of one of the burnings and the director fails to comment or suggest any additional historical pillaging, raping, or disease that was spread throughout this time of violent colonization.
Despite these issues, I enjoyed this movie, the love story, and the beautiful imagery and camerawork, thoughI would not use this film to accurately portray the history of the Jamestown colonization.
Early Modern Era (c. 1500-1750)