By Jeremy Carr.
During post-production on The New World (2005), director Terrence Malick said it would be the last time he made a movie with a plot. Given the film’s free-form audio-visual flow and its loose narrative construct, the statement was met with some amusement. Plot though there may be, The New World is far from the classically told chronicle of Pocahontas, John Smith, and the surrounding culture clash that challenged their budding relationship. In some ways, the basic pioneer plot for The New World varies little from other incarnations of the historic tale, with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, the introduction of English Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) to Powhatan native Pocahontas (played impressively by Q’orianka Kilcher in her first substantial role), and the ultimately inevitable conflict that arose between the two civilizations. Absent from Malick’s variation, however, is a prolonged sense of grandiose world-altering adventure and a Disneyfied perfectly-suited-opposites-attract romance. The New World is instead a film punctuated by periods of overtly formal whimsy and a far more complex emotional timber, eschewing simplistic modes for sentiment in favor of a steadily infusing resonance. While the plot, as it is, advances in a linear fashion, the film’s most prescient moments are instead marked by disjointed asides and distinctly Malick manifestations of its various themes.
When the explorers arrive with a trepidation mirrored on the faces and in the posture of watchful natives, Malick draws expressive parallels between the two cultures, each in equal parts excited, scared, and inquisitive (the Native Americans are described by Smith in voiceover as a “herd of curious deer”). Providing individual points of identification for the viewer, and standing in as delegates of their respective people are, of course, Smith and Pocahontas. Smith’s mutinous remarks have him set to hang at the start of the film, but he is granted a last-minute reprieve and his newly-attained and now wholly appreciated freedom puts him in line with the natives he will shortly encounter, who greatly value their own as yet uncontested autonomy. But Smith is no sooner free than he is captured by the Powhatans, where thanks to the intervention of Pocahontas, his life is spared. Still the elders are skeptical of what else he, and by extension the other foreigners, might represent. Whatever their best of intentions, the two societies approach each other with a suspicious hesitation, leading to predictable interference spurred on by a language barrier and a fearless, if temporarily cautious, motivation. Along with “the naturals,” as Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) calls the Powhatan, the settlers strive for equality and liberty—both groups stressing the value of self-sufficiency and reliance—but into the serenity of briefly mutual ideals violence soon erupts.
As the two worlds then collide, supremacy is gained through localized experience and knowledge, with firepower becoming secondary in this survival of the fittest; it is the white man’s weaponry versus the natives’ speed and stealth. Aside from the ensuing hand-to-hand combat, The New World, like much of Malick’s recent work, is thus distinguished by tactile physical contact, between characters and with the environment. The importance of physicality further emerges when Smith follows Pocahontas, silently stalking her in an entrancing predatory courtship where eventually their non-verbal bonding through action connects them beyond nationality or ideology. Smith and Pocahontas initially learn to understand each other through gesture and touch, during which time physical features such as eyes and lips are among the first things Smith teaches the young woman to say. In turn, what Smith subsequently finds so enchanting about the Powhatan way of life is the direct, unfiltered interaction with their surroundings, exhibited by his own spellbound caressing of trees and foliage as if these features were now being seen by him for the very first time. In this regard, it is fitting for Tom Gunning to contribute an essay for the new Criterion Collection release of the film. His influential concept of a “cinema of attraction” is easily applied to a film like The New World, with characters who themselves spend so much time in visual wonderment, seeing foreign sights with what borders on a candid sense of awe.
As The New World conveys this epic undertaking, the literal exertion of the endeavor and its historical evocation, James Horner’s score, which was apparently utilized far less than he would have liked, is strongly countered by classical pieces, Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” in particular, producing a magisterial musical accompaniment to the sensation of ethereal discovery. In harmony with this aural enhancement, Malick depicts a pure naturalism that is void of exoticism. While nature has always received a keen visual treatment from the director, unlike the films that followed The New World, and really only akin to Days of Heaven (1978) previously, nature here is key to the narrative. Shot some 10 miles from where the actual events transpired, this is a story that in large part revolves around its natural setting: the commanding features of the landscape, the usage of the land to yield its seasonal bounty—the “blessings of the earth,” as Smith calls it—and the land as an innate resource for survival. Captured by the now three-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who for his work on this film would earn his third Academy Award nomination, beaming shafts of light, glistening greenery, and sparkling water are shown with a reverential beauty, indicating not just Malick’s own penchant for pictorial reverie but the importance of the elements to those in the film. Having seen the idyllic Indian village, the Jamestown fort is by stark contrast dank and messy, a grey and soiled setting where destitute squalor breeds sickness and starvation. As the English are evidentially unprepared for the toils of the harsh winter, nature is an indivisible part of Powhatan culture, thus giving them the upper hand.
Smith and Pocahontas rotate roles as outcasts, their stranger in a strange land status fluctuating as each experiences how the other lives. After things go south for the settlers, as food spoils, sickness kills, and infighting and distrust leads to betrayal, the English and Powhatan engage in a battle where each striking thud and sword slash cuts to the heart of the Smith and Pocahontas romance, as well as the likelihood of ensuing cross-culture collaboration. After being told Smith has passed away, a distraught Pocahontas stays with the colonists, where she catches the eye of John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who, like Smith, pursues the young woman in a repetition of his observational, approach-with-hesitation romantic reluctance. The film’s focus has by this point shifted to Pocahontas as she is gradually initiated into the white man’s world. She is baptized, educated, marries Rolfe, and the two have a child. They even give her an English name, an explicit diminishing of her true identity. Through it all, she is never a perfect fit, for this society is too regulated, orderly, and perhaps most damaging, is void of her instinctive natural passion. Directed by Malick to “be the wind,” the radiant Kilcher exudes a fluid grace while the other natives jump animalistically and the Englishmen are formally stilted. Though learning Smith lied about his death, Pocahontas’ reticent loyalty to her new husband sets her off to accompany him in 1616 London, a location that strikes her for its disparity of impoverished grime and grand wealth. This may be “civilized” society, but it is no less staggering and intimidating; as she says, far more than the Virginian forts, this is the “strange new world.” Ultimately, this make The New World a complicated love story at heart, but one that forms from compromise, faithfulness, and sacrifice, one that isn’t as simple as the durability of initial passion.
Among the highlights on this Criterion release are interviews with production designer Jack Fisk and costume designer Jacqueline West, two collaborators whose extraordinary work on The New World is most evident. Somewhat surprisingly, their scenic and clothing recreations stress precision and quality over the perhaps more widely assumed roughhewn condition of the materials; the outfits, for example, however accurate, appear precisely fashioned and remarkably well-tailored. On the other more experimental hand, in another interview, editor Mark Yoshikawa comments on Malick’s tendency to remove conventional images generally associated with the celebrated tale behind The New World, such as a foot stepping on unfamiliar land, a potentially iconic frame that was seen in the trailer but was excised from the final film. True enough, Malick generally disposes of such over-used representations for exploratory conquest, though there remain several individual shots and sequences that do directly emphasize the personal and cultural magnitude of the venture, as well as its correlative repercussions.
When Malick said The New World was to be his final film with a plot, he was, to a certain extent, on to something. This film does stand as a sort of dividing line between his relatively straightforward stories, from Badlands (1973) to The Thin Red Line (1998), and the more abstruse stream-of-conscious personal surveys ushered in with The Tree of Life (2011) and continuing today. A program on the Criterion disc about the process of cutting The New World partly sheds light on what makes this such an extraordinary and pivotal film. Although there was a continuity script to start, Malick began diverging from the guide once on location and within the sets. Hundreds of hours of footage were shot, with segments that could, according to the interviewed editors, go anywhere. In other words, this assembly of purposely arbitrary imagery, which testifies to Malick’s taste for bold stylistic design, formed a catalog of unbound, fleeting moments, poetic snippets that break from linear progression like spontaneous musical interludes. At the same time, while there is a fanciful multi-character voice-over, as one hears in his later work, for now, its substance is less philosophical musing and more on-point commentary. And finally, though chapter headings in the extended cut of The New World break the film down into loosely structured plot points, in Malick’s evolving vision, even with these narrative markers, the overarching structure of the film remains open and mutable, clearly charting a course for what was to come.
Jeremy Carr teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Vague Visages, and Cut Print Film.
The New World was released on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.