My reaction to Terrence Malick‘s The New World (2005) was like a lot of other people’s: it was a cool looking movie, and I loved all the historical recreations, not least of which the Algonquian language. But why go to such trouble when the central premise of your whole story—a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas—is nonsense? My wife disagrees, but she’s a poet, so we’ll just leave it at that.
Anyway, a new article explores the methods and problems associated with Malick’s recreation of Jamestown, and it pays special attention to the words attributed to men like Smith. For instance, Malick quotes Smith as saying the following, about the Virginia Indians:
They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession.
This was not, shall we say, the consensus view. As we noted yesterday, the Indians made plenty of war—on each other, on the English. And, to quote William Strachey, Indian war was motivated “principally for revenge, so vindictive and jealous they be, to be made a derision of and to be insulted upon by an enemy.”
So where did Smith get this view of the Indians? David Nicol‘s article argues that he never had it in the first place! The quotation conflates something Arthur Barlowe wrote with something penned by the French essayist Michel de Montaigne, only wrenched completely out of context. All of which serves a vision of pre-colonial Virginia as—in the words of one critic—”a place of childlike innocence free of avarice and corruption.” (I’ve argued elsewhere that our textbooks still subscribe to this vision. And the historian Brooks D. Simpson has just lately pointed out how our own family and ancestral connections can make history a little tricky!)
Anyway, a bit more from Nicol’s article [emphasis added]:
As John D’Entremont protests, Malick’s representation of the Powhatan is intended to be respectful, but cages “an entire people in a state of timeless, static, perpetual goodness,” robbing them of “something central to everyone’s lived humanity: their history.” Indeed, the quotations have a similar effect on the representation of Smith: by placing them into his mouth, Malick romanticizes Smith into a peace-loving, gentle man. The suggestion of historicity that Malick creates in this sequence had to be generated via quotations from other writers, because the real Smith showed no admiration for peaceable people; while he certainly had greater respect for the indigenous peoples of North America than many other writers of his time, his written praise of them invariably celebrates their stoicism and skill in warfare, not their social systems.
Nicol goes on to argue, however, that Malick is up to something a bit smarter and more subtle—his is a vision of Virginia that accepts his own vision’s inherent drawbacks. Or something like that. Read the whole thing: David Nicol, “Understanding Virginia: Quoting the Sources in Terrence Malick’s The New World,” in Screening the Past, a peer-reviewed journal published by La Trobe University in Victoria, Australia.
IMAGE: Scene from The New World