Here’s a tale any Disney-phile is at least tangentally familiar with. The tale of Pocahontas and John Smith was never told quite so boringly outside of a classroom. Terrence Malick's script for "New World" isn't a bad read, but will it make a good film?
Sure. Why not? Disney made money off of this relationship and they only mucked up the facts a wee smidgen. Here we get a pretty good account, not only of the main characters, but of the setting as well. The physical descriptions given for the indigenous population Smith and his crew encounter is very clear. It breaks from the stereotypical Plains Indian image we’re so used to. The crew of the Susan Constant were opportunists and mercenaries, as I recall, and Terrence Malick pulls no punches in their portrayals either.
Again, if you paid attention in history class or, Great Bearded Sky Fairy forbid, watched the Disneyfication you know that this is the story of self-made braggart John Smith and how he came to know a little girl named Pocahontas. It’s a straightforward tale of two people from completely different worlds coming together, only the reality was a bit less romantic than Old Man Walt and the Mouse would have you believe. Pocahontas was barely in her teens when she met the swaggering Smith, and that’s pretty much how things play out here. We’re dealing with an intelligent, curious young woman and a rascally man who seems out of place among his rougher cohorts. Having never met John Smith, I’d have to say this portrayal of him is a bit idealistic. I guess you have to have a hero, though.
The heart of my criticism is that this that there’s a great deal of florid description in the script that cannot translate to an audience. I’ve encountered it in scripts before, and it’s not something that pleases me personally. Some directors and actors probably like it because it gives them something to work with or ignore as they see fit. I prefer a bit of vagary, but that’s just me.
The Indians, or "Naturals" as they’re called by the Englishmen, are portrayed as cunning and formidable. They’re not easily fooled by John Smith’s parlor tricks or impressed by this stories. Several tribes warring on and off are going to have a natural distrust of what they don’t recognize. It’s a common enough parable. It pleases me to see Native Americans portrayed as anything other than the oppressed and noble savages that usually wind up on the silver screen. They’re no more innately vicious or benevolent than anyone else, and to show them having legitimate concerns about a group of foreign invaders setting up shop in their neighborhood is a slight break from the typical Hollywood fantasy. I like it.
Where this story differs, at least from the version I picked up in school, is the ending. It goes beyond John Smith’s departure from Virginia and goes into what might have happened between Pocahontas and Smith when she was living in England. I don’t recall if they ever actually met again, but Malick’s version seems plausible. A crestfallen and defeated Smith meeting a girl idealized in his memory. A girl now married to another man, richer and more powerful than he became. A girl who has evolved beyond her beginnings. Evolved in a way he can’t seem to master himself. It’s heartbreaking, and a trifle melodramatic, but satisfying still.
All in all, Terrence Malick’s "New World" is a good script and a solid, reliable story. I just wish it hadn’t been told by Disney first. Films about the discovery and/or exploration of North America don’t do well at the box office, historically speaking at least. I have my doubts about this one doing any better, but it certainly won’t be because of quality.Steven Dougherty slept through history class in college, which didn’t affect is grades in the slightest. He imagines the school could use better teachers.