Experiencing A New World; The Transformation of Pocahontas — The New World (2005)
Terrence Malick’s 2005 film, ‘The New World’, retells the famous story of the settlement of Jamestown in Virginia.
This version of the story is reimagined with a more romanticised version of the settlement of Jamestown in the early 1600s is an amazing and is a true handcrafted technical feat of production which combines the entrancing views of the Virginia landscape, placing nature in the foreground of the story, and the dramatic romance between its main characters which develop as the story progresses.
While the title of this film could be interpreted as the beginning of a ‘new world’ for the English settlers, it is also the beginning of a ‘new world’ for the native inhabitants of the Jamestown area, the Powhatan tribe.
One of the main characters of the Powhatan tribe, in the story of ‘The New World’, to experiences a ‘new world’, is Pocahontas. Pocahontas is a ‘Natural’, a native inhabitant of the Virginia area at the time, as described by the English settlers.
This is not the typical movie that the name Pocahontas calls to mind. It is not like the Disney film nor a cliched story of love and adventure. Malick’s film chooses to follow the more historically accurate pathway while adding his own twist on the tale of the ‘new world’.
“Suffice it to say, The New World is not, as you may have read, a gooey specimen of incontinent pictorialism; nor “a Tony Scott movie on quaaludes”; nor conceived to accord at any point or in any wise with the three-act, plot-pointed Syd Field-type narrative template that taints modern American cinema. Nor it is some airhead, hippy-dippy eco tone-poem; nor is it a Noble Savage movie about the poisonous effects of the White Man’s arrival and the dread Columbian Handshake (although Malick has plenty to say about the worm lodged in the American apple from day one). “— John Patterson, The Guardian.
It is quite obvious from the source material and from the initial few minutes of the film that the title ‘The New World’ describes the finding of a new world for the English settlers. But Terrence Malick has cleverly implied that not only is it a literal ‘new world’ for the English but also a more symbolic ‘new world’ for Pocahontas.
Pocahontas experiences her ‘new world’ by being directly introduced to the English culture through both Captain John Smith, an English captain and by John Rolfe, a settler who becomes a wealthy tobacco farmer. Both Captain John Smith and John Rolfe form a relationship with Pocahontas.
Pocahontas also experiences a ‘new world’ by physically visiting ‘a geographic new world’ in England which is explored during the latter half of the film.
Learning the English language is a key factor in how she changes; it fuels the discovery of her ‘new world’.
In Terrence Malick’s, ‘The New World’ he cleverly reveals cinematically and dramatically the vital requirements of personal transformation and acceptance where language and culture are unique to two different worlds.
Pocahontas is personally influenced in discovering a new world by interacting with Captain John Smith, learning the English culture and the ways they dress and communicate.
When John Smith is initially introduced to the Powhatan Tribe, he and Pocahontas become close, quickly developing a romantic relationship. In an interesting scene, we can see them conversing, with John Smith teaching her English words concerning various things in nature, a new transformative language acquiring new words by way of gesture, pointing and lip reading to advance their communication.
“Sky. Sky. Sun. Sun. Water. Wind. Wind. Wind. Wind. Eyes. Eyes. Lips. Lips. Ear.” —Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.
The learned use of words, in place of gestures and sounds, begins here with her learning the basics of English language, which in turn, leads to Pocahontas transitioning to her ‘new world’. As she continues to transition into the English culture, by learning the ways that the English wear clothes and how they live, she begins to reflect on the life that she had as a ‘Natural’, a Native American as described by the English Settlers and accepts her new change into the English culture.
“Mother, where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign. We rise… we rise. Afraid of myself. A god, he seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you. You to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One. I am… I am.” — Pocahontas.
The film reveals that people can adapt to new cultures but also clarifies the need for a common language at a functional level.
Pocahontas truly transitions to a ‘new world’ when she is baptised and given the name of Rebecca.
Pocahontas’s baptism is a more literal transition into the ‘new world’ and is a point where Pocahontas accepts her new identity, fully changing into the newly introduced English culture.
“Name this person, Rebecca. Rebecca, I baptize thee in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost. Amen.”
The baptism of Pocahontas can also be seen as symbolising purification, to ‘purify’ her Native American past and change into her new identity. This scene of the film shows the conclusion of her Powhatan past as she leaves her traditional life as a Natural for the English new world.
Pocahontas is seen as a ‘god-like’ figure to both the Powhatan tribe, being stated by Captain John Smith that “She was his favourite.”, and by the English settlers, as the ‘New World’s Princess’.
This ‘god-like’ identity is confirmed to Pocahontas when she is baptised and shortly afterwards receives gifts from the citizens of Jamestown.
The ‘Naturals’ of the early 1600s Virginia area have their own ceremonies and rituals which are meaningful and represent stages of life or blessings of the seasons. Being baptised into a new faith, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, is not only spiritual but the official change that a new name brings.
This concept further develops the idea of Pocahontas experiencing a ‘new world’. The dialogue of the official at the baptism reflects the need for a new identity in a new world. Name and identity are synonymous in the establishment of a new self-image in a new culture. Pocahontas accepts the significance of this revealing her flexibility to experience the new and release the comfort zone of the known. This is evidence of her strength of character. Clearly, the experience of baptism will be a major event in this stage of transformation in her life.
Apart from the subjective effect of an English name, the physical experience, unique to the new environment is vital to its acceptance. Pocahontas physically experiences a new world when she visits England for the first time.
The English landscape, so beautifully revealed is adorned with patterned gardens designed where people cultivate nature with trimmed trees and fertilised lawns, less rustic than she is accustomed to. The film portrays her dancing romantically between the trees and green slopes of her new surroundings; a sign that she can adjust to a new environment. Furthermore, she experiences the full life of English culture when she physically lives in England with John Rolfe.
In this particular scene of Pocahontas’s arrival, we can see the much more restrictive environment and culture of the English people and the Powhatan in the area of Virginia. The clothes of the English are tough and restrictive with tight girdles and clinching waist belts and headgear covering ears. whereas those of the ‘Naturals’ is free, flowing and less restricting. Ceremonial clothing is commonly demanded, and the ceremony portrayed in the grand hall is overwhelming in the costumes and their decor. Sunlight is blocked by small stained glass windows denying the natural elements that she has left behind.
“The New World’s Princess new life brings and swells our joys upon this day.” — Scribe at Pocahontas’s celebration of arrival.
Sunlight is blocked by small stained glass windows denying the natural elements that she has left behind. Back in the Virginia area at the time, sunlight was allowed to flow through and shine upon everything as it may. Pocahontas’s ‘new world’ doesn’t allow for this.
In the same scene, Pocahontas looks at a cage with a hawk chained by its leg and an animal inside, curiously gazing at it. The animals in England are controlled, caged up, working against their free will to do the bidding of the human trainers, whereas back in the ‘new world’, every animal is free, and the Powhatan people work harmoniously and alongside nature.
This scene in particular, and the way animals are treated in England compared to the free nature of Virginia is also symbolic of Pocahontas as she is trapped, controlled and trained to fully experience a ‘new world’. Much like the animal inside the cage and the hawk with a chain around its leg, Pocahontas is also like a chained-up animal, put under a cage of rules that are introduced to her as she experiences the new world, an experience which finally closes when Pocahontas visits England.
In England with her child and John Rolfe, she is amazed at the physical ‘new world’ she is experiencing, much like when the English settlers came to the area of Jamestown and found the beautiful land and plentiful food in the waters beside the land.
“We found oysters. They’re as thick as my hands. They’re as the size of stones. There are fish everywhere they’re flapping against your legs. We’re going to live like kings.” — A settler looking for food in the waters.
In Terrence Malick’s, ‘The New World’, the protagonist of the film, Pocahontas, is the main character who undergoes a transition into a ‘new world’ both figuratively and literally, whereas characters such as Captain John Smith only literally discover a ‘new world’.
By learning the English language and culture she is introduced to her ‘new world’.
She truly transitions and changes accordingly when she is baptised and ‘purified’ of her Powhatan past.
Finally, she physically experiences a ‘new world’ when she visits England and truly embraces the English culture when living there with John Rolfe and her child.
This transition is extreme in its geographical relocation, its cultural difference and human interaction. However, the film, in all its beauty enhanced by natural light and hand-held cameras lures the viewer to accompany Pocahontas sensitively and spiritually from the old to the new; aware that her determination and flexibility make this remarkable journey possible.
The film ends on a touching note, the death of Pocahontas. The final scenes of her show here finally accepting her life and what she had experienced. After she had moved past Captain John Smith’s betrayal of love she successfully embraced the life she had lived, passing away in her new world.
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Malick, T. (2005). The New World (2005). [online] Putlockerfree.sc. Available at: https://ww2.putlockerfree.sc/films/the-new-world-2005/watching.html/ [Accessed 2 Jun. 2019]. (Source of screenshots used in the article).
Patterson, J. (2009). The New World: a misunderstood masterpiece?. [online] The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2009/dec/10/the-new-world-terrence-malick [Accessed 30 May 2019].
Quotes.net. (2019). The New World Quotes. [online] Available at: https://www.quotes.net/movies/the_new_world_148161 [Accessed 30 May 2019].
Springfield! Springfield!. (2019). New World, The (2005) Movie Script | SS. [online] Available at: https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/movie_script.php?movie=new-world-the [Accessed 1 Jun. 2019].