by Paige Lurie
America is built on myths. We love it. From George Washington chopping down a cherry tree to Teddy Rosevelt saving a bear, we use myths to create the America we want to be, rather than the America we are. Once school children get old and curious enough to do their own research, we quickly learn that George Washington could, in fact, tell a lie and Abraham Lincoln was not a die-heart abolitionist, but wanted to preserve the union. The stories we tell romanticize America and help us strive to be a country of honesty, kindness, and fairness. It should be no surprise, therefore, that American’s first permanent colony of Jamestown perpetrated its own myth that echoes throughout history. I am talking of course of the myth of Pocohantas and John Smith. Yes, both figures existed and met in 1607 when Smith set ashore, but no, Pocahontas likely never flung herself between Smith’s head and an ax – thus saving his life.
In Terrence Malleck’s The New World, Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) jumps atop of John Smith (Collin Ferrell) upon their first meeting after her father calls for his death. This at least is more accurate than Disney’s 1995 representation of this event happening at the end of Smith’s day, but still presents the problem of a post-pubescent actor playing a ten year old girl. There is no reason to perpetuate this change but to create a fabricated sexual and romantic relationship between a child and a grown man – an idea somehow seen as romantic. The best argument that Pocahontas never having saved Smith is the source – Smith himself – was greatly considered a liar and lampooned during his own time (Lepore, 2007). Further, it must be noted “the textual evidence of the historic encounter in North America between the first English settlers and the indigenous inhabitants is scarce and one-sided” and this story only comes from the perspective of Smith seven years after the fact (Paul, 2014). As this retelling came to align with Pocahontas (now the baptized Lady Rebecca’s) arrival to England to meet the Queen, the most logical conclusion is that the story we invented furthers the concept of the noble savage and to raise her esteem to the English citizenry. In creating this idealized myth, “Smith created an image of Pocahontas that would endure for four centuries” and land on the big screen time and time again (Mancall, 2007). The New World furthers this myth for the same reason – to make the “naturals” (as they are called within the film) the good guys compared to the brutality perpetrated by the English settlers.
Just as the film neglects the origin of the English’s relations with the Powhatan tribe, it neglects truth in the origin of Jamestown itself. At the start of the film, Ferrell is locked in the brig of the ship – arrested for mutiny, only to be saved from hanging by a generous Christopher Newport (Christopher Plumber). What the movie left out was that Smith was not saved by an act of mercy, but instructions of the Virginia Company. While Malick acts as if the settlement was always a royal colony – it started as a private enterprise and the governors of the company left in a locked box instructions for leadership – and upon its opening Smith’s name was listed as President (Lepore, 2007). King James did not take over until after the 1622 attack which eliminated one third of the population. However, within the film there are constant references to serving the king and removal of Smith from the king’s favor – given the impression that the colony was created for conquest. In presenting a narrow narrative and power on conquest, Malick further establishes a myth that Jamestown was less an experiment and more of an inevitable expansion of English (and therefore white) influence and power.
The film was not solely lacking in accuracy. Plenty of what we see is true. While the timeline is truncated and at times unclear, this is not of much concern. As Mark and I began our experience in watching American history through film, we agreed that composite characters and events were not the concern of a blog. A two hour film cannot tell any story completely – even a two hour event would be missing details as some perspectives, nuance, and background would slip the cracks. Instead, we knew we were more concerned with the narratives than simple specifics. The film accurately showed the starvation, struggles to survive winters, and Smith’s edict of “if you don’t work you don’t eat.” – leading to the one year historically, the Jamestown colonists did not die (Paul, 2007). The brutality is front and center. In fact, if anything, the film underplayed the brutality of the early winters which included consistent starvation, canabalism, kidnapping and torture by natvies, and freezing to death (Mancall, 2007). The early years of the Jamestown colony are known to historians as The Starving Times for a reason. In 1610 an estimated 500 of the 560 colonists perished (Bernhard, 1992). It was not all war – however – between the English and the natives. At times, many English would steal away into the Powhatan villages for enhanced chances at survival (Lepore, 2007). The film’s choice to not show the nuanced relationship between the tribe and the settlement (outside a few attacks and romance) serve to fit the love story more than the history – but still managed to strike a reasonable balance between the two. By showing the settler’s survival by the means of brutality and assimilation (i.e. converting Pocahontas to Christanity) do continue to prove they myth of early success of the American Dream – owning land, overcoming adversity, and striving for greatness.
Lastly, Malick took great care to preserve and honor the Powhatan tribe. Instead of using gibberish or the language of another tribe, ligugish Blair Rudes was hired to recreate the dialect of Algonquian that had been extinct for over two-hundred years (Boyle, 2006). Further, Malick cast indigenous actors for indegenouc roles – something oft overlooked in casting but necessity in accuracy and nuanced portrayal. By finding an unknown for the central role, this commitment was crystal clear. This representation and dedication to accuracy only rises the esteem of the film from an historical perspective.
While I could nitpick and go over each historic event with a thumbs up and thumbs down, that is not the purpose of this blog. Mark and I are much more interested in the narratives presented than the exact dates. As an old professor would say, I am not a name and date historian. The composite characters and shortening of events is inevitable, but in this case was done in a way that allowed for the forward flow of the plot. If one was to enter this movie expecting a creative love story – they would still see the backdrop of history. Overall, I find this movie to be an accurate portrayal of the myth history told us, and a true portrayal of the savagery of life in the Jamestown settlement (but not necessarily savage at the hands of the Powhatan tribe). Overall, this gets my historical lens of approval. 9/13 stripes.
Boyle, Alan. “How A Linguist Revived ‘New World’ Language”. NBC News, 2006, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna10950199. Accessed 8 Dec 2020.
Bernhard, Virginia. “‘Men, Women and Children’ at Jamestown: Population and Gender in Early Virginia, 1607-1610.” The Journal of Southern History, vol. 58, no. 4, 1992, pp. 599–618. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/2210786. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Lepore, Jill, et al. “Looking Back on the First Americans.” The New Yorker, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2007/04/02/our-town.
Mancall, Peter C. “Savagery in Jamestown.” Huntington Library Quarterly, vol. 70, no. 4, 2007, pp. 661–670. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hlq.2007.70.4.661. Accessed 9 Dec. 2020.
Paul, Heike. “Pocahontas and the Myth of Transatlantic Love.” In The Myths That Made America: An Introduction to American Studies, 89-136. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2014. Accessed December 7, 2020. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1wxsdq.6.