Understanding Virginia: Quoting the Sources in Terrence Malick’s The New World

How much they err,
that think every one which has been at Virginia
understands or knows what Virginia is.

– Capt. John Smith

These words appear upon a black screen at the beginning of the 2008 “Extended Cut” of The New World, Terrence Malick’s film about John Smith, Pocahontas, and the founding of the Virginia Colony. They are followed by a second introduction, this time a voice-over from Pocahontas, who speaks over images of Virginia’s rivers and of the indigenous Powhatan people: “Come spirit, help us sing the story of our land. You are our mother; we, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.” The quotation from Smith does not appear in the two previously released versions (2005 and 2006),[1] which instead begin directly with Pocahontas’s invocation of the spirit-mother. Malick’s decision to introduce the “Extended Cut” with these words from Smith’s seems intended to place the viewer in a different frame of mind than that created by the original versions, since Pocahontas’s prologue must now be heard in the light of Smith’s, rather than being itself the frame for the film’s narrative. There are various ways in which this interpolated epigraph might affect our experience of the film that it introduces, but one of them is the very fact that it is a quotation and is clearly advertised as such: it is attributed to a well-known historical figure, its language includes archaisms (“how much they err”, “every one which has been”), and it is presented in a typeface reminiscent of seventeenth-century italic print. In contrast, Pocahontas’s spoken words are simpler and more modern in sound.[2] The “Extended Cut”, then, begins with a greater emphasis on the film’s documentary sources: it is not only the epigraph’s words that are important but also the fact that they were written by the real John Smith.

By introducing at the beginning of the “Extended Cut” the possibility that he may quote the film’s historical sources, Malick draws attention to a quality of The New World that is discernible even in the previous two versions: in several scenes, the dialogue contains quotations from documents relating to Jamestown and the other European colonization projects of the period, and these quotations may stand out even to the casual viewer because their archaic language contrasts with the simpler, more modern style of the rest of the screenplay. Indeed, Smith’s epigraph is an early indicator of two concepts with which the rest of the film demonstrates a fascination: on the one hand, the desire to recreate the past as reflected in the documentary record; on the other, the gaps and enigmas in the record that encourage filmmakers like Malick to remould the past according to their own interests.

The sentiments expressed in Smith’s epigraph encapsulate the contradictions in the way Malick uses quotations within his screenplay. There are multiple interpretations of the epigraph’s meaning, as we will see, but Smith’s words can be read as saying that only a select few have apprehended the true nature of the newly discovered continent. Such a reading would certainly accord with the film’s portrayal of Smith and his fellow colonist John Rolfe, who are depicted as unusually sensitive and open-minded men among their gold-obsessed English brethren: they treat the Powhatan as fellow human beings and develop an emotional connection with the land and its people through their love for Pocahontas. In this reading, the epigraph introduces Smith via his own words as a visionary who is able to see and understand the true significance of what he and his companions have discovered. It is easy to draw a connection between this Smith and Malick himself, whose film ponders the philosophical implications of the Jamestown story through its thoughtful voice-overs and lyrical imagery. The epigraph can thus be read as introducing both the perceptiveness of Smith, and the quest of the filmmaker to articulate the significance of the Jamestown experience.

However, there is a paradox in the use of this particular quotation to create such an effect. On the surface, Smith’s words appear to confer legitimacy upon the film’s depiction of Smith: when the screenplay – and the actor Colin Farrell – later depict Smith as a sensitive, introspective thinker, it is easy to believe that this is the same man who could write the thoughtful words of the epigraph. Yet Malick has in fact achieved this effect through sleight of hand, for the contemplative tone of the quotation exists only when it is extracted from its context. When John Smith wrote those words in his Description of New England (1616), he was not contemplating the metaphysical meaning of the discovery of Virginia, but rather venting his frustration about amateurish map-makers. Many of the maps of North America’s coastline, he complains, “did mee no more good [than] so much waste paper”, and explorers have failed to grasp either the “goodnes and true substances of the Land” or its “Harbors and dangers” because they have examined only a small portion of “those large dominions”. “By this you may perceive how much they erre,” he concludes, “that think every one which hath bin at Virginia understandeth or knowes what Virginia is.”[3] By lifting this sentence from its context, Malick has transformed a pragmatic warning against incompetent cartographers into a reflection on the soul of a land, and in so doing has given Smith a more philosophical personality than that which he displays in his writing.

Malick’s creation of an idealized version of an historical figure through an implied indication of its historicity is characteristic of The New World’s contradictory mixture of historical verisimilitude and romantic mythmaking. At times, Malick recreates the past with remarkable attention to detail. The Virginia scenes were shot entirely on location just a few miles from the sites at which the real events took place; the filmmakers’ reconstruction of Jamestown won the approval of the director of the Jamestown Rediscovery Project; and linguist Blair A. Rudes reconstructed the dead Powhatan language so that the Native American actors could speak historically accurate dialogue.[4] Enhancing this aura of historicity is Malick’s remarkable ability to make the worlds he creates feel tangible by devoting attention to tiny visual and aural details; Kent Jones calls him “the only working narrative filmmaker who devotes entire movies to the wonder of presence”, and in The New World his evocation of the patter of raindrops on river water, the touch of grass upon skin, and the background hum of insect and bird life generates a powerful sense of physical immediacy in his recreations of the past.[5] Yet this emphasis on accuracy and verisimilitude takes place within a narrative that follows countless romanticized versions of Pocahontas’s story by increasing her age in order to create a fictional love affair with Smith (a myth created in the eighteenth century and popularized in 1803),[6] and by depicting a Smith who learns to love and identify with the Powhatan and their culture (a more recent idea popularized by the 1995 Disney animation Pocahontas). Malick’s decision to romanticize the story in this way is unsurprising given his long-standing fascination with ‘back to nature’ stories: in Badlands (1973), a young murderer and his girlfriend abandon their small town for a treehouse in the forest; in Days of Heaven (1978), itinerant factory workers spend their summers harvesting the prairies; and in The Thin Red Line (1998), U.S. soldiers go AWOL with Pacific islanders before being forced back to the horrors of war; and in Tree of Life (2011) an urban architect contemplates the creation of life on Earth. The New World uses the romanticized version of the Pocahontas story to explore similar ideas.[7]

The film’s mixture of implied historicity amid a heavily fictionalized and personal version of the events depicted disappointed some reviewers. John D’Entremont protested that filming history is not just a matter of “getting the clothing and utensils right, or teaching actors to use a bow or matchlock musket”, but of exploring the complex realities underlying the behaviour of the people depicted. Kent Jones found “disturbing” Malick’s urge to film the speculative reconstructions of Powhatan life “as if he were a documentarian who had journeyed back in time.”[8] In the first part of this article, I will argue that the film’s use of quotations from documentary sources contributes to this contradictory quality: Malick’s evocation of the language of the past implicitly legitimates his idealized representations of the individuals and societies he depicts, yet he often silently transforms the documentary sources to make them fit his film’s revision of history.

However, Malick’s attitude to the use of historical documents is not as simple as the above description might suggest. A more complex relationship is suggested by an alternative reading of the epigraph’s ambiguous wording. Removed as they are from their original context, the words might, as I have said, suggest to the viewer that Smith saw himself as one of the few visionaries to fully understand Virginia. But the words can instead be read as saying that “every one” who visits Virginia understands it differently, and that no one person can fully comprehend its meaning. This interpretation applies well to the film’s trio of protagonists: Smith, for whom Virginia is a site to explore, and whose urge to experience new things leads him to leave the land and Pocahontas before recognizing too late what they meant to him; the more domestic Rolfe, who takes over as male protagonist in the film’s second half, and who sees Virginia as a place to build a lasting home; and Pocahontas, whose understanding of her land as the creation of the spirit mother begins the film, and who ultimately perceives this universal “Virginia” even amid a formal English garden. This reading of the epigraph can also apply to the film itself, suggesting that we are about to experience a very personal understanding of the story of Jamestown. Certainly, The New World is very much a Terrence Malick film: dreamlike in its narration, elliptical in its editing, and organized around themes common to Malick’s oeuvre. The epigraph may thus suggest that far from perniciously or naively misleading the viewer, Malick is announcing the film as one way of understanding the significance of Virginia. In the second part of this article, I will propose that this possibility is supported by three significant scenes – one of which appears only in the Extended Cut – that comment on the very act of adapting historical sources. These sequences draw attention to the ambiguities and mysteries that are created when historical events are mediated through the limitations of texts, and suggest that Malick may, in these moments at least, be unashamedly acknowledging himself to be among those who “err” in understanding “what Virginia is.”

Archaic Language and Historicity

The “Extended Cut” draws attention directly to The New World’s textual sources by displaying one onscreen at the beginning, but in the rest of the film the presence of quotation within the screenplay only becomes noticeable when archaic forms of speech are heard in the dialogue. One of the most striking instances occurs toward the end of the film as Pocahontas enters King James’s throne room in London. This moment occurs during the climax of a sequence that has revelled in the double meaning of the film’s title: Pocahontas experiences London as a new world, and marvels at its strangeness. The sequence is effective in part because London in 1616 feels almost as alien to the twenty-first century viewer as it does to the Powhatan visitor. As Pocahontas enters the throne room, Malick maximizes this sense of distance by creating a sumptuous display of Jacobean pomp and ceremony and by using seventeenth century music for the first and only time in the soundtrack. Furthermore, as Pocahontas proceeds past the assembled courtiers, a poet recites a welcoming verse:

Let rolling streams their gladness show
With gentle murmurs whilst they play,
And in their wild meanders flow,
Rejoicing in this blessed day.
Kind health descends on downy wings;
Angels conduct her on the way.
The New World’s princess new life brings,
And swells our joys upon this day.

The vocabulary of the poem, with its wild meanders, kind health and swelling joys, is very obviously characteristic of the period being depicted, but its effect is not merely to add atmosphere to the scene. The casual viewer is also likely to assume it to be a genuine poem written specially for Pocahontas, since screenwriters are not noted for their ability to write pastiche Jacobean poetry, and since it refers directly to a “New World’s princess”. Like the epigraph, the poem can implicitly legitimate the film’s representation of the events. But again, as with the epigraph, the sense of authenticity is illusory. These words were in fact written in 1713, nearly a century after Pocahontas’s death, and have nothing to do with America: they derive from the libretto of a Handel cantata celebrating the birthday of Queen Anne. Malick has adapted the verse to its new role by adjusting one line: “The New World’s princess new life brings” originally read “To our glorious Queen new life she brings”.[9] It would not have been possible for Malick to use a contemporary document in this scene, as it is largely fiction: Pocahontas probably never received a formal audience with the King, and certainly was not summoned to England by him, as the film suggests.[10]

This poem is one of the more obvious examples of the screenplay’s incorporation of material written in the early modern era. There are, however, several other moments at which the presence of quotation can be heard in the dialogue. As with the poem, they can be heard because they contrast with the modern style and vocabulary of the rest of the screenplay. Two of Rolfe’s voice-overs describing his attraction to Pocahontas offer examples of the latter:

When first I saw her, she was regarded as someone finished, broken, lost. She seemed barely to notice the others about her.
She has accepted my invitation to work in the fields. She understands the culture of tobacco. The people were sorry at her going. The loss of my wife and daughter has led me to understand her loss as well.

These passages, which are characteristic of much of the screenplay, feature simple, direct sentence structures and no unusual vocabulary. As a result, when Malick incorporates quotations into his writing, the difference in sound is marked. One of the longest examples is Smith’s voice-over during the sequence in which he travels upriver on the journey that will lead to his capture by the Powhatan. As he and his men sail past waterlogged forests, Smith has a vision of a new society:

We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning. Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all. And no cost but one’s labour. We shall build a true commonwealth. Hard work and self reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labour. […] None shall eat up carelessly what his friends got worthily or steal away that which virtue has stored up. Men shall not make each other their spoil.

As with the poem that announces Pocahontas, the archaic phrases, such as “rack us with high rents”, and “what his friends got worthily”, indicate that we may be hearing the actual words of John Smith, and imply that there is some truth behind Malick’s representation of him as an idealistic dreamer. Certainly, the speech is assembled from phrases in the Description of New England, in which Smith rhapsodizes on the bountiful resources of the land. “When better, or at least as good ground, may be had and cost nothing but labour,” he marvels, “it seemes strange to me, any such should there grow poore”. “And here”, he has said earlier, “are no hard Landlords to racke us with high rents, or extorted fines to consume us”. In this land, he asks, would anyone be idle, “consuming that carelesly, his friends got worthily?”[11] The chosen sentences echo the utopian strain that can be found in the real Smith, who sometimes envisioned America as a tabula rasa for a new, meritocratic social structure.[12] However, Malick has also invented some new sentences to add to the passage, and in these we can see him shaping Smith’s dreams into a different form than that in the original text. When his version of Smith imagines that “the blessings of the Earth are bestowed upon all”, that they will “build a true commonwealth”, and that “men shall not make each other their spoil”, these invented phrases suggest that Smith imagined a community that would share the bounty of the land fairly. This transforms the tone of the original text, in which Smith’s vision is more individualistic; far from celebrating communities, the real Smith finds the advantage of America to be that there are “no multitudes to occasion such impediments to good orders, as in popular states” and that “here every man may be master and owner of his owne labour and land”; for him God has not simply “bestowed his blessings” upon “all”, but specifically on “them that will attempt to obtaine them.”[13] Smith’s ideas have been carefully reworked to fit with the film’s structure, in which Malick’s Smith will find among the Powhatan people the egalitarian lifestyle that he had dreamed of on the river.

The moment at which Malick’s Smith recognizes that he has found his utopia is expressed in his wonderstruck voice-over description of the Powhatan, a description that once again has the sound of a contemporary document:

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.

Malick’s representation of Native Americans as Edenic innocents has proven one of the more controversial aspects of The New World. Scholars of the representation of indigenous peoples on film have long criticized the tendency of well-meaning filmmakers to simplify their subjects into blandly noble savages or spiritual ecologists while ignoring their social realities.[14] M. Elise Marubbio criticizes Malick’s construction of pre-colonial Virginia as “a place of childlike innocence free of avarice and corruption”, seeing it as a sign that “American popular culture is not ready to release the Indian from its cultural iconography.”[15] It is thus especially problematic that Smith’s entranced reverie is constructed from contemporary sources whose archaic style once again carries the implication that the Virginia settlers really saw these qualities in the Powhatan. As before, Malick has produced this effect by quoting selectively. Smith’s speech derives from two sixteenth century texts (neither of which originates in the Virginia Colony). The first sentence quotes Arthur Barlowe’s 1584 description of the voyage to Roanoke; Barlowe wrote of the inhabitants, “We found the people most gentle, louing, and faithfull, void of all guile, and treason, and such as liued after the manner of the golden age.”[16] The sentence is of a piece with the rest of Barlowe’s text, which is a utopian account of the new world: the sailors approaching the  continent “found shole water, which smelt so sweeteley, and was so strong a smell, as if we had bene in the midst of some delicate garden, abounding with all kind of odoriferous flowers”; they found the soil to be “the most plentifull, sweete, fruitfull, and wholsome of all the world”; and of the inhabitants, “a more kinde and louing people, there can not be found in the world.”[17] Barlowe’s vision of munificent natives in a fragrant Eden is appealing, and its delight in the flora and fauna of the Americas anticipates Malick’s vision. It is not, however, a text that should be taken too literally, given its status as a promotional tract intended to encourage support for Walter Raleigh’s colonization project.[18] The rest of Smith’s speech is based on Michel de Montaigne’s 1588 essay, ‘On Cannibals’. Montaigne, whose observations are based on a conversation with a Native Brazilian visitor to France, wrote:

This is a nation … in which there is no kind of commerce, no knowledge of letters, no science of numbers, no title of magistrate or of political superior, no habit of service, riches or poverty, no contracts, no inheritance, no divisions of property, only leisurely occupations, no respect for any kinship but the common ties, no clothes, no agriculture, no metals, no use of corn or wine. The very words denoting lying, treason, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard.[19]

Malick’s adaptation of this passage is careful. He retains the references to the innocence of the natives, but removes the references to their lack of clothing, agriculture and corn, each of which would have conflicted with The New World’s carefully researched recreation of Powhatan life. Furthermore, he has chosen one of the few passages in Montaigne’s essay that is not about warfare; “On Cannibals” is primarily an admiring description of the natives’ military prowess.[20] For all its beauty, then, the passage is an example of Malick simplifying his sources and is in tune with his elision of the aggressive nature of Chief Powhatan’s dominance over the neighbouring peoples of the area.[21] 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.”[22] 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.[23] Malick’s use of adjusted quotations to generate his idealized version of both Smith and the Powhatan is encapsulated in a moment near the beginning of the film: as the English set up their encampment upon their arrival, Smith reports in voiceover, “The savages often visit us kindly,” a quotation from Smith’s Generall Historie of Virginia (1624), but Malick then adds a qualifier of his own invention, “Timid, like a herd of curious deer,” a phrase that both sentimentalizes Smith and risks portraying the Powhatan as animal-like in its urge to suggest their kinship with nature.[24]

These examples show that Malick’s screenplay is indebted to a close reading of colonial era texts from Jamestown and beyond, and that his quotations from those documents stand out from the simpler style of the rest of the screenplay. They also show that the implication of historical veracity that is conjured by the archaic language and style of these passages is frequently misleading, as Malick has heavily adapted or decontextualized them to create his personal conception of Smith and the Powhatan people. The disappointment that some critics have felt toward the film’s combination of historicist elements with its reiteration of old and new myths is understandable. However, it would be unfair to assume that Malick is unaware of these issues, because three sequences in the film demonstrate a fascination with the question of how we understand the Jamestown documents. They do so by drawing attention to the mysteries, uncertainties and silences in the stories told by the historical texts, and by dramatizing some of the reasons why the documents with which we may point out the film’s distortions may not themselves be straightforward or trustworthy. These moments, I suggest, may represent an acknowledgement of the need felt by both historians and artists to find or create coherence among records that are fragmentary and ambiguous.

Textual Mysteries

The most famous enigma within the Jamestown records is the question of whether John Smith was rescued from execution by Pocahontas during his first encounter with Chief Powhatan in 1607. At one point in the film, Malick’s Smith utters a straightforward description of his rescue: responding to the denigration of Pocahontas by his fellow colonists, he reminds them, “She risked a beating in of her own brains to save mine.” Malick is here adapting one of Smith’s two descriptions of the event, both of which were first published in his 1624 Generall Historie of Virginia; the specific passage appears when Smith reprints in the Generall Historie a letter that he claims to have sent to Queen Anne in 1616, in which he requests respectful treatment for Pocahontas in London because, “at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her owne braines to save mine.”[25] Malick’s use of these words appears to be another example of his adapting a piece of contemporary writing to enhance a scene’s sense of historicity. Certainly, by placing words that Smith wrote many years after the fact into his mouth at the time of the supposed event, Malick smoothes over one of the principal reasons for which some historians doubt the rescue story: Smith’s failure to publish an account of the story until many years after it supposedly occurred.[26] Scholars have also been suspicious of the storybook romanticism in Smith’s description of the rescue, in which, as Powhatan warriors prepare to execute him with clubs, “Pocahontas the Kings dearest daughter, when no intreaty could prevaile, got his head in her armes, and laid her owne upon his to save him from death.”[27] Some historians suggest that Smith invented the story in order to enhance Pocahontas’s reputation in London, while a popular alternative theory holds that Smith mistook an initiation rite for an aborted execution.[28] These complexities are elided in the straightforward description that Malick’s Smith gives to his fellow colonists. However, the attentive viewer may notice a contradiction between Smith’s blunt words and the way in which the event itself has earlier been depicted, because Malick’s staging of the “rescue” sequence appears designed to allude to its famous ambiguities, rather than to efface them.

Malick’s depiction of the rescue is surprising for any viewer familiar with the story and is dominated by mystery and elision.[29] Smith is brought into the crowded Powhatan longhouse where Chief Powhatan and his people listen to him with interest. After Smith demonstrates gunpowder by throwing a small amount into the fire, the Chief whispers with his advisers, whereupon masked men dressed as birds, who have been standing among the crowd, reach toward Smith’s face. Suddenly, there is a burst of short, fragmentary shots of bird-men dancing and shaking, followed by warriors running into the longhouse and swinging clubs toward the camera. The motivation for this sudden change in the atmosphere and the significance of the bird-men is unclear, and the same is true of what follows. Malick cuts to a black screen, followed by a closeup of the frightened Smith, who stares at light falling from a shaft in the ceiling. In retrospective voice-over Smith says “At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me”; this is followed by a brief shot of Pocahontas in the last moments of falling upon Smith’s chest. The rest of the Powhatan look on, seeming neither surprised nor angry. In the next shot, Pocahontas is no longer lying on Smith, but is saying to her father, with a ritual gesture, “Spare his life.” Pocahontas’s intervention comes out of the blue; it has not been prepared for in any of the preceding shots, and the calm response of the Powhatan during and after the sequence renders it curiously low-key. As such, the moment of the “rescue” is potentially disorientating for anyone who does not already know the story, and anti-climactic for anyone who does. A final curiosity occurs as women surround Smith, making ritual motions and sprinkling dust on him. As their ritual builds to a climax, we suddenly see a brief shot of a ship’s sail unfurling. This non-diegetic image brings the language of dream or symbolism into the sequence, suggesting the idea of a momentous change or of the beginning of a journey. Then, as Chief Powhatan and his men debate whether to allow the English to stay, Smith is carried outside on the shoulders of the warriors, now in celebration.

Throughout the sequence, the jarring editing, the sudden changes of mood, and the elision of information, repeatedly suggest that things are happening for reasons that the viewer cannot fully understand. It is possible to read the scene just as Smith will later describe it, and see in it the traditional image of Pocahontas saving Smith’s life, but the muted presentation of this famous moment and the unperturbed response of the Powhatan to Pocahontas’s action means that it can also be read as the playing out of a scripted ritual. The mysteries and ambiguities in the sequence mean that when Smith later states that Pocahontas “risked a beating in of her own brains to save mine,” there is a disjunction between his blunt, straightforward statement and the strange, confused event that Malick has earlier depicted. The gulf that separates the written records of Jamestown from the complex, often indecipherable incidents that they describe is briefly apparent.

The “rescue” scene may, therefore, be an example of Malick emphasising, rather than eliding, the uncertainties in the historical documents. In another sequence (appearing only in the “Extended Cut”), Malick takes a different approach by complicating our understanding of a well-known document that appears to represent the direct expression of an historical figure’s feelings. When Malick’s version of John Rolfe is falling in love with Pocahontas, he murmurs in voice-over, “Many passions have I endured, daily, hourly. Even in my sleep. Awaking me to astonishment. This love has become such a labyrinth that I no longer know how to wind myself out from it.” Malick is adapting here one of the more famous of the Jamestown documents, Rolfe’s 1614 letter to Thomas Dale, governor of Virginia, in which he attempted to justify his desire to marry Pocahontas. The words that Malick has chosen powerfully evoke Rolfe’s mental turmoil, but in their original context Rolfe also insists on the virtuous nature of his love:

My chiefest intent and purpose be not, to strive with all my power of body and minde, in the undertaking of so mightie a matter, no way led (so farre forth as mans weakenesse may permit) with the unbridled desire of carnall affection: but for the good of this plantation, for the honour of our countrie, for the glory of God, for my owne salvation, and for the converting to the true knowledge of God and Jesus Christ, an unbeleeving creature, namely Pokahuntas. To whom my hartie and best thoughts are, and have a long time bin so intangled, and inthralled in so intricate a laborinth, that I was even awearied to unwinde my selfe thereout. […] Nor was I ignorant of the heavie displeasure which almightie God conceived against the sonnes of Levie and Israel for marrying strange wives […] [F]or besides the many passions and sufferings which I have daily, hourely, yea and in my sleepe indured, even awaking mee to astonishment, taxing mee with remisnesse, and carelesnesse, refusing and neglecting to performe the duetie of a good Christian, pulling me by the eare, and crying: why dost thou not indevour to make her a Christian?[30]

To create the voice-over, Malick has again been selective: he has used Rolfe’s descriptions of his passions and sleepless nights, but has not included Rolfe’s concern for Pocahontas’s soul as a non-Christian, or his concerns for the good of the plantation. The effect is to simplify Rolfe’s inner torments by making them those of an anxious lover, rather than the concerns of a Christian in a culture that had not yet permitted intermarriage between Englishman and Native American. This simplification of a document is, however, followed by a scene that draws attention to doubts about the trustworthiness of documents as these. The scene dramatizes the writing of the very letter quoted above; its contents are not, however, represented as Rolfe’s private mental thoughts. Instead, the scene begins with Rolfe being scolded by a high-ranking member of the colony, who asks if he is “ignorant of the heavy displeasure which almighty God conceived against the sons of Levi and Israel for marrying strange wives,” and advises him to write a letter requesting the right to marry Pocahontas. When Rolfe reluctantly agrees, the man, in a condescending tone, proposes some appropriate words that derive from the real Rolfe’s letter, but which cause the film’s Rolfe to look quietly angry:

[…] State that this might be the beginning of the great work of converting the naturals; that this idea came to you in no way through any carnal affection, but for the good of the plantation, for the honour of your country, and your own soul in the service of saving an non-believing creature […] If this be not your true intent would you do that?

As with the other quotations, the archaic language – “carnal affection”, “a non-believing creature” – makes the passage stand out as a quotation from an historical document. But it also encourages us to contemplate the agendas that may lie behind the creation of those documents, presenting Rolfe’s letter not as a straightforward expression of his feelings, but as words chosen for him by others, and, crucially, words that are not his “true intent.” The sequence invites scepticism about the extent to which we can trust the attitudes that the historical figures display in their writing.

Of course, Malick has represented other parts of the letter as if they are Rolfe’s true feelings; in his interpretation, the sections about romantic love and sleepless nights are genuine, while the sections dealing with Rolfe’s desire to Christianize Pocahontas and to serve the colony are pious falsehoods that he is forced to write. Perhaps this indeed is what happened in 1614. Or perhaps Malick is anachronistically removing seventeenth-century attitudes from Rolfe: a Rolfe who genuinely fears for Pocahontas’s soul and is determined to save her by conversion is entirely plausible but may seem less heroic today.[31] We cannot know, and the letter-writing scene illustrates our inability to know with its reminder that a text from the past may not always divulge its author’s “true intent.” The scene implicitly justifies Malick’s selective approach to the quotations from Rolfe and his decision to create the Rolfe that he would prefer to believe in.

As Malick’s treatment of Rolfe’s letter suggests, it is not a simple matter to represent the feelings of the Jamestown colonists on the basis of their surviving writing. Even more problematic is the representation of the indigenous peoples whom the colonists encountered. Since the historical utterances of the Powhatan are mediated entirely through the writings of the English, over-simplifications inevitably arise when Malick uses the contemporary documents to create dialogue for them. For example, when Rolfe and Pocahontas set sail for England in the film, they are accompanied by Opechancanough, a Powhatan warrior, who tells Pocahontas (in subtitled dialogue), “Your father has sent me. For each Englishman I come across, I am to place a notch on these sticks. And to see this God they speak so much about.” These words derive from Smith’s Generall Historie,[32]  but by presenting the story this way, Malick elides the complications of who is telling the story: words attributed by Smith to a native years after the fact are shown being spoken by a native to a native (and even translated into the reconstructed Powhatan language).

This problem is of course endemic to the representation of early colonial America: the voices of the indigenous peoples of this period are all mediated through European writers. Near the end of the film, Malick appears to acknowledge this problem, this time by creating a scene whose power derives precisely from the absence of a direct Powhatan voice where we might expect to hear it. The real John Rolfe wrote to a friend that Pocahontas passed away “saying all must die, but tis enough that her childe liveth.”[33] In the film, Malick does not put these words into Pocahontas’s mouth. Instead, Rolfe speaks them as he writes the letter (whose addressee is changed to their son): “She gently reminded me that all must die; ‘’Tis enough,’ she said, that you, our child, should live.’” And then, in a startling sequence, Pocahontas’s death is filmed in an elliptical manner: aside from a brief, distant glimpse in a mirror we do not see her face or hear her voice; we see only Rolfe’s reaction to her death, followed by a shot of an empty bed, and a startling, baffling image of a Powhatan man bolting from the room. The frustration instilled in the viewer who wants and expects to hear and see Pocahontas speak her dying words herself, is perhaps an appropriate reminder of the way that her known utterances are all mediated through others. Indeed, her absence from this key scene hints at the myth-making that would begin after her death, as writers, artists and filmmakers attempted to fill the silence.

How Much They Err

The New World does not end with an absent Pocahontas, but rather returns to the imagery of its opening; in its climactic sequence, which can be read as a flashback, as the afterlife, or as a fantasy, Pocahontas plays with her child in a formal English garden, and ultimately is seen discovering the ubiquity of the spirit mother on the banks of a muddy river. “Mother,” she has said, shortly before the death sequence, “now I know where you live,” recognizing that she will be able to exist anywhere, not just in her homeland, as she can experience everywhere the presence of nature. These words are, of course, Malick’s invention, and indeed, Pocahontas’s dialogue as a whole (whether subtitled or in spoken English) is written in Malick’s modern style. The reason, no doubt, is that few words are attributed to Pocahontas in the documentary sources, so that the historical woman’s feelings about the events that befell her are unknown.[34] Malick fills that silence in the documents by creating a Pocahontas who, vowing to “find joy in all I see,” becomes happily married to Rolfe and, in the ecstatic final sequence, is reconciled to her hybrid English/Powhatan state.[35] This decision may not sit well with all viewers; as several critics have noted, Malick’s vision of Pocahontas as a symbol of the potential for humanity to unite arguably belies the centuries of oppression of indigenous peoples that her story can also symbolize: David Sterritt finds Malick’s “transcendental view of an ultimately harmonious cosmos” to be “a questionable frame for a fact-based narrative rooted in invasion, violence, and conquest”; James Morrison, while defending Malick’s choices, acknowledges that the climax can be seen as “an instance of false consciousness”; and Leo Killsback recommends that Native American viewers watch the film “to understand why most Americans still believe that European colonization was a blessing to Native America.”[36] A central question for interpretation of the film has thus become whether the joyous tone of the final sequence is “naive”.[37] In his consideration of this question, Robert Sinnerbrink argues that Malick is not innocently naive, but rather knowingly preferring myth: Malick sees a value in proposing “a utopian community that could found a new world,” with nature as the source of “cultural reconciliation.”[38] Certainly my study of Malick’s screenplay shows that his choices are not based on ignorance: he has read the historical sources in detail, and his transformations of them represent a deliberate programme of adaptation to make Pocahontas a symbol of what America could have been. In such a reading, the modernity of Pocahontas’s speech could be seen as significant: in a film in which quotations from seventeenth century English are audibly present, Pocahontas’s speech marks her throughout as an ahistorical fantasy, a deliberately symbolic figure both of a lost potential and of a vision for the future.

I have argued that the modern-sounding passages in The New World’s dialogue contrast with and indeed make more obvious the moments at which historical documents are quoted. I have also noted several ways in which Malick’s use of these documents can be seen as disingenuous, conjuring an aura of legitimacy when the quotations in question have in fact been carefully honed to make the words of the historical figures accord with Malick’s thematic interests. I have suggested, however, that the film, especially in the “Extended Cut”, implicitly presents its own rebuttal to protests about such reshaping. In the complex moments that I have noted, The New World hints that when we hear words that sound plausibly seventeenth century, we ought not to take them at face value. The disorientating depiction of the rescue of Smith, the defamiliarization of Rolfe’s letter, and the elliptical representation of Pocahontas’s deathbed speech are all dramatizations of instances at which, for different reasons, the documents by which we understand the Jamestown experience fail to provide the concrete facts upon which we might wish to base that understanding. Whatever one might feel about the ways in which Malick has chosen to fill the gaps and ambiguities in the sources by moulding them into shapes familiar from his other work, the film contains within itself evidence of Malick’s fascination with the very enigmas that inspire such re-imaginings, and which enable him to fictionalize Pocahontas into what he believes to be a valuable symbol of humanity’s potential.

Perhaps, then, this is one reason for the presence of the epigraph from John Smith at the beginning of the “Extended Cut”. Prosaic though its original meaning may have been, when used as the introduction to The New World it can ask us to consider the colonization of Virginia as an idea that can be understood in many ways, not only those of the film that ensues.[39] Indeed, although I have suggested that this implication applies well to the film’s three protagonists, perhaps it is better understood as an instance of self-reflection from Malick. It articulates not only the arrogance of the auteur who films his own understanding of the meaning of events, but also his modest acknowledgement that he himself may be among those who err in believing that they understand “what Virginia is.”

I am grateful to Roberta Barker, Shannon Brownlee, Andrew Burke, and Anubhav Jindal for insights and inspirations that aided the writing of this article.

[1] Three versions of The New World have been released. The first, a limited theatrical release in December 2005, was 150 minutes long; this version is currently available only on a DVD released in Italy. The wide theatrical release of 2006 was 135 minutes long, and this version was subsequently released internationally on DVD. A third version, the 172-minute “Extended Cut”, was released on DVD in 2008. Except where noted, my descriptions of the film’s content apply to all three versions. The artistic process behind the creation of the “Extended Cut” is unclear, since Malick refuses to discuss his work in public; the press release that announced the new version does not explain when it was made or whether it should be considered the definitive version.

[2] Her words in fact derive from “Our Mother Pocahontas”, a 1917 poem by Vachel Lindsay, but the modernity of their phrasing makes their status as a quotation undetectable. Lindsay writes of Pocahontas, “we are her fields of corn”, and “We rise from out of the soul of her”; see Collected Poems (New York: Macmillan, 1931), 106-7. On Malick’s adaptation of the poem, see Adrian Martin, “Approaching The New World,” in The Cinema of Terrence Malick: Poetic Visions of America, ed. Hannah Patterson (London: Wallflower, 2007), 215.

[3] John Smith, “A Description of New England” (1616), in The Complete Works of Captain John Smith, ed. Philip L. Barbour (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986), 1:326-7.

[4] Sandra Scham, “A Native take on Jamestown,” Archaeology 59 (2006): 29; John Noble Wilford, “Linguists find the words, and Pocahontas speaks again,” New York Times, 7 March 2006, F:1-4. For more examples of the filmmakers’ obsessive research, see Lloyd Michaels, Terrence Malick (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2008), 81-2.

[5] Kent Jones, “Acts of God: Naturally Wondering About Terrence Malick and his New Transcendentalist Epic,” Film Comment 42.2 (Mar/Apr 2006): 25.

[6] The love affair narrative was popularized by John Davis’s Travels in the United States of America (1803); see Robert S. Tilston, Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 35. M. Elise Marubbio relates Malick’s version of this myth to wider stereotypical representations of “Indian Maidens” in film; see Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 230-1.

[7] For similar articulations of the film’s mixture of historicism and romanticism, see Ron Mottram, “All Things Shining: The Struggle for Wholeness, Redemption and Transcendence in the Films of Terrence Malick,” in Patterson, Cinema, 23; Michaels, 81-2; Elizabeth Walden, “Whereof One Cannot Speak: Terrence Malick’s The New World”, in Terrence Malick: Film and Philosophy, ed. Thomas Deane Tucker and Stuart Kendall (New York: Continuum, 2011), 199. For more detailed accounts of the film’s relationship with Malick’s interest in nature, see Mark Cousins, “Praising The New World,” in Patterson, Cinema, 193-5; James Morrison, “Making Worlds, Making Pictures: Terrence Malick’s The New World,” in Patterson, Cinema, 199-211; Mottram, 15-16; John D’Entremont, review of The New World, Journal of American History 94 (2007): 1024-5; Iain MacDonald, “Nature and the Will to Power in Terrence Malick’s The New World,” in The Thin Red Line, ed. David Davies (London: Taylor and Francis, 2009), 87-110; and Robert Sinnerbrink, “Song of the Earth: Cinematic Romanticism in Malick’s The New World,” in Tucker and Kendall, 179-96.

[8] Jones, 28.

[9] George Frideric Handel, Ode for the Birthday of Queen Anne. Kalmus Miniature Score Series, no. 1302 (New York: Edwin F. Kalmus, n.d.), v.

[10] In the film, Rolfe tells Pocahontas, “We’ve been invited to England. By the King and Queen. It will be a royal audience for your honour.” The real Pocahontas was apparently entertained in high society and did encounter the king, but it seems she “was never accorded a formal audience” (Barbour, ed., Complete Works, 2:260,n.2). See also Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas, Powhatan, Opechancanough: Three Indian Lives Changed by Jamestown (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 177-9.

[11] Smith, “Description”, 348, 332, 344.

[12] J.A. Leo Lemay, The American Dream of Captain John Smith (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1991), 167-220. See also David A. Price, Love and Hate in Jamestown: John Smith, Pocahontas, and the Start of a New Nation (New York: Vintage, 2003), 230-2.

[13] Smith “Description”, 332.

[14] On this stereotype, see Michael Hilger, From Savage to Nobleman: Images of Native Americans in Film (Lanham: Scarecrow, 1995), 2; Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999), xvii-xviii. For a general critique of the appropriation of supposed Native American beliefs by New Age spirituality, see Shari M. Huhndorf, Going Native: Indians in the American Cultural Imagination (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001), 164-6, who argues that the representation of Natives as “close to nature, non-hierarchical, profoundly spiritual, generous, and matrilineal” (165) denies the diversity and historical changes among the peoples of the Americas (165, n.7).

[15] Marubbio, 230.

[16] Arthur Barlowe, “The First Voyage Made to the Coastes of America” (1584), in The Roanoke Voyages, 1584-1590, ed. David Beers Quinn (London: Hakluyt Society, 1955), 1:108.

[17] Barlowe, 94, 106, 110.

[18] Quinn, ed., Roanoke Voyages, 1:16-17.

[19] Montaigne, “On Cannibals,” in Essays, trans. J.M. Cohen (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1958), 110. Malick quotes Cohen’s translation, a twentieth century work, but its sentence structure is close to that of the 1603 translation by John Florio; see “Of the Caniballes,” in The Essayes of Michael, Lord of Montaigne, trans. John Florio (London: J.M. Dent, 1910), 220.

[20] Montaigne, “On Cannibals”, 112-17.

[21]  On Malick’s elision of Powhatan politics, see D’Entremont, 1026, and Mottram, 24. For a description of Chief Powhatan’s rule, see Rountree, Pocahontas, 42-6.

[22] D’Entremont, 1025. For similar views, see Edward Buscombe, “What’s New in The New World,” Film Quarterly 62.3 (Spring, 2009): 39. Native American reviewer Leo Killsback goes further, accusing Malick of infantilizing the Powhatan by implying that they lacked social structures; see review of The New World, Wicazo Za Review 21.2 (Autumn 2006), 198.

[23] Lemay, American Dream, 116-143, esp. pp. 130-1. D’Entremont, 1024-5, notes that the real Smith painted a more complex picture of the Powhatan: alongside his praise, he described them as “covetous”, “soone moved to anger”, and “so malitious that they seldom forget an injury”; see Smith, “A Map of Virginia” (1612), in Complete Works, 1:160.

[24] Smith, “The Generall Historie of Virginia” (1624), in Complete Works, 2:138. See also Killsback, who feels that Malick’s choices throughout the film render the Powhatan as animal-like (197-8).

[25] Smith, “Generall Historie”, 258.

[26] The letter to Queen Anne was written eight years after the events it describes, and the only surviving text of the letter is a version included by Smith in his Generall Historie (1624). The story’s truth has been much debated; for a summary of the anti-Smith arguments, see Rountree, 78-82; for a pro-Smith summary, see Price, 241-5.

[27] Smith, “Generall Historie,” 151. Smith is writing about himself in the third person.

[28] This theory was first proposed by Philip Barbour, Pocahontas and her World (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970), 24-5 and 258-9, n.2. Elaborations are offered by Frederic Gleach, Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997), 118-22 and Karen Ordahl Kupperman, Indians and English: Facing Off in Early America (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000), 114, 174. Not all scholars are convinced by the theory; see, for example, Rountree, 79-80 (who believes Smith invented the story), and Price, 243-5 (who believes Smith’s story to be truthful and accurate).

[29] The following paragraph expands on ideas suggested by Martin, 216; Sinnerbrink, “Song of the Earth,” 184; Walden, 198.

[30] John Rolfe to Sir Thomas Dale, 1614, in Narratives of Early Virginia, 1606-1625, ed. Lyon Gardiner Tyler (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1907), 240, 242.

[31] Malick’s films often have a religious dimension, but the separation is in line with the film’s overall attitude toward religion, which, is, as Lloyd Michaels suggests, to idealise Pocahontas’s goodness, “inspired by prayer not from the catechism of her adopted religion but from her American Indian soul” (91).

[32] Smith attributes them to a different man, Uttamatomakkin: “Arriving at Plimoth, according to his directions, he got a long sticke, wheron by notches hee did thinke to have kept the number of all the men hee could see”, and said he had been ordered to see the English “God, the King, Queene, and Prince, I so much had told them of (“Generall Historie,” 261).

[33] John Rolfe to Sir Edwin Sandys, 8 June 1617, in Records of the Virginia Company, 1606-26, ed. Susan Myra Kingsbury (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1906-1935), 3:71.

[34] John Smith attributed some words to Pocahontas when he described his final meeting with her in England (see “Generall Historie”, 261), but their fascinating exchange is not dramatized by Malick.

[35] On Pocahontas’s vow and its fulfilment in the final sequence, see Michaels, 88.

[36] David Sterritt, “Four Books About Terrence Malick,” Film Quarterly 64.2 (Winter 2010), 79; Morrison, 204; Killsback, 200-1.

[37] For a survey of responses to this question, see Robert Sinnerbrink, “From Mythic History to Cinematic Poetry: Terrence Malick’s The New World Viewed,” Screening the Past 26 (20 December 2009) http://www.latrobe.edu.au/screeningthepast/26/early-europe/the-new-world.html (accessed June 29, 2011).

[38] Sinnerbrink, “Song of the Earth”, 192.

[39] Sinnerbrink makes a similar point about the epigraph, seeing it as warning against those who would presume to know the meaning of the conflicts it portrays (“Song of the Earth,” 193).

About the Author

David Nicol

About the Author

David Nicol

David Nicol is assistant professor of film and theatre studies at Dalhousie University. He has published several articles on early modern drama and is completing a book on the dramatic collaborations of Thomas Middleton and William RowleyView all posts by David Nicol →