(Dir. Terrence Malick, United States, 2005)
Through the Eyes of the Other
Terrence Malick’s visionary aesthetic exists in a world entirely its own. No other filmmaker today captures the grandeur of the world in which we live quite like him. The director’s small oeuvre is marked by breathtaking imagery and celebrations of this beautiful earth. With only two (yet near perfect) films in the past thirty years, it would seem safe to say Malick also approaches his craft with careful precision and solemnity. Thus, it would only be fair to engage each of his latest efforts with a sense of reverence in hopes that the great filmmaker would enlighten us once again with his supremely unique vision.
The New World finds Malick exploring actual historical events like its predecessor The Thin Red Line. But, just like that film, we should readily expect that the director is far more concerned with the philosophical nuances of legend than adhering to strict historical accounts. His latest tells the story of the momentous collision of cultures that was the founding of Jamestown in pre-colonial North America. The film begins with the arrival of the English explorers as the natives gaze at the magnificent vessels in amazement. The scene, brilliantly set to Wagner’s “Vorspiel” to his opera Das Rheingold, beautifully captures the sheer wonder that both sides express in anticipation of the imminent meeting.
The settlers land, and John Smith (Colin Farrell) and Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) are quickly established as our prominent English players. Brought over in the stocks, Smith is already a man with few allies. Presumably anxious to regain one of his finest crewmembers, Newport immediately absolves Smith of his supposed seditious remarks and places him in a crucial leadership role. Malick wastes no time in chronicling the inception of what would become Jamestown and gives us glimpses of encounters with the natives, construction of the settlement, and early failures through an expertly edited brief sequence. We piece together the strain the new environment has had on these settlers with little to no dialogue – one of the filmmaker’s most admirable trademarks. All the while, the young Pocahontas (impressive newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher) watches from afar as this strange new settlement grows. She quickly becomes the film’s main protagonist and the eyes through which we witness this pre-American world.
When the situation for the English settlers becomes dire, Newport returns to England for more aid and names John Smith captain in his stead. Before he leaves, he charges the fearless explorer with increasing trade and improving relations with the natives. Things turn sour during an outlying expedition, and Smith finds himself held captive by Pocahontas’ tribe. In an act of grace, the young maiden steps in front of the explorer’s executioner after his intrusion has sealed his fate. Bound to her by this courageous deed, Smith, allowed to stay with the tribe through winter, becomes the girl’s pupil as she teaches him to see the world through the eyes of her people. This sequence provides the beating heart of Malick’s film. Like Smith, we too are charged with discovering and engaging this beautiful new world. Pocahontas and Smith expectedly form a bond of love as they learn the other’s language and perception of the world around them. Malick captures this blossoming romance and the character’s shared awe of nature through exquisite, copious editing. He creates his story by piecing together seconds of footage woven tightly like an elaborate tapestry.
Spring arrives, and the natives return Smith to his foreign colony. They tear a blindfold from his eyes and the dilapidated state of Jamestown stands before him. Burdened by the despair that lingers in the settlement like a pandemic, the captain reassumes his responsibilities and takes charge once more of preserving the fort until Newport’s return. Smith’s newfound allegiance pits the settlers against the natives on multiple occasions, and this seeming betrayal ultimately leads to his dismissal from Malick’s narrative seamlessly transitioning into another exploration of a different new world for the film’s true protagonist, Pocahontas. Banished by her tribe for her loyalty to the wayward captain, the girl makes a new home alongside the foreigners in Jamestown. She adopts a new name, wardrobe, and religion. Her domesticated countenance leads her into the arms of another Englishman after Smith’s departure. John Rolfe (Christian Bale), a soft-spoken and serious tobacco cultivator, falls for this fascinating newcomer and convinces her to wed him. Pocahontas (now Rebecca) eventually journeys with her husband (and son) to his native England, and Malick’s camera follows the young wife, now a foreigner herself, as she discovers this industrial new world.
Malick ends his exploration of wonder here in England as his protagonist succumbs to a fatal illness prior to returning to her motherland. Before her untimely death, Rebecca faces her former lover again but poignantly chooses dutifully loving her husband. It’s a beautifully subtle close to that chapter of innocent discovery. The filmmaker closes his film as it begins with Wagner’s “Vorspiel”, this time accompanying an unforgettable montage of Rebecca joyfully frolicking around as she used to, only now in this disparate new world.
The New World stands as an undeniable triumph of unimaginable beauty. Though the film’s creator, like his brave heroine, finds beauty in all worlds whether manufactured or natural, he bares an inclination to favor God’s original gift of nature. And, in crafting a story through the eyes of a Native American protagonist, he seems to have found the perfect medium through which to paint this magnificent vision. Seeking to tell its story largely through images and scarce dialogue, The New World proves a perfect successor to the meditations of The Thin Red Line. More than many films of this past decade (and century for that matter), it makes a strong case for the distinct visuals of film as pure art.