Myths Abound in ‘The New World’

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History in the Movies / By Cathy Schultz, Ph.D.

It would be logical to assume that Terrence Malick’s “The New World,” the latest retelling of the Pocahontas-John Smith story, would share little in common with Disney’s 1995 animated feature, “Pocahontas.” Malick, after all, is a legendary auteur, while Disney is, well, Disney.

Logical, perhaps, but wrong. For though stylistically the films are worlds apart, there are uncomfortable similarities in the romanticized history each offers.

Take the costume notions, for one. In both movies, Pocahontas sports an off-the-shoulder, midriff-baring little number, complete with strategic slits to show off her toned thighs. Sexy? Quite. But historical? Um, no.

And while Malick’s film doesn’t have a chatty Grandmother Willow and a cuddly raccoon buddy, Pocahontas still cavorts. A lot. In fact, according to these films, Pocahontas apparently had little else to do than gambol around with John Smith, teaching him to appreciate nature.

Here are other ways “The New World” romanticizes early America history.

Q. Was John Smith such a pensive, introspective chap?

A. Hardly. The real John Smith was an opinionated, forceful soldier, who is credited with saving the Jamestown settlement by cracking down on lazy settlers who would rather hunt for gold than grow food.

Smith also had a wide self-promoting streak. He penned thrilling adventure stories of his exploits, with himself as the swashbuckling hero. It worked, though. We still know his name today, while contemporaries like Christopher Newport (who?) are forgotten.

Q. In the film, the Indians are said to “lack guile, treachery, or greed.” Is that true?

A. Far too romanticized. The movie depicts the Indians living in harmony with nature and one another. They’re peaceful, except when the English goad them. And they all play and dance a great deal.

In reality, Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father, was an astute and tough chief, who ruled by conquest over the surrounding tribes. Politically savvy and fierce in battle, his people were far from the innocent, childlike creatures we see in the film.

Nor were they primitive environmentalists. Indians worked the earth the same way the English did, only with different tools. They farmed, felled trees, reshaped the land around them. And rather than cavorting all day, everyone in the tribe worked. Hard.

Q. How did Smith get along with the Indians?

A. It was a complex relationship. On the one hand, Smith admired Powhatan, and may even have been ritually adopted into his tribe. And since the English were greatly outnumbered, and starving to boot, Smith had no choice but to negotiate with the tribes for food.

But Smith could be sneaky, promising muskets for food, for example, with no real intention of providing them. And his own letters proposed a dire fate for the natives, suggesting that the best way to treat Indians was to force them to do “all matter of drudgery worke [sic] and slavery.”

Q. Did Pocahontas really save John Smith when her tribe captured him?

A. Probably not. The famous tale of Smith’s capture by Powhatan and his subsequent release was one Smith told many times. But interestingly, he never added the bit about Pocahontas’ “rescue” until 1624, 17 years after it purportedly occurred, and years after Pocahontas herself died.

Smith also liked to exaggerate. It’s suspicious, for instance, that Pocahontas apparently wasn’t the only beautiful woman to save Smith from almost certain death. According to his writings, a Turkish noblewoman, a Cossack chieftain’s wife, and a lovely Frenchwoman (among others) also rescued him during his various globe-trotting adventures. Most of them, of course, then fell madly in love with him.

Q. So Pocahontas and John Smith didn’t fall in love? Say it ain’t so!

A. One big obstacle to the “Romeo and Juliet” love story presented by Malick is that when they met, Smith was about 27, and Pocahontas probably only 11.

But she was a precocious child by all accounts, and she and Smith did build a friendship, despite the age difference, and taught one another their languages. But their great love affair almost certainly didn’t happen. Two years after they met, John Smith was headed back to England, and Pocahontas was married to Kocoom, an Indian who died soon after.

Q. Was Pocahontas kicked out of her tribe for helping the English?

A. Never occurred. She did end up living in Jamestown, though. But only because she had been kidnapped at 15 by the English, and was held there as a royal hostage.

Her captors allowed her much freedom, however. And it was in Jamestown that she met and married John Rolfe. And, as the film shows, she traveled with him to London, and was feted by the king as a princess.

Thus Pocahontas cast her lot with the English. Sources suggest that she did love Rolfe. But her marriage was also designed to forge an alliance, and foster a peace between her people and her husband’s. It worked, at least in her lifetime.

Q. Where to find more information about her?

A. Try Camilla Townsend’s wonderful “Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma.”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois. You can reach her through her Web site at www.stfrancis.edu/historyinthemovies