Terrence Malick’s films are filled with disappointment. Frequently, a central character in his films fails to realize a cherished ideal. Life does not measure up to the shining vision they have carried in their hearts. They feel let down, betrayed by the realities of their lives as they have unfolded.
In Terrence Malick’s “The New World” Captain John Smith arrives in Virginia with a boatload of Colonists and a heart full of vision for his life.
Smith crystallizes his vision in a voice-over in which he describes his dream of,
A world equal to our hopes. A land where one might wash one’s soul pure. Rise to one’s true stature. 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 labor. We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self reliance our virtues We shall have no landlords to wrack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labor.
By the end of the film it has become clear that Smith has failed to fuflill his vision.
Pocahontas/Rebecca asks John,
Did you find your Indies John?
John pauses before answering and then with deep sadness replies,
I may have sailed past them.
His vision of establishing a “New World” in Virginia has failed. He has not been able to form the community of equality and freedom of which he dreamed.
Smith failed to recognize that the embodiment of his vision was offered to him in the person of Pocahontas. The love Pocahontas and John Smith shared was “The New World” he sought. When they first meet he says,
I was a dead man. Now I live. You, my light, my America. Love. Shall we deny it when it visits us? Shall we not take what we are given…There is only this, all else is unreal.
But he does “deny it.” He gives up the simple pure love he has discovered with Pocahontas in exchange for social duty, the excitement of exploration in mysterious lands, and the possibility of preferment from the King. His ambition defeats his experience of love.
In the end, back in England, he confesses to Pocahontas, who is now Rebecca,
I thought it was a dream, what we knew in the forest. It’s the only truth.
But the disappointing journey John Smith takes is not the only journey in the film. The true voyage is the one traveled by Pocahontas. She begins the film as the embodiment of that light and freedom for which John Smith longed. She travels through terrible tragedy and suffering. She is uprooted from her land and carried away to a distant and foreign place that must have seemed to her a completely different world from that with which she was familiar.
Pocahontas is cut off from her family. She loses her home. She has no access to the man she has truly loved. All of the familiar supports in which she has located her sense of identity are gone. She is forced to wear unusual clothing and has to change her name. It would seem that Rebecca/Pocahontas has lost everything that could support a secure sense of who she is. She appears to be the archetypal victim of colonial forces.
And yet, even in England, surrounded by a formal, manicured landscape that bears no similarity to her home, Rebecca affirms in a whispered voice-over the true nature of the luminous vision for which our hearts long when she says,
now I know where You live.
She has discovered that the glory is not confined to a particular geographical location any more than it is bound up in one human relationship. “The New World” we seek is not a physical place; it is a state of being.
Pocahontas has carried within herself the Love that is “the only truth” of her life. Even death cannot defeat the reality of that love which permeates all of existence. The horrors Pocahontas has experienced, the physical confinement of her life in the strange surroundings of England, cannot destroy that inner freedom and beauty that are her true nature.
Disappointment in Malick’s films comes only to those characters who are determined to seek fulfillment in the external world. Those who lose everything are the ones who fail to grasp the inner beauty of love that is the true calling of all human beings.