Terrence Malick’s brilliant lyrical masterpiece, The New World begins in the wilds of Virginia in 1607 as the new world is about to be accosted by explorers from England.
The movie tells the story of the romantic relationship between Captain John Smith and the young tribal princess, Pocahontas.
The opening twenty-five minutes of the film are filled with stunningly beautiful scenes of water, wilderness, cultivated crops, trees, birds, and animals. The sound track is permeated with the sound of birdsong, running water, and wind accompanied by the haunting melody of the prelude to Richard Wagner’s Das Rheingold.
Pocahontas is at one with the natural world she inhabits. She flows with the movement of branches and grasses blown by the wind and blends into the lush foliage that fills the screen. She lives at peace in this wilderness world; her life unfolds in perfect harmony with the world in which she and her people live with gentleness and respect.
This tranquil world is predictably unsettled by the arrival of the strange creatures who come on floating islands from across the sea. The harmony of Pocahontas’ life is shattered when she falls in love with Captain Smith, only to have him disappear back across the ocean that brought him and to be told eventually that he has died.
Pocahontas is taken into the settler world. She gives up her natural animal skin costume and is dressed as an elegant English lady. Her hair, once flowing freely is bound in braids and a bun. She walks stiffly in the formal shoes to which she is unaccustomed.
As her grief at captain John’s death slowly assuages, Pocahontas marries John Rolfe, a gentle and compassionate tobacco planter and pioneer in the Jamestown, Virginia settlement.
Pocahontas and Rolfe live together with their young son, working the fields and she begins to regain some of her harmony with the land and livestock of their farm. But again, the tranquility of her life is unsettled by a summons from across the ocean. King James and Queen Anne are eager to see the mythic Indian princess about whom they have heard and she travels to London to fulfill their wishes.
The world Pocahontas encounters in England could not be more different from her homeland.
The city of London into which Pocahontas is plunged is a noisy, dirty, chaotic world. The sky is barely visible. Walls rise up on either side of cobbled streets; there is no green, no flowing water, no vegetation. Everything is cramped and closed in.
This “new world” seems like a disaster for Pocahontas. She should be longing for the beauty and freedom of home. She must be heart sick for the freedom of the wilderness paradise from which she has been removed. It is hard to imagine that this tight foreign world will not destroy the young princess from the wilds of Virginia.
But, as we watch Pocahontas find her way through the crowds and navigate a formal audience with the king and queen at the elegant Whitehall Palace, we notice something in her face and her bearing. In whatever environment she finds herself, Pocahontas remains poised and calm. A slight smile plays at the corners of her mouth.
Near the end of the film Pocahontas plays in the gardens of Heacham Hall where she has been staying with her husband and Thomas their son. The gardens are incredibly formal and artificial. The lawns are perfectly manicured, the bushes trimmed in odd, extravagant shapes. This world although “natural” could not be more different from the forest Pocahontas has left behind.
But, as Pocahontas and Thomas play hide and seek around the lawns, the haunting refrain of the prelude to Wagner’s Das Rheingold returns. Pocahontas is running and laughing. Despite tight-laced gown, bound hair, and artificial setting, Pocahontas is not bound. She moves freely with the joyful energy that characterized all her movements in in the wilds of Virginia.
Then suddenly she stops, stands completely still totally alone. Her voice speaks one word, “Mother”. She closes her eyes and concludes,
“Now I know where you live.“
Pocahontas has discovered that the source of her freedom resides not in any particular place or circumstance but in the strength and peace that lies within. She has found the flow of living water that animates her life and sustains her spirit throughout the struggles and tragedies she has encountered. Pocahontas is an emblem of the heart set free by the love and beauty she has known in this life.
(for my first go at “The New World” see: https://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2011/07/06/disappointment-in-terrence-malicks-the-new-world/)