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The New World: Merging Facts and Fiction
Captain John Smith, the leader of Jamestown, is a familiar name to all. And to many, this name always brings another historical figure to mind: Pocahontas, the Indian princess. While both are famous figures, few know their historical selves. They are mysterious people clothed in legend and myth, which challenges filmmakers and authors to create their own narratives regarding John Smith and Pocahontas. The New World, a movie written and directed by Terrence Malick, is just one of these accounts. When it was first released on December 25, 2005, the movie was positively received by audiences and critics alike. The movie title, The New World, has a double meaning. Obviously, the title refers to the New World the colonists discover as they sail away from their Old World. In addition, the title refers to the new world for Pocahontas: England. Although The New World has some accurate information, it is inaccurate in portraying the harsh conditions of Jamestown, the life of John Smith, and the hostile relationship between the colonists and the natives.
The New World’s inaccuracies are woven together so that the narrative still flows smoothly. Its plot does not focus entirely on accuracy, but more on “discovery and curiosity and how the two cultures interacted with each other during this initial encounter” (Rohrer). It tells the story of John Smith, a professional soldier who meets Pocahontas after he gets captured by the Powhatans. The movie also tells the story of Pocahontas, the favorite daughter of Chief Wahunsenacawh, whose life is still filled with mystery despite her fame. As the movie progresses, it depicts the growing romance between John Smith and Pocahontas and constantly switches back and forth between their viewpoints. The movie is quite different from other historical movies about colonization, since it does not depict the stereotypical natives: the noble savages and the vengeful savage (Rohrer). There is accurate historical information on events such as the colonists’ obsession over finding gold and Pocahontas’ marriage to John Rolfe and her visitation to Britain. On the other hand, there is no historical evidence to prove that there was a spark between the two so-called “lovers.” By incorporating facts that do not relate to the romance, director Malick creates a story that merges fiction and nonfiction. Therefore, there are many details in the movie that differ from the historical facts.
First and foremost, the movie downplays the physically harsh conditions of Jamestown by omitting several details. The movie omits these hardships and only shows the healthy colonists dining on plenty of food, and water seems abundant throughout the town (“The New World”). In the movie, the colonists have quite an easy life, never really voicing any concern or worry about food and water. To these characters, food is the least of the worries as they focus more on building relationships with natives (“The New World”). But in reality, colonists in Jamestown fretted over food shortages and on many occasions, starved to death. Food was so limited at the time that each colonist was able to get only half a pint of wheat and few barley boiled with water as their ration every day (Woolley 99). Not only that, the brackish waters discouraged the colonists from drinking even when thirsty, resulting in dehydration and illnesses. William White, a colonist who had experienced these harsh conditions, writes in his journal that “the river, at a low tide full of slime and filth, … was the destruction of many of [the] men” (Woolley 99). As there was a low supply of food and water, it seems almost natural for deadly diseases to spread throughout Jamestown. Swellings, burning fevers, warres, and famines were just few of the diseases that claimed many of the colonists’ lives (Mossiker 64). Therefore, the movie overlooks their lack of food, water, and medicine.
Life in Jamestown is not only difficult in terms of resources but also in social and political life. Jamestown’s council was fairly ineffective as leaders were always bickering among themselves (Ranger). John Smith, especially, disagreed with other colonists who thought that John Smith was too cruel to the natives (Ranger). In contrast, the movie portrays the exact opposite: John Smith seems a hero-like figure who is popular among his people and tries to understand the native culture. Moreover, the movie shows few constant disagreements among Jamestown leaders and condenses all the conflicts into a single scene: a colonist kills Wingfield, one of the council members (“The New World”). However, in real life, Wingfield was never murdered; Wingfield returns to Britain after the hardships in Jamestown became too much for him (Ranger). The movie hides these strained relationships and even puts out false information such as the death of Wingfield.
The movie’s inaccuracies of Jamestown carry over to inaccuracies in the life of its protagonist, John Smith. For example, the movie portrays, at times, a colonial perspective by misleading the viewer on the role of language during John Smith’s stay with the natives. The movie shows John Smith, while held captive by the Algonquian natives, spending time with Pocahontas, the Indian Princess, and teaching her English (“The New World”). But in reality, John Smith did not teach Pocahontas English; Pocahontas taught John Smith how to speak the Algonquian language (Gallagher). This inaccuracy might seem small and insignificant compared to previous ones, but it should not be overlooked. By making Pocahontas learn English instead of John Smith learning the Algonquian language, the movie seems to depict a barbaric image of natives. The Algonquian lifestyle may have had fewer technologies and to the modern eye, the colonists appear more “civilized.” However, the Algonquian-colonist relationship was mutually beneficial.
After John Smith is “released” from the natives, the movie inaccurately describes his return to Jamestown. In real life, he is arrested immediately under the accusation of the deaths of Robinson and Emry, who accompanied Smith on the trading trip and were killed on the spot while Smith was spared (Woolley 117). Even though John Smith does get arrested in the movie, he is arrested for a different accusation. In the movie, John Smith refuses to let Pocahontas get kidnapped by the colonists and this arouses their suspicions. They believe that John Smith’s romantic relationship with Pocahontas clouds his judgment (“The New World”). John Smith had put Pocahontas, the supposed “love of his life,” before the interest of the Jamestown people, which is unacceptable as he is their main leader. Since historical facts can be a bit boring, the movie spices up the plot by transforming John Smith’s character into a knight in shining armor who saves the princess, Pocahontas, from the hands of the villain, in this case, his fellow colonists.
Furthermore, historians doubt that John Smith and Pocahontas were romantically involved. Due to the widespread Disney movie Pocahontas, one automatically recalls the so-called romance between the dashing, handsome white solider and the beautiful, exotic Indian princess. But as famous as this romantic relationship might be, it denies the negative aspects of conquest. “The New World” paints this relationship also as romantic. This “movie version” of their relationship minimizes the downside to the cultural differences between Europeans and natives (Forrest). Therefore, their romance ultimately projects the colonists as white saviors. The movie uses romance as a lens to depict “the ways in which the two cultures came into contact, questioned their identities and tried to come to a resolution” (Rohrer). The portrayal of the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas takes on a more symbolic than literal meaning. And since the romance cannot be proven, it cannot be labeled as a historical fact.
One of the main events that people conjure in their minds when thinking of the two “star-crossed” lovers, is how Pocahontas “saved” Smith from his execution. The movie includes this event as well, but as with the overall romance between the two, there is no way to prove it happened. No other witnesses besides John Smith himself were actually there to claim that the event had actually occurred (Firstbrook 220). With only one person backing up this event, it is questionable whether or not the event happened. There is an issue of credibility because the only witness, John Smith, is not a reliable source. For example, there are three different versions of the first encounter with Chief Powhatan by John Smith (Firstbrook 220). The first book John Smith wrote and published in 1624, Generall Historie of Virginia, never mentions Pocahontas and states that John Smith persuaded the natives on his own to release him (Gallagher). In the other two versions, John Smith mentions Pocahontas and gives her credit for his rescue (Gallagher). Some historians even argue that John Smith might have borrowed a similar plot from a travel book by Richard Hakluyt that was published in 1609, the same year Smith returned to England from Virginia (Mossiker 82). Since all three accounts differ, it is difficult to believe John Smith as a narrator.
Pocahontas loves John Smith but not romantically as the movie claims. Her love for John Smith is more a sisterly love. This is because after “saving” John Smith, she feels concern and responsibility for him as she spared him from her tribe (Mossiker 86). So, it is more accurate to say that Pocahontas was John Smith’s tribal sponsor and guarantor, not a lover. But the movie chooses to depict Pocahontas as John Smith’s lover. In the movie, Pocahontas loves John Smith even after marrying John Rolfe; she tells John Rolfe that even though she married him, there is someone else who has her heart (“The New World”). By portraying Pocahontas as a lovesick woman instead of a friend, the movie is further suggesting the romantic relationship between the two characters, which cannot be proven at all.
As John Smith’s time in Jamestown comes to an end, he leaves for Britain. By changing the reason behind his departure, the movie fulfills its purpose, as it was created to show the clash of cultures between the colonists and natives. Based on historical facts, John Smith, while sleeping on deck, got injured by accidentally-ignited gunpowder and left Jamestown due to his serious injury (Mossiker 134). In the movie, John Smith leaves America because the King of England wants Smith to go on his own expedition (“The New World”). The facts, however, state that John Smith left America because of his injury and the King requests the expedition after he had settled in England (Mossiker 134). In the movie, the expedition is the main reason for his leave as it is the perfect excuse to leave Pocahontas. As time drags on, John Smith comes to realize that Pocahontas is too different from him. He comes to terms with their cultural differences and distances himself from Pocahontas’ growing attachment (“The New World”). And as they drift apart from each other, their shaky relationship symbolizes the failure of cross-cultural understanding. Therefore, skirmishes between these two cultures and their unsteady relationship are inevitable.
The movie chooses to soften the hostile relationship between colonists and natives by omitting several clashes between these two groups. In the movie, the colonists’ first encounter with the natives seems like a peaceful and quiet meeting; they meet in the plains and use hand gestures to communicate and understand each other (“The New World”). When in fact, the natives ambushed and shot the colonists with arrows and then retreated (Firstbrook 159). The movie later omits the encounter between the colonists and Kecoughtans, the neighboring tribe to Jamestown. The Kecoughtans invited the colonists and performed in front of them, an entertainment custom for honored guests and a showcase of their respect for the colonists (Price 34). The colonists had a different opinion on the performance though, as they viewed the performance as additional evidence to support their misconception that the natives were primitive, childlike, and savage-like (Price 34). The movie focuses more on the colonists, making them look more superior and civilized as their hostile relationship with the natives is softened.
The brutal way in which the natives treat John Smith in the movie further downgrades the natives and hides their peaceful and friendly nature. In reality, John Smith was not treated badly when he was first captured (Firstbrook 215). The natives showed John Smith around neighboring tribes since it was their first time witnessing an Englishman. Therefore, when they encountered John Smith, they do not show fear or hostility but rather curiosity and fascination (Firstbrook 215). However, the movie chooses to portray the natives as hostile to John Smith, forcing him to march from village to village. They threw sticks, punched, kicked, and taunted him as Opechancanough, Pocahontas’ uncle, dragged John Smith, who was blindfolded and tied up (“The New World”). This instance is one of the few inaccurate moments that villainize the natives in the movie. In fact, the movie chooses to depict ordinary native villagers (women and children) as antagonistic while choosing to downplay the hostility of native warriors.
The movie fails to show that John Smith’s diplomacy towards the natives was in fact cruel, and further paints John Smith as a hero and white savior. Historically, the two main leaders, John Smith and Captain Christopher Newport disagreed on their attitudes towards natives. When dealing with the natives, Newport “wanted to be loved, [while] Smith... felt it was better to be feared” (Price 81). The movie portrays John Smith as a heroic person who is the only person in Jamestown who seems to care for the natives and wants to have a mutual relationship with them. He is the only one who defends the natives and tries to prevent other colonists from hurting the natives (“The New World”). But unlike the movie’s portrayal of John Smith, he actually tortured and captured natives (Price 81). The movie paints John Smith as a kind, respectful person who tries to gain the natives’ trust and favor. Smith’s appreciation towards the Powhatan way of life in the movie is inaccurate, as he actually thinks that the natives are primitive and barbaric. He was violent when treating the natives, even stealing their food and burning native villages (Ranger). Furthermore, the movie minimizes the negative aspects of colonization and hints at white supremacy. Natives, instead of being called “savages” as in primary historical sources, are called “naturals” throughout the movie (“The New World”). This change might seem slight, but by doing this, the movie cloaks how cruel and violent the colonists can be to the natives.
By omitting several details that show the horrible conditions of Jamestown, the movie further hides the difficult lives the colonists led. The movie also omits details and changes some details about John Smith’s life in Jamestown to project an image of John Smith as a compassionate and caring person. The growing tension between the colonists and the natives cannot be ignored as well, even though the movie overlooks this and softens it. Overall, the movie was interesting and the inaccuracies are acceptable as the movie was more for entertainment purposes than for educational purposes. It could have been done better if the movie showed John Smith’s negative qualities, not just its good ones. By not doing this, the movie makes it seem like it is hiding the other side of colonization, the one where colonists are cruel to the natives and repay their kindness with brutality. Moreover, in the movie, Pocahontas keeps on insisting that her love is only for John Smith even after marrying John Rolfe, which makes her look too reliant and dependent on John Smith. She should be portrayed as a more independent and proud person as she is the one who saved the colonists of Jamestown from hunger and improved the native relations with the colonists.