The Pocahontas ArchiveHistory on Trial Main Page

Old Stories, New Secrets, and the Birth of History's Artistic License: Malick's The New World

Crystal Williams, University of Minnesota

[1] In 2005 Terrence Malick, the elusive American filmmaker, directed The New World, his reimagination of the John Smith and Pocahontas love story. It was filmed on location in Virginia almost 400 years after the English arrival and the founding of Jamestown. An open field, covered with tall blades of grass reaching past shoulders to the sky, and filled with an eerie silence, bears the history of the settlement. The effects of the Englishmen, who felled trees and used them to build a giant fortress for themselves, still remain in the form of flattened forest.

[2] The New World differentiates itself from previous John Smith and Pocahontas love stories with one element – secrecy. In this version the two are romantically involved, but they tell no one. Malick, and he is not the first to do so, takes liberties with the existing legend. At the same time, his filmmaking tactics revolve around authenticity, providing the audience with a false sense of historical truth. We afford Malick an artistic license that we would not, in most cases, grant to the historian. We comfort ourselves, as viewers, by admitting that what we see on screen need not be truthful. Why do we separate history from artistic reinvention? Can we justify Terrence Malick's alterations to an historic event already distorted by 400 years of interpretation? More importantly, do Malick's intentions prove more or less important than our need to classify and explain The New World as a historical document?

[3] The New World starts with the arrival of three ships -- the Susan Constant, the God Speed and the Discovery (Hoobler 2006). When we first see John Smith, his hands are tied together (he'd been charged with mutiny during the voyage), and he crouches in the bowels of one of these vessels. He peers upwards toward the deck of the ship and senses that land must be near. As an explorer, his excitement rests with discovery, yet he arrives in America as a prisoner and as an outcast.

[4] Captain John Smith never suffers serious damage from the mutiny charge (the English let him go about ten minutes into the film), and he quickly gains rank in the Jamestown settlement. When supplies run low, Captain Newport decides to return to England for reinforcements. He puts Smith in charge of a reconnaissance mission – find the Savage King and negotiate. Without help from the Natives, the men left behind in Jamestown will most likely perish. The two races interacted in small bursts when the English first arrived, but after the first contact the Native Americans quickly disappeared. Smith and his chosen men, along with two captured Natives, head north, where Terrence Malick's vision really starts to take shape.

I: The Making of The New World

[5] Pre-production started on The New World in 2004. Malick reconnected with Director of Photography and friend Emmanuel Lubezki. They originally met when working on the early stages of a film about Che Guevara -- a project Malick eventually dropped. (It was later picked up by director Steven Soderbergh, who debuted the seven-hour epic in 2008.)[1] Malick met with Lubezki because he had returned to the script about Pocahontas and John Smith he had begun fifteen years earlier. He told Lubezki that he wanted to tell this story, but he imposed some limitations. No artificial light, no cranes, and organic unscripted action -- similar to the Dogma movement in the mid 1990s. The Dogma "rules" aim to produce an altered sense of cinematic realism for the viewer. In a few instances in The New World the rules were broken (shooting one scene inside a Powhatan meeting hall, which contained no windows and only two doors, proved to be particularly impossible), but such exceptions usually occur, as they had with all of the Dogma films (Benjamin 2006).

[6] In The New World, Malick's vision of Jamestown relies on John White's illustrations of the Roanoke settlement – one that disappeared into thin air in 1590 after a majority of the men returned back to England for supplies (Hoobler 2006). Far more illustrations for this settlement were available than for Jamestown, and the structures we see in The New World are exact replicas of these. Evidently Malick did not want an imaginary setting created by modern artists. He wanted the environment to enhance authenticity as much as possible.

[7] Malick had all of the structures in The New World built from scratch. Since building a facade would have cost the production team the same amount of time, they chose to construct Jamestown and the Powhatan Village naturally, using only the tools that would have been available to the settlers in the early 1600s (Lynch 2006). This decision resulted in a completely organic and realistic stage for the characters whom we know so much about – Pocahontas, John Smith, and John Rolfe.

[8] Malick greatly concerns himself with the physical relationship between characters, and he worked the production of The New World around this emphasis. He kept his "English" actors separate from his "Native" ones, so their first few interactions, the explorers running into tribal warriors sent out to inspect the new visitors, or the Powhatan people capturing John Smith, seem amazingly realistic (Lynch 2006). The realism applies as well to the relationship between Pocahontas and John Smith. Malick shot all the scenes between the two actors without the presence of extras – the two were often removed completely from the set and filmed alone. Since almost none of these "alone" moments were scripted, Smith and Pocahontas's interactions prove more organic than the audience may be aware. Their performance makes the relationship feel wholly and completely real. That realism extended to the problem of language.

[9] Language posed a barrier that quite possibly determined the fate of America, and it affects Pocahontas and John Smith in a similar way. Because Malick tends to favor action over thought or conversation in his films, however, the myth of Pocahontas and John Smith works nicely with Malick's style – without a common language, the relationship between the English and the Native Americans was based on physical communication. The first English and Native encounter in the film relies entirely on non-verbal communication (a benefit granted almost solely to the medium of film), in which looks and movements, not speech, transfer meaning. For the rest of the film to progress, however, verbal communication was necessary, so The New World resurrected the Algonquin language from almost two hundred years of silence.

[10] Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, translated and recreated the dialogue for two scenes that Malick wanted in Algonquin. Malick was so pleased with Rudes's work that he added an additional forty-eight scenes to the list (some of which were originally slated to be silent or without dialogue). Because Malick favors the spontaneous, and in most cases told Lubezki to follow the actors around when they were in character, Rudes had to be on set during nearly all the filming of The New World, ready to translate small bits of dialogue at any moment (Boyle 2006).

[11] Rudes recreated far more of the Algonquin language than was thought possible. His efforts also took on new life after The New World. Once the film was finished, all his work was turned over to Pocahontas's descendent tribes. What Rudes created will now be included as part the official language of the Powhatan people, a circumstance lending an eerie sense of authenticity to what the Native American characters say and do in The New World. Paired with the recreated Jamestown setting, the cinematic realism, and the extensive spontaneity, The New World may be the most accurately fictional love story ever told.

II: Malick, Historians, and the Reshaping of the John Smith-Pocahontas Story

[12] Moments such as the spontaneous scenes between John Smith and Pocahontas dissolve the tension between Malick's austere authenticity and artistic license. The two factors work together to transmit the larger theme concerned with cultural integration. At the same time, Malick's attention to the work of historians who have spent the last two hundred years debating the validity of John Smith's reports on Jamestown and his adventures there shows that he has two beliefs about the relationship between historical fact and imaginative drama. One, that as a filmmaker, he has a right to manipulate facts in order to convey a message and to produce a work of dramatic fiction. Two, that Malick found a kindred spirit in John Smith. If Smith considered himself a historian (he labels his memoir True Relations), but altered the facts to help readers remember events and situations, then artists and historians have much more in common than we have thought, and Malick capitalizes on the commonality. He only slightly changes the John Smith and Pocahontas legend. Their romance, an idea conceived more than two hundred years ago by the novelist John Davis in 1805, presents itself in every reproduction involving the two characters (Lehigh University). Malick uses this convention as his foundation, then adds an element of secrecy to an already altered history.

[13] Malick started with the idea of romance between Pocahontas and John Smith and then surrounded them with historical facts to create a new legend. But Malick was not the first to come up with this idea. John Davis had already shaped the Jamestown epic into a love story with Captain Smith and Princess Pocahontas: An Indian Tale. He changed almost everything the reading public knew about the first "real" colony in America (although today those facts still remain hazy). Davis did a smart thing – he created a mythic and romantic origin for the American nation. His novels, entirely fictional, evolved into the story that, even today, we consider part of the Jamestown legend. When it comes to romance, Malick merely reinvented a two-hundred-year-old story. Why, then, was he so concerned with realism—no artificial light, unscripted performances, authentic structures—if he planned on undercutting it with a fictional romance?

[14] The romance between John Smith and Pocahontas in The New World is kept secret. Smith is captured by the Natives, nearly killed (or he at least thought he was), rescued by Pocahontas, and finally given an honorary tribal status. Historical documents tell us that Smith was away from Jamestown for one month in the company of the Powhatan tribe, and The New World portrays this absence quite accurately. Pocahontas saves Smith from death (they possess a bond almost immediately), and the two spend most of this month together – wandering through the woods, drifting in the ocean waters, and sleeping in the tall grass that dominates so much of the film. As viewers we observe the two together in intimate situations. The Powhatan Tribe, however, sees nothing.

[15] Smith barely mentions Pocahontas in his True Relation of Such Occurrences of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginia (or at least the first edition; his revisions allot her a much larger role), and the clandestine nature of their relationship in The New World accounts for any discrepancies raised by her exclusion from his text. We bring our own modern concerns to Malick's romance, and problems surface early on; John Smith is much too old for her (we can see this in his eyes in their first romantic exchange as well as his nervousness in later scenes); Pocahontas is an adolescent, not to mention the daughter of a "King." Interracial relationships and consorting with the natives proves problematic. Betrayal by both parties regarding their national allegiances remains a constant threat. These reasons lend a hand to the dramatics of the situation. The gaps in the factual events can be filled in with multiple causations, and Malick intentionally plays with the audience's desire to know what really happened, while simultaneously playing with historically debated events.

[16] Early in the film, we suspect that the John Smith-Pocahontas love affair verges on the inappropriate. Q'orianka Kilcher is a novice to the screen, and Malick pairs her with Colin Farrell, the notorious "bad boy." In one scene, young and delicately covered in patches of leather, she motions to John Smith with gestures that signify water, sun, wind. She wants to know how to say things in his language. He responds, in English, and patiently waits for her next question. Throughout the scene Kilcher playfully circles Farrell, but when she stops, takes a step toward him, and touches his lips with her fingers, he pauses. He manages to get the word "lips" out, but her gesture has disarmed him. He looks around the village to see if anyone has witnessed the exchange, finds that they've remained undiscovered, and smiles at her. He likes her, but it's clear that his feelings might pose a problem for Smith, and possibly for Pocahontas. Smith's awareness of trouble ahead signifies to the audience that something about this relationship requires secrecy, and we see it as such.

[17] In The New World, our peripheral knowledge of the English and Native interaction also makes the necessity for secrecy completely believable. In fact, it is almost odd that it has never previously presented itself in this manner. In the past, the relationship between John Smith and Pocahontas was an open one — in most cases they married right away, or at least they admitted their feelings for each other in front of those around them. In those versions their love signified a refusal to compromise. John Smith and Pocahontas became symbols for how we should be treating each other — without fear and with honesty. In Malick's version however, it's almost impossible for them to act this way. They are at the mercy of their situation, powerless against a force that keeps them apart. This interpretation seems much more plausible than do the previous versions, and that, in a nutshell, is the problem. The New World achieves no greater truth than previous versions featuring the John Smith-Pocahontas love affair, but it feels justified. It feels realistic. The repercussions of Malick's secret romance may create a whole new genre for the myth.

[18] The clandestine romance also fulfills our need to know exactly what happened in 1607 when the English landed in Virginia. If things occurred, important things, why didn't anyone else write them down? Malick tells us that John Rolfe, Captain Newport, and John Smith, especially Smith, were involved in situations so intricate they simply couldn't be recorded. Malick utilizes factual gaps to enhance his story, while simultaneously adhering to historical events. Malick understands that we need causation to engross us in a story. He knows exactly which facts have been disputed, then exploits them. If historians can poke holes in history, why can't he?

[19] Malick uses the gaps in factual evidence to create a moving drama. For instance, the historical record indicates that Pocahontas was captured by the English to serve as ransom and as protection from the Powhatan people. Smith opposes this capture in The New World, and his reluctance makes his men suspicious. Why wouldn't he be willing to capture a savage to help the colony? They infer that he must secretly be in love with the princess, and when he refuses to admit it he is forcibly removed from his post as leader.

[20] The English capture Pocahontas and hold her hostage. In The New World this incident allows us to see her and John Smith reunited, but now Pocahontas has been transformed. No longer wearing her native clothing, she is dressed properly in a skirt and corset. The two wander off from Jamestown, as they did in the Powhatan village, but because they cannot escape, the whole adventure loses most of its luster.

[21] The English captured Pocahontas, but not until 1613, four years after John Smith had returned to England. Malick altered the facts as they appear in historical record only with this incident (although Smith was not there at the time, and The New World relates more to his history than any other). Malick shifted a few years around, thus allowing two histories to exist simultaneously. And why not? Doing so adds to the romantic secrecy. Most of the historical knowledge of Jamestown comes from Smith, so naturally his absence lead to greater gaps in records. Malick takes liberty with the history when it does not stem from the original source.

III: The Maker of The New World

[22]Terrence Malick was born in Illinois. Or Texas, depending on your sources. [2] No biography exists for him; he refuses to do interviews (he has participated in only three over the course of the past forty years), and he is opposed to having his picture taken. What we know about him has been pieced together, and these pieces do not always fit together. We do know, however, a few general points.

[23] Terrence Malick was born in 1943 and graduated from Harvard in 1965. With a Rhodes scholarship, he traveled to England as a graduate student at Oxford University, only to drop out after his supervisor disapproved of his thesis. Malick wanted to concentrate on the meaning of the "world," as defined by the philosophers Heidegger, Hegel, and Wittgenstein; his supervisor found this attempt too simplistic (Sterrit 2006; Lee 2002).

[24] After Oxford, he became a student at the Center for Advanced Film Studies in New York. In 1973 he released his first film, Badlands, which was loosely based on the true story about a young couple who stole a few cars, ran from the police, and murdered one or two innocent souls along the way. It was a modern-day Bonnie and Clyde, set in Middle America.

[25] Malick has an indefinable relationship with youth and romance (the characters in Badlands were young and in love too) and the John Smith and Pocahontas myth aligns itself with his past works. His second film, Days of Heaven, released in 1981, was also a romance. This film takes place just after the Great Depression, and it follows a young couple as they head west looking for work.

[26] Badlands and Days of Heaven have sobering endings. Malick uses his characters to expose the imperfections of life, and events do not always go as planned. Malick's fascination with the American landscape, both in setting and idea, paired with human tragedy, led him to the John Smith-Pocahontas legend – which he started writing right after the release of Days of Heaven. Then Malick disappeared from the public eye and took this "New World" script with him (Sterrit 2006).

[27] After fifteen years of sporadically teaching between Texas and Paris, he made a third film, The Thin Red Line, released in 1998 (Sterrit 2006). Critics loved the film, and they rejoiced in Malick's return to the director's chair. The Thin Red Line was a war picture adapted from the 1962 James Jones novel. It focused on the struggles of American soldiers in World War II (Maslin 1998). Again, Malick utilized the "American" experience. The New World afforded Malick an opportunity to illuminate this concept in greater depth, one that dominates so much of his work.

[28] Malick based Badlands on actual events that occurred in Nebraska in 1958, so he has a history of building stories around factual evidence. It was favorable for Malick that almost no one knew anything about the incidents caused by two kids on the run from the law. The founding of Jamestown, as well as the John Smith-Pocahontas romance, however, exists in the minds of every American (as well as most of the English). Malick knows this, so his attention to detail and authenticity played a much larger role in the production of The New World, than it did in his previous films.

IV: Malick and The Allegory of The New World

[29]If we return to the need for causation — our biggest concern lies with why things happened, not how — Malick's intentions for The New World become obvious. Malick utilizes the Smith-Pocahontas romance as an allegory for failed alliances. Their tragic love story mirrors the tragedy of the English and Native American experience. Artists, novelists, and filmmakers have been altering the legend for centuries, yet historians never make this claim. The New World proves, with its foundation in the exact same documents as the earliest historians who concerned themselves with the Jamestown settlement, that Malick's interpretation possesses as much a claim to truth as the interpretation of a historian.

[30] Historians have been deconstructing the John Smith narrative for almost three hundred years.[3] Some say he made the whole thing up, others say it doesn't matter if he exaggerated. Regardless, his True Relation of Such Occurrences of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginia and The General History of Virginia remain two of the only documents chronicling the foundation of Jamestown. The foundation of Jamestown, along with the John Smith-Pocahontas love affair, has always transmitted an allegorical message, especially when utilized by historians. There was a time, for example, when Northern Historians felt differently about the Smith debate than did Southern Historians, which stemmed from just before the Civil War. The country found itself divided, and one half chose the John Smith narrative, the other half chose the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock (Abrams 1999). The allegory of The New World differs only with Malick's refusal to choose sides.

[31] We allow Malick to alter factual evidence because of the artistic license he possesses as a filmmaker. Sarah Green, the producer of The New World, spoke openly about Malick's claim to this privilege and his conscious choice to alter the truth (Lynch 2006). According to historians, no factual evidence exists to corroborate a romance between John Smith and Pocahontas.[4] If we allow Malick to make artistic changes, should we also do so with John Smith? As Malick's research relies on the True Relation of Such Occurrences of Noate as Hath Happened in Virginia, as does most of our knowledge about the founding of Jamestown, does this mean that The New World is an artistic expression of fact or of fantasy, which many historians now declare Smith's accounts to be?

[32] Malick never claims to be a historian, but his immense knowledge of facts, both proven and unproven, display his extensive knowledge about this subject. He characteristically takes liberties with material suffering form historical inconsistencies, while maneuvering carefully around indisputable evidence. The historians' process differs only slightly — they assemble events, test them against factual evidence, then do their best to fill in the missing gaps. If the audience wants a story, how can we fault historians for giving us one? Has Malick brought forth a new way of looking at history with The New World, or does he simply show us that no such thing exists?

[32] The New World offers a comparative view of the English and Native Americans. Malick shows us that the Jamestown settlement affected two cultures equally. John Smith and Pocahontas represent these two groups. Even the title reflects a combination. Malick creates a dreamland, new not only to the English, but new for two very different cultures. The one produced, a cultural blend that leads to both gorgeous and sorrowful experiences, should be considered new.

[33] Malick's refusal to blame, point fingers, or choose sides in the Native American and English debate changes how we look at the events, and his role as a historian. He presents a balanced story in which both sides are portrayed as gentle, cooperative, and at times, frightening. This strategy allows him to work within the framework of history while simultaneously using circumspect events to make a statement about broken promises. The romance between John Smith and Pocahontas never matures because the relationship between the English and the Natives never did. The identities of these two characters become wrapped up in their alliances to their people. Malick's concern lies with two different races, and their inability to work together.

[34] Characteristically, Malick's films, although sorrowful at times, strike an amazing balance of cultures, characters, and ideas. They possess no villains, and protagonists are hard to pinpoint. With The New World, Malick challenges the historical necessity for a winner or a loser. He proves that history is mutable, far grayer than we think, and that the need for black-and-white answers leads us down the wrong path to truth.

[35] If we allow artists to take liberty with history (which critics and audiences did with The New World because of Malick's strict adherence to John Smith's narrative), then we must allow this same right to historians. As a reader and a viewer, I crave causation — a chain of events alone, unconnected to one another, will not satisfy me. Nor will it help me to remember history, imagined or otherwise. If we blame anyone for altering the events that occurred in Jamestown in 1607, we should blame ourselves, and our need for fact and fiction to exist simultaneously.

[36] The last ten minutes of The New World always make me cry, for two reasons. One, I love cinema. Two, I love the John Smith and Pocahontas that Malick created. Part of me feels that they were cheated out of being together, but the other part knows that it never could have "worked." It's here that I say Bravo to Malick – his reimagination of the Pocahontas and John Smith legend, the pristine blend of fact and fiction, produced a beautiful love story with a strong yet modern message about the English and Native American relationship. We should not feel guilt for our mistakes; we should mourn the lost opportunity to ensure that we never make this mistake again. Malick's version of the events sends a clear message lamenting lost chances.

[37] If we look back at all of the representations of Pocahontas and John Smith since that May of 1607, none of them has been free of the intentions of artists or historians. The New World will change the Pocahontas legend indefinitely, and if only a small token of Malick's allegory gets carried with it, we should consider it a success. We should also remember that "historical" versions of the founding of Jamestown have their own story to tell. With The New World, Malick teaches us that admitting authenticity does nothing to change the fact that it remains an interpretation — and interpretations cannot hold a definite claim to truth. Terrence Malick urges us to release historians from the shackles of a world defined in ultimate truths. If they devote themselves to representation with the same fervor as himself, and let go of their claim to supreme authenticity, I'll gladly grant them all their own artistic freedom.


[1] See B. Benjamin (January 2006).

[2] Malick's many unofficial biographies raise more questions than they answer. See Hwanhee Lee (November, 2002)

[3] There is an entire section of The Lehigh University Pocahontas Archive devoted to discrepancies that surface within the historical records. See Lehigh University.

[4] This is from a quote by John Mohawk, "the indigenous studies director at the State University of New York at Buffalo," that appeared in Cinetext. See Daniel Garrett (July, 2006).


Abrams, Ann Uhry. 1999. The Pilgrims and Pocahontas. Boulder, CO: Westview Press 1999,

Barbour, Philip L. 1986. The Complete Works of Captain John Smith Volume 1. Chapel Hill, NC :Institute of Early American History and Culture and University of North Carolina Press

Benjamin, B. 2006. "Uncharted Emotions," American Cinematographer 87(1): 48-57.

Boyle, Alan. 2006. "How a Linguist Revived 'New World' Language," Jan 21.

Bozzola, Lucia. 1973. "Badlands," The New York Times

Garrett, Daniel. 2006. "The American Sublime, the Sublime American: The New World by Terrence Malick," Cinetext, July

Hoobler, Dorothy and Thomas. 2006. Captain John Smith: Jamestown and the Birth of the American Dream. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Jones, James. 1962. The Thin Red Line. New York: Scribners,

Lehigh University, "The Pocahontas Archives," Lehigh University,

Malick, Terrence. 2006. The New World. New Line Cinemas, DVD.

Malick, Terrence. 2008. The New World: The Extended Cut. New Line Cinemas, DVD.

Maslin, Janet. 1998. "The Thin Red Line," The New York Times.

Lee, Hwanhee. 2002. "Terrence Malick," Senses of Cinema.

Lynch, Austin Jack. 2006. Making the New World. New Line Cinema, DVD.

Sterritt, David. 2006. "Film, Philosophy, and Terrence Malick," Undercurrent, Issue 2.

Titlton, Robert S. 1994. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. New York: NY: Cambridge University Press.