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Terence Malick, The New World (2006)

William McIntyre

Strikingly, just as savage bodies are hurtling at John Smith with murderous clubs upraised, the New World screen goes totally black for what seems like four or five seconds, long enough to create a liminal sensation. Why? Why does director Terrence Malick stop the action as our minds are similarly hurtling forward in anticipation of one of the most familiar scenes in all American history? The answer is that the black screen makes us feel, no, makes us momentarily experience Smith's death, something that other representations do not do and other mediums (plays, for instance) can not do. The camera immediately before the black screen looks up at the savage death-dealers from Smith's prone perspective. We are in his head, looking through his eyes, at the critical pre-rescue moment. In a real sense we too are facing death when the film literally loses consciousness. Ironically, the dramatic pause of the black-out generates light, generates illumination. We "see" the rescue as we never have before. By making us doubt for a few pulsing heart beats that Pocahontas has saved Smith, Malick forces us to have of Smith the same understanding we usually have of Pocahontas. As we experience Smith's near-death, we gain rather than lose an appreciation of the rescue. Malick's Pocahontas doesn't stand on a rock or pedestal either proclaiming or defending her action; instead, we experience the significance of what she's done -- the miraculous giving of life -- first-hand through Smith. As Smith intones "At the moment I was to die, she threw herself upon me," we, with Smith, are bathed in the celestial light that transforms the Indian princess into an angel of mercy. The determined Powhatan warrior swings his mallet so close to our faces that we think we may have died, and so when we realize that we've been delivered from death, our deliverer is that much more our hero.