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The New World and the Pocahontas Reconstruction Project

By Jamey Gallagher, with comment by Erin Thorn

The Broken Myth

[1] The entire Pocahontas and John Smith affair, one of the foundational myths of America, is broken. Whether it can be put back together again is something I would like to explore in the latter part of this essay. First I'd like to state why I consider the myth to be broken.

[2] The components of the myth are as follows: brash, youngish John Smith arrives in the New World. To save the Jamestown settlement, he must travel upriver, where he is captured by the Powhatan Indians. Smith is saved from having his head bashed in by a young Pocahontas, who urges her father Powhatan not to kill the white man. There is a romantic relationship between the two, and the relationship is inevitably doomed (they are "star-crossed lovers"). Those facts do not, of course, correspond perfectly with the historical record, but this is how the myth has been constructed for nearly a hundred and fifty years.

[3] In his book Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative, Robert S. Tilton traces how, in the 19th century, representations of the Pocahontas myth were transformed. Up until then, the stories had been about Pocahontas's relationship with John Rolfe, whom she married after John Smith returned to England, and her assimilation into white culture. During the early part of the 19th century, the story shifts and becomes primarily about the saving of John Smith and the romantic relationship between Smith and Pocahontas. The version that is currently implanted in the American cultural mind is romantic and follows the basic pattern shown above.

[4] One problem with this version of the myth is that it is narratively front-loaded. The climax of the myth, the saving of John Smith, occurs in the first instead of the third act. In the historical record, the two characters have never even met when the young Indian maiden convinces her father not to kill Smith. This sequence of events puts the burden of inventing a motivation for Pocahontas's actions on any storyteller. The four main filmed versions of the myth relieve this burden by having Smith and Pocahontas meet at least once before the famous rescue scene. Disney relieves the burden by making the climax of the myth the climax of the movie, shuffling events so that the rescue comes long after the two characters have met, gotten to know each other, and decided to jointly follow the path to peace. The more common approach is to shuffle the events after the rescue for dramatic effect, sometimes in truly bizarre ways (see the 1995 Pocahontas: The Legend, in which John Smith saves Pocahontas and is rejected by the Indians.)

[5] But a more significant problem that the myth (and the films) have to overcome is simply the weight of history. The weight of history is simply too great for this myth to survive as is. Tilton shows pretty convincingly that earlier tellings of the Pocahontas myth worked to try to "prove" the superiority of English culture and to relieve worries about the Indian question. Now that the Indian question has been given history's horrible answer, rapprochement between the two cultures seems quixotic at best. We can easily imagine a sexual or even romantic connection between a 17th century Englishman and a young Native American woman, but there are questions raised by the situation that none of the films, until The New World, even approaches.

[6] The other historical purpose of the myth, to "prove" the superiority of white or Western culture, also places a great strain on any modern telling of the story. Most representations try to alleviate that conflict by having Smith convert to Pocahontas's ways (we see this in every film except for the 1953 version), but this solution is problematic, too, since poststructuralism has proven the impossibility of simply casting off one's culture in favor of another, more appealing one.

Filmed History

[7] The myth is broken, now, in the 21st Century, because we don't know what we want it to do for us. This is a problem partly solved by the film The New World, which goes some way toward reconstructing the myth to make it meaningful for today. Before showing how The New World does this, I'd like to talk a little about how film deals (should deal, or could deal) with history in general, using Robert Rosenstone as my primary source.

[8] In Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History, Rosenstone claims: "It is time for historians to accept the mainstream historical film as a new kind of history that, like all history, operates within certain limited boundaries. . . . We must begin to think of history on film as closer to past forms of history, as a way of dealing with the past that is more like oral history, or history told by bards, or griots in Africa, or history contained in classic epics. Perhaps film is the postliterate equivalent of the preliterate way of dealing with the past, of those forms of history in which scientific, documentary accuracy was not yet a consideration, forms in which any notion of fact was of less importance than the sound of a voice, the rhythm of a line, the magic of words." (78) (see comment by Erin Thorn)

[9] This definition is most definitely a challenge to traditional notions of history and what film can do with it. It calls on filmmakers not to document history, but to explore history. I believe that this is what Terrence Malick is starting to do in The New World.

[10] By considering filmed history to be more like oral history, the storyteller is released from the bonds of verisimilitude and allowed to treat history (responsibly or otherwise) as a reconstruction. History--told, written, or filmed--is always a reconstruction, but film can look at that reconstruction differently than any other medium. Where preliterate history was concerned with "the sound of a voice, the rhythm of a line, the magic of words," filmed history should be concerned with the power of images--the use of sound and image and motion to invoke emotions and prompt reflection.

[11] Many historians would discount this view of filmed history because they see a danger in people "getting" their history from films. As Stephen Jay Gould, quoted by Carnes, puts it, "When a movie image, with all the conventions that falsify history, becomes our primary representation of a person--as has happened again and again and again--then we face a troubling situation" (31). What these critics fail to see is that historical films cannot give a "true" perception of any historical time because they cannot tell every side of every story at one time. They cannot, as books can, explore the full scope of different interpretations. They cannot incorporate every reading of a historical event into the film, and so every film is bound to be biased. Acknowledging that bias (both as producers and as consumers of film) would mean taking a deeper, more postliterate attitude toward film.

[12] In what ways, then, does The New World assume a postliterate attitude to filmed history? I would argue that it assumes this attitude in at least three ways: in its use of voiceovers, in the stunning visual nature of the movie, and in the complexity of its representations.

[13] This film is rife with voiceovers, which come from the characters of John Smith, Pocahontas, and John Rolfe. The voiceovers present us with the characters' mental states, their inner twistings, their hopes and desires. John Smith's voiceovers are mixtures of actual, recorded writings from Smith himself and more poetic ruminations on love and "the wild." Pocahontas invokes a "mother" and a "father" that serve as guardians or god-figures. Through his voiceovers, John Rolfe shows us his genuine goodness, as well as his inner sadness.

[14] The voiceovers are one aspect of the film in which we can clearly point to the filmmakers and see them doing something different with the material. While there is an attempt to tie these voiceovers in with the historical record, they are also clearly ahistorical. Some are poetic, some reverential, some religious, some solemn. They give us the meat of what the myth is supposed to mean, at least according to Terrence Malick.

[15] To me, the clearest thematic strand of the film that comes through clearly in the voiceovers is that the true new world is an interior world, the inner world that has to weather the colonial exploits of new love. This is shown clearly in the voiceovers in which Pocahontas and John Smith both question the true identity of their partners. They don't really understand each other or this new feeling that their relationship engenders. They are striking into the "wild" that Smith speaks of, the river that goes both forwards and backwards. In the end, Smith is shown to be a failed hero, the man who did not have the fortitude to brave the new kind of wild love, or as Leslie Fiedler would have it, "love in the woods." He is too tied to his culture to escape it--an interesting, very twenty-first century situation.

[16] The striking visual beauty of the film, the way that is has been shot, also takes us some way away from the historical record. The scenes are evocative, poetic, majestic, regal…. It is truly a beautiful film. But there is something at work here that goes beyond surface beauty. The editors of the film do a striking thing. They allow scenes of simple, silent being (rivers, trees, Pocahontas walking through fields) to go on and on, while they cut short the most vivid action-packed scenes. We see Smith drowning, or nearly drowning, one of the colonists as punishment for shooting an Indian, but that scene lasts for only a few brief seconds, while scenes of John Rolfe and Pocahontas walking through the fields, looking at each other, walking some more, looking at each other again, take up minutes at a time. The priority of the film is on portraying the small changes that occur during the first contact with love. It is a film that forces us to take notice of everything.

[17] The conflation of love and discovery is also noticeable in the soundtrack of the film. When the English first arrive in the New World, their ships approaching shore, the score is dramatic, ever building toward a climax that never seems to come. The very same music is used when John Smith and Pocahontas are going through their elaborate courtship in the wild. Both are moments of discovery; both are new worlds.

[18] A third thing that the film does differently with the myth is to present the characters in it in all their complexity. Earlier treatments make the romantic relationship between the two characters easy and immediate. They see each other, and they're done for. In this treatment, the romance is intense and uneasy. It builds slowly, and it eventually, inevitably, fails. Pocahontas is shown as someone struggling with all her decisions. She wants to honor the promise she makes to her father not to fall for Smith, but she can't help herself. She suffers seriously when Smith leaves, mourning him. Later, she turns away from John Rolfe after learning that Smith is still alive. All of the mixed emotions of the characters are shown through their reactions, their faces, even more than their actions.

[19] It is a vivid filmed representation, more dependent on images than words. In this way it seems to be treating the history more as "oral history," doing what Rosenstone would call, "Creat[ing] a historical world complex enough so that it overflows with meaning, so that its meanings cannot be contained or easily expressed in words" (238). This is what The New World is at least aspiring to do, and with some degree of success.

Ways Forward

[20] The New World goes a great way toward reconstructing the Pocahontas and John Smith myth, and it offers us by far the most complex representation of Pocahontas herself, but it's possible to read the movie's overriding concern with romance as a problem. There is no historical evidence for the romantic relationship between Smith and Pocahontas, although there is ample evidence that they had some kind of strong relationship. Pocahontas was almost certainly too young to have romantic feelings for Smith immediately.

[21] The New World does not present us with the only or with the most extreme possibility for reconstructing the myth. So, what other options are there for reconstructing the Pocahontas myth? I would like to offer three options for undertaking the project:

• The "truth." History is, of course, a reconstruction, but there is an ample opportunity for filmmakers to be more true to the historical record, by making Pocahontas younger, for instance, or by portraying her kidnapping as it actually happened. A filmmaker could elaborate on Smith's odd relationship with Powhatan, whom he tricks in the historical record by claiming that Newport is his father and that he is avenging the death of a nonexistent brother. The New World goes some way toward being more true to the historical record, by showing Smith in chains, by presenting the relationship more complexly, and by presenting the unfair treatment perpetrated by the colonists, but more verisimilitude would be possible. Another way The New World could have been truer to the historical record would have been in maintaining Pocahontas's dialogue during the last meeting between her and John Smith (one of the few instances that the historical lady actually speaks in the record).

• The "other side." Recently, a great deal of attention has been paid to telling the "other side" of Pocahontas's story. Strands from this enterprise include the fact that Pocahontas's conversion to Christianity and her marriage may have been enforced--she was, after all, a hostage. The rescue scene has also been read as an adoption ceremony. In 2007, Custolow and Daniel published a book, purporting to be taken from the oral history of the Mattoponi Tribe, Pocahontas's own people. The book details a much more sordid and horrible history than the one seen in recent films. While not a great book, the history offers some interesting strands. Its first line is: "The story of Pocahontas is first and foremost a great love story" (5). We are immediately knocked off our course when we learn that the love story is between Pocahontas and her father, not Pocahontas and either Smith or Rolfe. The book also pays attention to Smith's barbarity toward the Indians, and the endemic raping of Indian women. It would be interesting to get such a counter-history filmed by Native Americans themselves.

• The "race traitor." Pocahontas could be viewed as a race traitor. Leslie Fiedler calls her "the first Tom," since she sold out her race for the whites, saving them from starvation and attack. An Iraqi classmate in the gradate seminar that produced this website suggested that he had seen similar instances among Iraqi women--young women drawn to the prestige of the occupying forces. If the Pocahontas myth were to be rethought in light of the current war in Iraq, what might she look like?

[22] There could be numerous other interpretations of the myth, particularly since the historical record is so sparse and contradictory. What I'm suggesting is that any storyteller must come to this myth with a responsible agenda that takes into account the full weight of history, and that he or she could approach the material using Rosenstone's theories of the post-literate. Of the four filmed versions, I suggest that The New World is by far the closest we have to a responsible retelling of the Pocahontas myth, a reconstruction that starts to do something in the 21st Century.


Erin Thorn 2/9/11

Considering this film as a narrative, rather than a factual account of these historical events is pretty interesting, especially given our work with the Atanarjuat film. In Atanarjuat, the filmmakers produced the film to pay homage to their ancestry, and do it quite successfully -- there is no way to view that film and miss the reverence with which the actors portray that story. Perhaps The New World deserves to also be considered for this category. Though we often do not view it this way, this legend -- true, untrue or somewhere in between -- is an integral part of the mythos of "us" and therefore worth keeping in our culture. But how much liberty should the filmmakers get with this story under the guise of "dealing with the past"? Overall, the costumes seem accurate, the Native Americans speak to one another in their native tongue, and the locale is consistent with Virginia -- the story seems to be the only thing at issue here. I am torn as to how much we should produce films like this with the understanding that the act of telling the myth is a part of our culture and when we should take a stand and start telling the real story.

Carnes, Marc C., ed. Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies. New York: H.Holt, 1995.

Custalow, Linwood "Little Bear," and Angela L. Daniel "Silver Star." The True Story of Pocahontas: The Other Side of History. Golden: Fulcrum, 2007.

Fiedler, Leslie A. The Return of the Vanishing American. New York: Stein and Day, 1968.

Rosenstone, Robert A. Visions of the Past: The Challenge of Film to Our Idea of History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995.

Tilton, Robert S. Pocahontas: The Evolution of an American Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994.