The John Smith-Pocahontas story is one of the most familiar in all American memory, and as much has been written on it as any other episode, event, or people in all American history. The relationship between Smith and Pocahontas is, of course, myth: Smith was almost thirty years old when they "met," and Pocahontas may have been as young as ten. It is highly, highly unlikely that they were lovers, and, since Smith -- our only source -- told two different stories about his captivity, even the famous rescue itself is now highly suspect in many quarters.
We refer you to our companion Pocahontas Archive web site for much more detailed information about the historical basis of this story, especially a collection of all references to Pocahontas on the historical record, a chronicle of the debunking of the story, and a selection of passages from the Mattaponi oral history that came out after the film.
Terrence Malick's screenplay is original, and one would have to say that his basic source was John Smith's Generall Historie (1628), which is our only comprehensive account of the first period of Jamestown's existence. Malick, though he must have been aware of the debunking, wholeheartedly accepts the origin story still so cherished in American consciousness that if Pocahontas had not saved Smith, Jamestown would have perished and with it our America. Among Malick's heightening of the traditional story line, however, is a diminishing of Smith's heroic stature, a deepening of Pocahontas's intellectual and emotional substance, and allowing John Rolfe a sympathetic role sharing center stage with the two more well known figures.
For a provocative list of what tacks a non-traditional approach to the Smith-Pocahontas story might take, see Jamey Gallagher's "The New World and the Pocahontas Reconstruction Project."