By John D. Delmar
Terrence Malick has created a work of lyrical
beauty in "The New World," an historical adventure film
about the first white settlers to colonize the Virginia Colony.
This is a poetic, flowing tribute to the glories of nature, to
the plunder and violation of innocence, to Paradise Lost. It is
the story of Barbarians invading a peaceful community and despoiling
the earth. Unfortunately, we are the Barbarians.
The film is like a panoramic landscape by Thomas
Cole, Frederic Church or Albert Bierstadt - artists who also attempted
to depict the beauty of Nature, unspoiled by Man. It is a broad,
expansive canvas, filled with light and air and atmosphere. Malick
captures the birds, the trees, the water and the glory of this
new land and its majesty.
The film opens with scenes of "the naturals,"
the Native Americans, swimming in the clean, crystal waters off
the Virginia tidewater coastline, crosscut with the visions of
explorer/settler John Smith (Colin Farrell), who is enclosed in
a rusty ship's brig. Throughout, Malick contrasts the claustrophobic,
ignorant, narrow-minded Anglo settlers with the free and natural
There are many films dealing with the winning
of the West, but not very many dealing with the winning of the
East, 200 years earlier. Disney released a popular and sappy animated
cartoon, "Pocahontas," in 1995, but the birth of a nation,
the epic and dramatic period of the early settlements, has been
Malick tries to get it right, although the
"noble native" revisionist vision is probably as distorted
as John Ford's nameless, savage "Injuns" (see The
City Review article on the Museum of the American Indian show,
"Spirit Capture,"). Malick hired a linguist to translate
the script and to teach his native actors to speak Algonquin,
a language extinct for the past 200 years. Rather than have generic
feathered and beaded Red Men wailing gibberish in the forest,
Malick hired enough academic consultants to fill a university
Ethnic Diversity Department, making sure the clothes, the villages,
the customs and even the crops were authentic (Malick had three
acres of appropriate crops planted-- squash, Indian corn and tobacco).
It makes a difference; the film has the aura
of authenticity, even though no one in the audience is likely
to correct an Algonquin grammatic error. As von Stroheim once
noted, in relation to having his actors all wearing period undergarments,
sometimes fanatic verisimilitude is as much for the actors as
Colin Farrell certainly looks authentic in
his long, stringy hair, grungy beard, and dirty puffy shirt -
either a weary Jamestown settler or a Kurt Cobain wannabe. Most
of the film, Farrell looks dazed and confused, which I suppose
is appropriate because he IS lost in the wilderness. His range
is limited, however. Frequently, he looks like he'd rather just
be in a pub having an ale with his mates.
Q'orianka Kilcher, playing an unnamed Indian
maiden, is stunning in her film debut. She was 14 years old when
first discovered. There are times when she is playful and girlish,
but with incredible maturity and depth. She shows wonder and curiosity
about the new settlers, like a girl with a new doll. At other
times, she displays the gravitas and serious demeanor of an Indian
princess, aware of her reponsibilities to her people and to her
father. Despite hostility and opposition from some of her own,
she saves the lives of the helpless settlers, who are too woebegone
and inept to know how to feed themselves, and in particular, she
saves the hunky John Smith, with whom she is smitten. Kilcher
is not a Native American (she's Peruvian-Swiss, not that it should
matter - she's an actress!), but she has the exotic good looks
of one of Gauguin's tropical Tahitian maidens. She exemplifies
the innocence of this new land - virginal and pure, but with unlimited
potential. She transforms on the screen, one moment just a love-struck
little girl, another moment a mature wife off to England.
In her expressions, in her eyes, one sees the
coming of age of a woman, and also of a new world.
The supporting cast is believeable and generally
adequate, either oafish, selfish white folks trying to survive,
or muscular, clever naturals, curious and helpful at first, then
hostile when they realize the newcomers pose threats (the first
example of NIMBY in America).
Christopher Plummer is appropriately autocratic
as Captain Newport. Christian Bale seems a bit too good to be
true as the wealthy planter John Rolfe, who marries the Indian
maiden and brings her to be presented to the Royal court like
some foreign debutante.
But the film isn't really about the actors
or the acting - it is about stunning, ethereal images washing
over the theater. This is primarily a story about Nature. It is
a love song to the beauty of our Eden. For commercial reasons,
Malick has agreed to cut 15 minutes or so of the nature shots
from the original release to create a slimmer general release
version of the film, to be added back, with additional footage,
to the Director's cut DVD. American audiences are apparently too
fidgety to enjoy beauty for beauty's sake, at least not sitting
in a theater.
Malick's cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki
(Y Tu Mama Tambien), influenced by cinematic naturalism, tries
to avoid artificial lights and CGI effects. He and Malick agreed
whenever possible to obtain a "natural" look, even in
night shots and indoor scenes. Night shots are often illuminated
with campfires; shots inside the Indian huts are pierced with
rays of natural sunlight. The characters come alive in the sun
and moonlight and flora and fauna and woods and shores where these
deeds took place some 400 years ago, on location, within the shadows
of the specters of our history.
Much of the Pocahontas and John Smith story
is presumed to be myth and romantic legend.
But Malick's beautiful film tells the true
tale of the brave and foolhardy men of the London Company who
came to live and work in a "new world." 90% of them
perished from starvation and disease in the first year or so.
Were it not for them, and their suffering and hardship, and the
naive kindness of the natives, we might not be here today.