The career of the screenwriter and director Terrence Malick is a curious one. Since directing his first movie, Badlands, in 1973, he has directed only three other movies—Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005). Malick is a reclusive man who doesn't give interviews, allow photos of himself to be taken, or promote his work. Yet he is a consistent favorite of movie critics, film scholars, and organizers of film festivals. Each of his movies is in a completely different genre. Badlands is a crime-spree movie based on the case of Charles Starkweather and his 14 year-old girl friend Caril Ann Fugate, who went on a similar crime spree in 1958. Days of Heaven is a love-and-betrayal story set in early-20th century rural Texas that bears clear resemblances to Henry James's The Wings of the Dove. The Thin Red Line is a World War II combat movie set during the battle of Guadalcanal in the Pacific.
The script of Malick's fourth movie, The New World, which is about the well-known story of Pocahontas and Capt. John Smith, was completed in the late 1970's. Yet it was nearly twenty years before the movie was filmed and released, in 2005. At the time I had seen only Days of Heaven, and I was most impressed by its look (it was photographed by the great Nestor Almendros) and its distinctive style. Reviews of The New World piqued my curiosity, particularly the one by Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle—one of the best-written movie reviews I've ever read—who chose it as the best movie of 2005. But not being a particular fan of movies about American history, I was not enthusiastic about the movie's subject. I recently got a chance to watch The New World, and I'm only sorry that I waited so long.
From its opening images, The New World is a visual marvel. It begins with the arrival of the English colonists in Virginia as seen by the Native Americans on the shore. Malick captures the arrival in images that emphasize its strangeness to the natives. The boats appearing suddenly in the clear, unbroken blue of the sea might as well be alien spaceships in a science fiction movie arriving unannounced from a clear blue sky, so bizarre does the event, as shown from the point of view of the natives, seem. When the colonists disembark, their unvarying dress, with its black fabric and tall hats, might be the military uniforms of alien beings from a distant galaxy. And the metal armor and Cavalier hats of the soldiers resemble the carapaces of insect- or robot-like creatures from outer space. The natives, who moments before had been frolicking in the tall grass, creep up gingerly to these people and touch them and knock on their armor before accepting that they are indeed human beings.
The Native Americans in The New World are depicted with what appears to be painstaking authenticity. Their dress, their dwellings, their customs, their social system—all the accouterments of their culture are presented with almost documentary precision. The uncorrupted nature of their existence may be somewhat exaggerated in accord with Rousseau's concept of the noble savage, but the detail with which the Native Americans are drawn always makes them seem more than just an idealized construct.
Relations between the two groups are at first friendly. With the help of the natives, the British establish a rudimentary community before their leader (Christopher Plummer) sails back to England for more supplies, leaving Capt. John Smith (Colin Farrell) in charge. When the expedition fails to return before autumn and their supplies are nearly exhausted, Smith sails upriver to the winter home of the natives to seek help from them. What follows is an extended idyll with the love affair between Smith and the chief's favorite daughter, Pocahontas (Q'orianka Kilcher), at its center.
When Smith does return to the fort, he finds that order has broken down, that he has in his absence been deposed as leader of the colonists and replaced with a kind of oppressive totalitarianism. Relations between the Native Americans and the settlers have also deteriorated. The natives have at last comprehended the expansionist aims of the English, and the English, who once referred to the Native Americans as "the naturals," now disparagingly call them "the savages." Each side now considers the other the enemy, and the colonists' dwellings have become a stockade fortified against attack.
Pocahontas, exiled by her father for what he sees as her betrayal of her people, takes refuge at the fort, where she is sheltered but treated coldly by the colonists. When the ships from England finally return, Smith has been recalled by the king to lead another sea expedition, this time in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Before he departs, he leaves instructions that Pocahontas be told that he has been lost at sea and is dead. The devastated girl is befriended by another colonist, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), whom she eventually marries although she still pines for Smith. Adopting the dress and manners of an Englishwoman, she returns with Rolfe and their child to England, where she is regarded as an exotic celebrity, living on his family estate. She does finally encounter John Smith and learn the truth, and she at last is able to let go of her passionate emotional attachment to him.
What is most exceptional about The New World is less the story it tells, although it is a remarkable one, than the way Malick tells that story. Eschewing conventional methods of film narrative, Malick tells his story largely through a succession of almost silent images combined with voice-over narration by the three principal characters—Smith, Rolfe, and especially Pocahontas. There is very little real dialogue, particularly in the first part of the movie, and few scenes are fully dramatized in the conventional manner.
Most shots are quite brief, lasting only 3-10 seconds, and most camera set-ups are static. When longer takes do occur, or when the camera does move, the effect is all the more striking. A good example is the long unbroken take that happens when Smith returns to the fort and walks inside. The shot lasts for a couple of minutes as the camera roams all around the interior of the fort, following Smith's gaze, to show how desperate conditions are and how suspicious and hostile the inhabitants have become.
Each individual shot is almost like a beautifully composed and rendered painting. As one shot follows another, there is often little obvious spatial connection, yet there is always a subtle continuity and progression in the sequence of images as they propel the narrative onward, continuously moving it in a forward direction. The brevity of each shot and the fact that the same camera set-up is rarely, if ever, repeated indicate that each shot, and its precise placement in the orderly series of images that make up the movie, must have been either meticulously planned in advance or meticulously devised at the editing stage. Either way, the complexity of this method of constructing a movie that runs 2 hours 15 minutes in its shortest version is mind-boggling.
Frequent images and sounds of the natural world act as a unifying element. We constantly see images of water—rivers, swamps and marshes, the sea—of the sky, of plants and trees. The first sound we hear, over the credits, is the song of a wild thrush. (Later, a Native American is shown with two Carolina parakeets, now extinct, perched on his arm.) When Smith begins to teach Pocahontas English, the first words she learns are the names of the things in the natural world—water, tree, earth, sky.
These scenes of the natural world contrast markedly with the scenes that take place in England during the last section of the movie. Malick makes 17th-century England, with its oppressive gray skies, seem austerely monochromatic—a cold, damp, and forbidding place. The drab brick buildings and cobbled streets seem hard and colorless compared to the landscapes of Virginia. And the gardens of Rolfe's estate—with their rigidly formal, highly manicured, geometric design typical of the French-style gardens of the time—seem equally unnatural, uninviting, inhuman, and drained of color.
The mesmeric effect of Malick's highly visual way of telling the story is nearly impossible to articulate. I've experienced something like it before with certain films of Eisenstein, Antonioni, and Orson Welles, an effect so subliminal that it is akin almost to cinematic hypnosis. This description might make the movie sound like a sterile formal experiment in the methodology of film narrative and what Andrew Sarris calls "academic montage." But that would be far from the truth, for this is a movie with a strong human element and an emotionally compelling story at its heart.
The main character of the movie and its most fully defined one is Pocahontas, and the heart of the movie is her story. It is first of all a love story, between Pocahontas and John Smith, and that part of the film is both tenderly moving and intensely emotional. It is the story of Pocahontas finding and losing love, of her losing innocence as she gains experience, of her cultural dislocation as she moves through three distinct cultures (Native American, early Colonial American, and 17th-century English), of the universal human journey from girlhood to womanhood and finally death when she was only in her early twenties. Kilcher's Pocahontas is a gentle, sensitive, and intelligent woman who moves through the incredible phases of her life with quiet strength and dignity. It's hard to believe that Q'orianka Kilcher was only fifteen years old when she made this movie, so insightful is her performance, and so utterly authentic her portrayal of the evolution and transformation of Pocahontas.
The New World is an amazing movie because it works on so many levels. It is simultaneously a visual and a narrative work of art, taking the viewer on a journey through history, culture, and the life of one individual woman. It uses cinematic means that are almost beyond analysis or even description to bring to life a story that seems at once particular and universal. It expresses the uniquely personal vision of a film artist who is himself an explorer, a creative adventurer guiding viewers through his own cinematic new world.
The New World airs on the Independent Film Channel (IFC) on Sunday, Jan. 11, at 12:45 p.m. PST. Check local times.