Originally Written & Posted at Epinions.com on 1/21/06 of the 135-minute cut with some minor edits.
The story of Pocahontas has been told in many forms including a Disney animated version in 1995 about the young Indian heroine who befriended colonists in 1608 in Virginia including John Smith whose life she saved. The story is often told in a simple way and would often ignore Pocahontas' life after saving and befriending Smith as she later married aristocrat John Rolfe in 1614 as she settles into a simpler life while bringing peace between Indians and the English. Now, there's a new story that is much broader and more observant about the life of Pocahontas but it's more about the arrival of English colonists arriving to the area of Jamestown, Virginia and the aftermath. This time however, this story of Pocahontas is from the viewpoint from one of American cinema's most poetic and enigmatic visionaries in Terrence Malick for The New World.
Written and directed by Terrence Malick with a script he wrote in the mid-70s, The New World is a story about John Smith and English settlers arriving into Jamestown where Smith meets Pocahontas as the two explore each others culture that would lead to tension as Pocahontas would later meet John Rolfe. Shot on location in Jamestown, Malick goes for the same, poetic narrative approach to his earlier films for an observant and more enchanting tale of how the world changed through the eyes of a young girl. Starring Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, Wes Studi, August Schellenberg, Irene Bedard, Raoul Trujillo, Jesse Borrego, Jonathan Pryce, David Thewlis, Noah Taylor, Ben Chaplin, John Savage, Brian F. O'Byrne, and introducing Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. The New World is a haunting yet lush film from Terrence Malick and company.
It's 1608 Virginia as three ships arrive onto the unknown land led by Captain Newport (Christopher Plummer) where joining him is another captain, Wingfield (David Thewlis). Imprisoned inside the ship for mutinous remarks is John Smith (Colin Farrell) as Newport sets him free so he can join the exhibition of the land. During their reconnaissance, Newport and his crew meet up with a group of natives led by Tomococo (Raoul Trujillo) as their first meetings is slow. Then when Newport leaves for England, Wingfield takes over while Smith becomes second-in-command to take on the exhibition. Immediately, mis-communication and misunderstandings lead to trouble as Smith along with two captured natives and crew members including Jehu Robinson (Ben Chaplin) are to explore the regions and rivers of Virginia to find the tribe's chief. After a native escapes, Smith takes on his exploration where he is captured by a band of natives led by Opechancanough (Wes Studi).
Opechancanough takes Smith to his tribe where he awaits answers from his brother and tribe chief Powhatan (August Schellenberg) as the punishment is death. Just as Smith is about to die, Powhatan's daughter Pocahontas steps him and asks her father to spare his life. Smith becomes a prisoner but immediately during his period of captivity, he becomes enamored and absorbed with the culture of the natives. He also begins to befriend the worldly spirit of Pocahontas as the two learn about each others' languages while having this relationship that transcends all barriers. This period of captivity made Smith aware of the peace they live in as Powhatan decides that he should return home. Smith is taken back to the settlement his colleagues had been building where they've been struck by poverty. With Smith chosen to take over, it doesn't become easy as he is often in conflict with Argall (Yorick van Wageningen) while dealing with the starvation of other men including crazed men like Savage (John Savage), Murray (Eddie Marsan), Lewes (Brian F. O'Byrne) Thomas Emery (Jamie Harris), and Selway (Noah Taylor).
After a horrifying winter, Pocahontas comes to help the troubled settlers to give them food but Smith knows that her generosity might spell trouble. Despite their love for each other, Smith tries to give the natives things in return but more misunderstandings including the settlers refusing to leave their land lead to a horrific conflict in battle. Pocahontas is immediately banished by her father for her involvement with the settlers while Smith is also punished for his refusal to trade with another tribe for Pocahontas. Pocahontas is sent to the village that was becoming Jamestown as she becomes accepted immediately thanks to her generosity as she no longer is called Pocahontas and adopts new ideas from a woman named Mary (Janine Duvitski). Pocahontas finally sees Smith as he blames himself for her banishment and feels that if they get together, it only spells trouble. Newport returns where he wants Smith to take part on an exhibition around North America. Smith takes the job as he tells someone to tell Pocahontas that he died two months after his expedition.
Smith's departure breaks Pocahontas as she becomes an alien of sorts to the town until she captures the gaze of a widowed aristocrat named John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Rolfe begins a relationship with Pocahontas as he teaches her about the English culture while he like Smith, is enamored with her spirit. During their time, they marry and have a son while she adopts the name Rebecca. The marriage is seen as a treaty between natives and settlers after a period of conflict as Rebecca learns that Smith is still alive. Rolfe is aware of her feelings for Smith as the two go to England where she becomes an honored guest in front of King James I (Jonathan Pryce) and Queen Anne (Alexandra Malick). Rebecca along with Opechancanough and a few natives are taken to England as they are amazed at the world they're in now. With Rolfe aware of Rebecca's feelings for Smith, he arranges a final meeting between the two in his posh home as Smith is forced to deal with his own troubles and feelings for his lost love.
Now most historical moments that features a romantic subplot in films like Heaven's Gate, Titanic, or Pearl Harbor can either work or becomes a distraction. What none of those films have is the genius, narrative approach that Terrence Malick does with a romantic subplot. Since he's basing some of these ideas from fact and legend, the love story of Pocahontas and John Smith doesn't feel contrived at all and it's the heart of the story since it's about these two different cultures coming together and trying to understand one another. While the romance does lead to trouble of what was to come in terms of the tension between the settlers and natives, it helps conveys the story and what Malick is trying to say in his revisionist approach to history. Another thing that Malick does that works in this film that didn't work with other films about moments of American history is that he gets right to the point about these events and what had happened without over-dramatizing things that happened.
Plus, Malick's writing on characters reveals not just the arrogant ignorance that the English came on feeling that they own this land. Malick also reveals the natives’ reluctance into giving land to settlers since it disrupts the peace they had been living in. Malick doesn't take shots on the English because of their feelings, he knows why they try to find a new world since their land is filled with problems yet they take those problems into the new world. While the story moves slow for Malick's message to come across, the momentum he builds up does pay off emotionally and spiritually right to the end. Then there is Malick's unique narrative style that is a trademark of all of his films. The voice-over narration Malick does goes from different perspectives, mostly the perspective of John Smith and Pocahontas as they search for their own ideas on themselves and the lands. Also given some narration is John Rolfe in the film's second half in his description of Pocahontas and how he tries to help lift her spirits.
It's not just Malick's unique script that brings light to his interpretation of what happened in those times but its his direction that really is amazing. Particularly on how he slowly builds up the momentum of the story and observe the behaviors and nature of what is going on around Jamestown. Then when the film reaches its final moments in England, the feeling and mood change but not the spirit since Pocahontas and her natives are seeing the world of their neighbors and how it differs. Whereas the world that the natives live is wide open with this scenery of rivers, trees, plants, fields, and amazing sunlight. The world of England is a bit more claustrophobic upon their arrival since its more crowded and more divine in its religious imagery and richness. While Rolfe's English home does have the space that Pocahontas seem to love, it doesn't have the same worldliness that her home had.
Known for his visual poetry, Malick does something that not many filmmakers would do in capturing an epic, visual scope. Whereas most films would use 35mm for a full-film print in terms of widescreen presentation, Malick goes for 65mm where that print of film is often used for visual effects. In this film, the first since Kenneth Branagh's 1996 adaptation of Hamlet, Malick uses the 65mm for a visual scale that is undeniably powerful in each of its absorbing image. From shots underwater to the ariel shots of the world where Malick would spin around to observe every moment and every piece of grass and mud. From the steadicam, dolly shots of more dramatic sequences to the shaky, handheld camera work of the more intense scenes. More importantly, to convey the sense of realism and poetry that he wants in his vision, no artificial or light equipment was used. All the light from the sun, fires, and moons were the source. The overall result is Malick creating a film that is entrancing in its imagery while recreating an old story that is still compelling after all of these years.
Helping Malick in his visual scope is renowned Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Known for his pallette visual style of greenish colors, Lubezki takes that color to even greater use as for anyone who have seen his work including the films of Alfonso Cuaron will know that he shot this. Lubezki's lush coloring and camera work with the use of sunlight and fire brings not just the realism Malick wanted but an exquisite visual scale that is unparalleled with many of today's period films. In many of the exterior Jamestown scenes, Lubezki uses whatever source of light he can find and brings a true vision of what it could've looked like. Even in interior settings, Lubezki uses the light for shadows and to convey the emotions of the characters. Since he used no filters or special equipment, Lubezki's work in this film is truly not just some of the best cinematography of the year but its by far his most absorbing piece of camera work to date.
Longtime Malick collaborator Jack Fisk does wonderful detail in the production design of capturing the look and features that goes on into the homes of the natives and settlers. Since the Jamestown scenes are shot right in Jamestown itself, the location is truly inspiring for Fisk, along with set decorator David Erickson and art director David Crank, to convey the true atmosphere of the differing worlds of the natives and settlers. Whereas the natives' world is more grounded and natural as opposed to the poverty-stricken of the settlers' home early on and later to the more bleaker world of England and its claustrophobic setting. Along with the costume design of Jacqueline West and the make-up work of Chris Varosky, the film truly captures an authenticity and spirituality to the clothing and makeup of the natives as it brings an atmosphere that is just amazing. Even the clothing that Pocahontas wears in her meeting with King James I is exactly true to the pictures that are shown in various history books.
Whether in its 150-minute long, NYC/LA theatrical version or the 135-minute wide-release version, the editing style of Saar Klein, Hank Corwin, Richard Chew, and Mark Yoshikawa is wonderful with its use of jump-cuts, black fades, and straight cuts shows the film in its unique form in its perspective to perspective. Even as they move the film quite seamlessly from sequence to sequence without disrupting its elliptical flow. Even the sound work of sound editor Skip Livesay and sound designer Craig Berkey rings true to the way sound works in those times where everything from the hitting of clubs, cannons, and animal calls are so true where even to the point that it can make the audience jump at the mix of all these different sounds. It's truly some of the best sound work done in a film.
Then we come to the music that features elements of Richard Wagner's Das Rheingold where it's used to convey a sweeping, operatic feel to help build the momentum of the film. Also included is Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 23 for more subtle, tender scenes involving John Smith and Pocahontas. Composer James Horner does bring in a bit of bombast to his score but goes for more sweeping and subtle pieces to convey the drama and romance of each scene as he creates probably his best score work to date.
Then, we have the film's superlative, enormous cast filled with great actors from the Native American community to an array of English actors. Playing small yet memorable roles as the natives are Jesse Borrego, Alex Rice, Michael Greyeyes, Kalani Queypo, Rulan Tangen, Myrton Running Wolf, and Irene Bedard as Pocahontas' mother who brings a great presence to her worldly spirit. In small roles as the settlers, Ben Chaplin, Brian F. O'Byrne, Noah Taylor, John Savage, Jamie Harris, and Eddie Marsan are excellent while Jonathan Pryce makes a wonderful cameo as King James I with Alexandra Malick as Queen Anne.
Raoul Trujillo is excellent as the natives' interpreter Tomococo while Wes Studi is brilliant as the war-like chief Opechancanough. August Schellenberg does great supporting work as the calm, observant Chief Powhatan who knows that intruders coming to his land will bring trouble as Schellenberg does great work. David Thewlis is excellent as the ignorant, wary Wingfield while Yorick van Wageningen is wonderful as the violent but disciplined Argall. Janine Duvitski is also wonderful in a small, supporting role as Pocahontas' maternal mentor. Of the supporting cast, none is as great as the brilliant Christopher Plummer as Captain Newport whose intelligence and willing to do good in making peace with the natives bring depth to a historical character. Plummer's wariness and wisdom brings light to the man's flaw as he feels that his arrival is an importance for his own country while he doesn't want to bring trouble. It's a great performance from the veteran actor.
Christian Bale, fresh off from his role as Batman, is wonderful in his role as John Rolfe. While not much is known about the aristocrat, Bale brings a wonderful emotion to a man who is willing to form a relationship with Pocahontas as he is seduced by her spirit. Bale brings a lot of humor and heart to his role while having great chemistry with Kilcher as his character reveals that he is aware that his love is in love with someone else. Bale does great work in playing a second fiddle for a woman whose spirit only brings him a lot of warmth. Colin Farrell delivers his best performance to date as the troubled, anguished John Smith who gains a peace of mind when he meets Pocahontas while being a man who is trying to find his place in the world. While Farrell had nearly embarrassed himself as Alexander the Great in Oliver Stone's awful 2004 film Alexander, Farrell more than improves as the rugged, adventurous Smith by playing a man who is confused while finding a sense of happiness. Where in Alexander, Farrell had to be more dramatic but in this film, Farrell displayed a rare sensitivity and warmth to his character as Farrell has proven to be a really, fine actor.
The film's breakthrough and most spiritual performance easily goes to Q'Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas. While her previous work was a choir extra in Ron Howard's film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, this is truly one of the best debut performances ever captured on film. Every moment in the film, Kilcher creates a vibrancy and spirit that is indescribable. In her dramatic moments, Kilcher sells the heartbreak of her character while her scenes with Farrell, including their final meeting is filled with real chemistry that is true to their legend. There is never a dull moment from Kilcher and she is truly a young actress that should be watched.
***The Following is Additional Content Relating to the 135-minute DVD & 172-minute Extended Edition of the Film Written on 8/19/10 along with a new conclusion***
When The New World was slated for a late 2005 release. The film eventually came out in two different running times due to Terrence Malick’s notoriety for editing his films right up to the last minute. In New York City and Los Angeles in late 2005, Malick released a 150-minute cut of the film for Oscar consideration where it received a nomination for Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography. Malick would end up trimming 15 minutes of the first cut of the film for a 135-minute theatrical cut that was officially released in January of 2006. When news arose that Malick was in preparation of a much longer cut of the film, it only added to excitement among Malick’s devoted fans.
Yet, fans would end up having to wait for that extended cut of the film with a running time of 172-minutes that was eventually released on DVD in October of 2008. The New World is released in two different running time for its DVD released back in 2006 and later 2008 for North American region. The 2006 Region 1 DVD presents the film in a widescreen format of 2:35:1 aspect ratio with 5.1 English Surround and Stereo Surround Sound. Along with Spanish subtitles and closed captioning for the hearing impaired. The DVD includes only one special feature in the form of a 50-minute making-of featurette.
The making-of featurette explores the long process of making the film when production began in July 2004 and ended in November of 2004. It starts with Malick’s longtime production designer Jack Fisk recreating the entire Jamestown colony with a crew on a location nearby where the actual colony was. Taking the same amount of time the original settlers used to build the colony but with modern equipment, it was an attempt to recreate something close to what it was at the time. Even as an archeology professor gets a chance to look at the set to see how close it is as he is amazed by its look and authenticity.
The making of is set into ten parts where the second has Raoul Trujillo, who plays a Native American, also serves as a choreographer for the people cast as the Algonquian tribe. Scholars were brought in to see a language be revived as Trujillo and the rest of the Native American actors were brought into create their own personas for the film. Once Q’Orianka Kilcher was finally cast a month into pre-production, she came in to the rehearsals as everyone agreed she is Pocahontas. With the third part about the casting of Kilcher as Pocahontas, the fourth is about the recreation of the tribe with actors putting on makeup and such.
Part five is the use of the ships that was used as they’re all filmed on the rivers where the ships did arrive back in 1607. Even as cast and crew members talk where everyone is taking instructions from Malick via cell phone. Notably the film’s cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Colin Farrell is shown the swords he will use for his battle scenes and his arrival into the Algonquian village set. Christian Bale for the eighth part along with actors and crew talk about Malick’s directing style. August Schellenberg discusses Malick’s approach which is to shoot at the moment with no rehearsals and no planning as if he’s doing a documentary. Even as there’s no cables or lighting projects as Lubezki and other camera operators have to use natural, available light. Yet, throughout the fifty-minute, 10-part documentary, Malick is not seen as it is an overall, fascinating piece on the making of the film.
The 2008 extended edition of the film is presented in the same theatrical aspect ration as in the 135-minute cut along with the same sound formats. Yet, the 172-minute version is not very different from the other versions. It’s mostly an extension of the film with subtle additions and such. The film begins with a quote from John Smith about Virginia prior to the opening credits. The film also has an extended scene of Pocahontas and fellow natives swimming underwater along with a scene of Wingfield pleading to Captain Newport about not sending John Smith to confer with the natives.
A lot of the film features not just extended scenes of Smith with the natives, going upriver with other settlers, and struggling to build the Jamestown colony. There’s other scenes where there’s more emphasis on the Smith/Pocahontas relationship including a scene that follows just after Smith makes a trade with another tribe. In the theatrical version, it’s inter-cut with him playing around with Pocahontas with audiences believing it could be a flashback. In the extended version, it has Smith returning from the trade where he meets and spends some time with her. When he returns to the ship, it’s clear he’s been gone for a few days.
The extended cut also makes note of Pocahontas’ own internal conflict on her love for Smith as well as her devotion to her tribe. Particularly a small scene with her uncle Opechancanough at the Rolfe estate in England where she reveals her guilt while he offers her a brief sense of wisdom about the many worlds around her. It’s not just added scenes that includes a small scene with Roger Rees as a governor discussing John Rolfe’s decision to marry Pocahontas. There’s a bit more of Newport in those scenes as well as one scene in England at the Rolfe estate. There’s a lot of material that is small scenes including one of Lewes meeting Pocahontas when getting some fish where he would tell Argall about a trade.
It’s not just what Malick adds to the film in terms of scenery, it’s also in the voice-over dialogue from Pocahontas, John Smith, and John Rolfe. Malick adds more voice over work from Pocahontas and Smith in terms of their own feelings about the environment and the conflicts they’re dealing with. For Rolfe, there isn’t much added though one piece of dialogue about his dead wife and child is cut as it’s later revealed through a dialogue between him and Pocahontas. Another addition to the film in its extended version is more of James Horner’s score pieces as it’s only used to underplay certain sequences.
To compare the 135-minute theatrical cut and the 172-minute extended cut seems hard to grasp on. Even as they’re both the same story but with small differences. It’s not easy to say which version is better but Malick is a director that has absolute control of what he can do. He prefers to let his audience figure out which is better. Then again, there is probably no version that is better other than the fact that The New World is truly one of most mesmerizing films of the past decade.
While it may not be as good as films like Days of Heaven or The Thin Red Line, The New World is truly an astounding and intoxicating masterpiece from Terrence Malick. No matter what cut of the film is presented, it is a film that truly enraptures an old world that is resurrected into the legendary story of John Smith and Pocahontas. With a superb cast that includes Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Christopher Plummer, and Q’orianka Kilcher, it’s a film that recalls the beauty of the 17th Century as well as the discovery of something new. In the end, The New World is one of the most compelling films ever made and from one of the greatest directors out there in Terrence Malick.
Terrence Malick Reviews: Badlands - Days of Heaven - The Thin Red Line - The Tree of Life - To the Wonder - Knight of Cups - Voyage of Time: The IMAX Experience - (Voyage of Time: Life's Journey) - Song to Song - A Hidden Life - (The Way of the Wind)
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