Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The New World

The New World (5/5)

Back in high school I asked a girl who had seen The Thin Red Line whether it was any good. She responded dubiously, saying there were a lot of “shots of birds and stuff.” Then, she turned to me and contemptuously stated, “you’d probably like it.” Despite this fine recommendation I still hadn’t seen a Terrence Malick film until The New World. This was a mistake because I cannot recommend this film enough. I try to review films that are either recently released or old enough that a reader might not have heard of the film or might want to be reminded of the film. However, I review this film because the movie made a really strong impression on me.

Film is a visual medium. A surprisingly few number of directors understand this. Television and stage should be based around dialogue, but film should be visuals first. Film is much closer to painting and photography than it is theater (which is one of the reasons most plays translate poorly into film). Malick understands films are visual, and the film is noticeably dialogue light. In fact, it’s a movie that could have been shot without dialogue, and while that would have been confusing, the fact the cinematography is so perfect I still would not have cared. Watching the film I am constantly reminded of how picturesque our country really is.

The film eschews what many believe were the historical events at Jamestown for the myth that has been handed down. Most historians now believe that John Smith wasn’t going to be executed, but was actually being initiated into the tribe in what would be now viewed as a kind of hazing ritual. This was supposed to have helped relations between the settlers and the Native Americans. John Smith was also a well known braggart and liar, and had told many stories where his life was spared by a gorgeous woman who had fallen in love with him. In fact, it is likely Pocahontas was sent to the colony as an ambassador between the two people in hopes of keeping the peace.

However, it does not bother me that Malick chose the myth over history because he perfectly captures the lives of early settlers. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn describes one failed settlement after another, many Europeans finding that survival meant leaving their settlement and joining the local native tribes (which was sometimes punished by death). The winters were harsh in this new world and the English did not have the skills the Native Americans had, such as growing corn, squash, and other American foods in soil that was far less hospitable than Europe’s. Malick presents this desperation perfectly, and even alludes to possible cannibalism that may have taken place. Even when well meaning, the English are a people who rule through a strict hierarchy and are not hesitant to use the harshest means to insure order (shooting, hanging, and whipping to name a few).

The Natives are presented as a people conflicted. They don’t want to start a war, but are weary that the newcomers will soon want more land than the swamps they’ve settled. Unlike the Europeans, who have one leader whose commands filter to the rest of the people unquestioned, the Native Chief accepts input from his advisors, and ultimately acquiesces to his daughter and spares John Smith’s life. They are presented as a people who live naturally with the world around them, and do not have to put nature under their dominion, but rather symbiotically live within nature.

Ultimately, The New World is a tragedy about love and imperialism. I would have to watch it several more times to find something more interesting to say. It’s hard to watch the film without knowing that the disease that took Pocahontas’s life would similarly wipe out whole Native villages along with a vicious military campaign. The New World takes place at a time when reconciliation seemed fragile, but not impossible, and before genocide destroyed Eden forever.

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