Making the Grades
If you had children during the 1990s, chances are they--and you--are far more familiar with the Disneyized Pocahontas than the historical truth. However, if you are hoping to find the real story in this cinematic tale about the famous Indian princess, you may be disappointed once again. Although this vision of The New World is devoid of mischievous raccoons (except for one taken to England in a cage), pesky birds, and detours "just around the river bend" to savor all the "colors of the wind," the facts still appear to be skewed in favor of creating a romantic adventure.
Opening as three sailing ships approach the coast of North America in April of 1607, the Susan Constant drops anchor with John Smith (Colin Farrell) shackled on her lower deck. Expecting to be hung for insubordination as soon as his feet hit land, the guilty man is surprised to be granted a pardon. Captain Christopher Newport's (Christopher Plummer) merciful generosity comes mostly in recognition of Smith's vast soldiering and leadership experience. These are much needed qualities for exploring the "new land."
Meanwhile, from the surrounding forest, members of the Powhatan tribe are carefully watching the new arrivals. Dressed in animal skins and covered in paint, they pose a stark contrast to the armor-clad European colonists. When the settlers immediately set to work constructing a primitive fort, the indigenous people fear their stay will not be short. Hesitantly, the two groups begin a relationship--one fragile enough to be destroyed by a single stray shot or angry arrow.
Accredited with the best diplomacy skills in the group, John Smith embarks on a mission to find out more about the natives. At first, his interest is seen as hostile. Then, in the immortalized moment of his near death, a young Pocahontas throws herself protectively in front of him. Not only does her courageous action save his life, but it also forms a friendship that leads to romance -- and even stronger feelings of mutiny when Smith finally returns to his starving comrades weeks later.
Gorgeous cinematography and an incredible musical score help to punctuate this over two hour-long film. The opening acts and conclusion work well, but the middle will stretch viewers who aren't happy watching long scenes of silent emotion, waving grasses, and flowing water. As well, the filmmaker often uses disjointed edits to tell the story, leaving you with the feeling you've missed something. For example, when Smith comes back to the fort with his Indian friends who are carrying much needed supplies, he asks the natives to wait outside the door. But the scene changes without the audience ever knowing if his friends and their food were ever invited in. It's hard to know if these oversights are mistakes or creative techniques.
Besides presenting a lengthy sit for young audiences, the movie also features depictions of violence. While little blood is shown, parents should be aware many characters are shot, clubbed and speared during conflicts. Fortunately, sexual content is limited to some revealing aboriginal clothing and the portrayal of older men falling in love with what amounts to little more than a child. (Q'Orianka Kilcher, the actress who plays the part is a mere fifteen-years-old, while both the lead male characters, the second played by Christian Bale, are about thirty.)
The movie casts a more serious light on the fabled female, yet the screenwriters still cannot resist the temptation to meander off into sentimental fiction, putting heartache high above history. However, the film does do a convincing job of portraying the Virginia Company's arrival in The New World as being as significant as Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.
Discussion Ideas After The Movie
Teaching ideas and topics to discuss about The New World.
After seeing this film, you may want to compare it to the few available historical facts. You can do so by searching the Internet. One site that offers a “true” view of the first interactions between the Powhatan and the Europeans is the Association for the Preservation of Virginia Antiquities. The official site of the Powhatan Nation also offers a clarification on Pocahontas.