December 12th, 2006
Directed by Terence Malick, creator of just three films since 1973: Badlands, Days of Heaven, and The Thin Red Line, this film retells the Pocahontas story with Colin Farrell (Alexander, Miami Vice) as John Smith and newcomer Q’Orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas.
This is the third time I’ve watched this film. I like it a lot but each time I found that I liked it a little less. Now I understand that it has three parts, which I will call First landing, Settlement, and Voyage to England. I find that I love the first part and the others, less so.
The first part has all the magic that movies can have. Like a great Star Trek episode, it is about first contact with the new world America. The natives, called by the settlers “Naturals,” gather astonished on the banks of Chesapeake Sound to watch the English ships come in. All of their movements are like dancing, and nature acts as a character in its own right, full of waving grass, rustling birds, and the swirling sound of water. This part of the movie is an amazing, wordless, sensual bath.
The English and the Naturals encounter each other at first with amazement and mutual respect, but in accord with the familiar story, Captain John Smith (Farrell) is soon sent upriver in search of a fabled city. He is looking for food and gold. There he is captured by the native king Powhatan (August Schellenberg) and saved by his daughter Pocahontas (Kilcher).
Pocahontas intercedes for Smith
Farrell’s casting as Captain Smith is a serious misstep. As an actor he is thuggish and brooding with a limited emotional range. His performance consists mostly of standing around looking like Colin Farrell. His character, Englishman John Smith, speaks in Farrell’s Irish brogue, apparently because the actor was unable to master any other accent. (Alexander the Great also spoke with a brogue. Strange but true!)
How did this happen? Maybe Farrell wanted to appear in an art film, and maybe the studio wanted a movie star’s name on the marquee. But they already had Christian Bale. This film could have been a lot better if it had used a real actor in this crucial role.
In contrast, Q’Orianka Kilcher is luminous. Just 14 at the time of filming, Kilcher has an expressive face, grave dignity, and the grace of a bird. She is perfect in this role.
Malick almost doesn’t bother with dialogue in this film. It is as if he is only concerned with the personal as it tends toward the mythic. Instead of dialogue, characters are accompanied by interior monologues, expressed as voice-overs. Many will find this annoying or pretentious, but I like a movie that tries to do something different, and Malick’s films always do. I think it works but the monologues can be hard to understand. Subtitles help.
Briefly: Smith and Pocahontas (never named in this film) fall in love, but Smith returns to the settlement, which by now is a cesspit of famine and disease. The hapless settlers are saved by the naturals, who in that famous first Thanksgiving bring them food and teach them how to plant corn. This enrages Powhatan, who thought the settlers were leaving in the spring. Why do they need crops if they are leaving? He declares war.
Powhatan banishes Pocahontas for giving seeds to the settlers. She goes to live with them, but Smith soon leaves on a new voyage of exploration. In the second part, which I call Settlement, Pocahontas marries John Rolfe (Christian Bale). In part 3 she and her husband travel to England accompanied by other American curiosities, such as a raccoon and an eagle. There she is presented at court. She does not return to America.
Pocahontas at court
As noted earlier, I find the last two thirds of this movie less diverting than the first. That doesn’t mean I don’t think you should watch it. You should definitely watch it! This is an amazing movie. You don’t have to like it all to appreciate how great it is.
Malick’s other films also deserve a serious look. I haven’t seen all three of them yet. “Badlands” (1973), starring the preposterously young Martin Sheen (The West Wing) and Sissy Spacek (Coal Miner’s Daughter), is a precursor to serial-killer flicks like “In Cold Blood” and Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” I’ll try and review it soon. There are so many movies and so little time!
Sheen and Spacek