Perhaps the most amazing thing about Terrence Malick is that in a directorial career stretching back to 1973’s ‘Badlands’, he has directed only 4 features. ‘The New World’ is the most recent of these (2005) and is based on the supposed love affair between the English explorer & soldier John Smith and the Powhatan ‘princess’, Pocahontas. The film is otherwise largely concerned with the attempts of the English to establish a settlement at Jamestown in modern-day Virginia during the early years of the 17th century. This was to be the first permanent English settlement in what was to become the U.S.A.
Malick is a notorious perfectionist when it comes to the technical side of movie-making – especially lighting & cinematography – but he has thus far managed to avoid a ‘Heaven’s Gate’-type debacle in his career. In movies like ‘Days of Heaven’ (1978) he displayed an appetite for auteurist self-indulgence that was potentially as fatal to his career as Michael Cimino’s proved to be with ‘Heaven’s Gate’, but unlike Cimino, he got away with it.
Terrence Malick in 1999
Typically, location shoots for ‘Days of Heaven’, set in the Texas Panhandle, but filmed on the Canadian prairie, were compressed into what is usually referred to as ‘Magic Hour’; not an ‘hour’ at all, but actually about 25 minutes after the sun has set but before it actually gets dark. Malick and his cinematographer, the late Nestor Almendros, loved the quality of the light at this time of day and would keep cast & crew sitting around all day waiting for dusk.
‘Magic Hour’ in ‘Days of Heaven’
Actors queue up to work with Malick – when he returned to directing with ‘The Thin Red Line’ (1998) after a 20-year sabbatical, the cast list read like a who’s-who of male Hollywood stars. As well as Nick Nolte, John Travolta, Sean Penn, Adrien Brody, John Cusack and George Clooney, who feature in the released version, the performances of Mickey Rourke, Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Sheen, Viggo Mortensen, Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and others were abandoned on the floor of the cutting room. Malick is sometimes seen as an American who directs like a European, but whilst his movies have often had the critics in raptures, they have never performed particularly well at the box office.
In the long grass – ‘The Thin Red Line’
Environment is another key issue in Malick films; Richard Gere & Sam Shephard confront one another against massive prairie backdrops in ‘Days of Heaven’, the ensemble cast of ‘The Thin Red Line’ edge nervously through a forest of tall, waving grass as they seek out their Japanese foe and in ‘The New World’, Colin Farrell and Q’Orianka Kilcher play out their ill-fated affair in the woods and meadows of Virginia. These are small figures in large landscapes, a strategy otherwise seen in the work of David Lean – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, ‘Doctor Zhivago’ and ‘Ryan’s Daughter’. Malick loves fields of waving grass and both Farrell and Kilcher wander forlornly through them to symbolise their love for one another.
Soulful introspection and more long grass – Colin Farrell in ‘The New World’
It’s this, if anything, that makes ‘The New World’ a pretty arduous watch. It’s essentially a love story, with the travails of the Powhatan Indians and the English settlers just a backdrop to the main narrative. Malick placed considerable emphasis on authenticity, with particular regard to the Algonquin dialect spoken by the Powhatan Indians and the trappings and features of the English settlement at Jamestown. Whilst Smith’s account of how Pocahontas saved him from death when he was initially captured by the Powhatans has never been corroborated, what is beyond dispute is the fact that once Smith was recalled to England in 1614 to lead another expedition to Maine and northern New England, Pocahontas married the English tobacco farmer John Rolfe and bore him a son. She was baptised into the Christian faith as ‘Rebecca Rolfe’ after her marriage and became a celebrity when the Rolfes returned to England in 1616. She was received by King James and had a final encounter with Smith, though not as Malick depicts it in the film’s coda. There is little genuine evidence to support the notion of a romance between Pocahontas & Smith, but it is something which has nonetheless entered folklore. The Rolfes left London in 1617 to return to Virginia, but Pocahontas was taken ill – possibly with pneumonia – shortly after departure and their ship put in at Gravesend, where she died and was buried. She was probably about 22 years old. Bizarrely, there is a statue of her in the churchyard of St George’s Church, though the exact location of her grave is unknown
The statue of Pocahontas in Gravesend
The scarcity of Malick’s filmed output means that each of his movies is received with a certain degree of reverence and this is not without merit. Certainly, ‘The Thin Red Line’ is as good a movie about the harsh realities of modern warfare as you could ever hope to see and infinitely superior to Clint Eastwood’s ‘Flags of our Fathers’ which is a near-contemporary (2006) and covers a similar period of World War 2. However, whilst ‘The New World’ is a beautifully-dressed movie, the centrality of the affair between Smith & Pocahontas and the way this is presented was always going to be key. Farrell broods effectively enough and Q’Orianka Kilcher’s elfin charm is always compelling, but the language barrier at the outset of their relationship and a degree of reserve thereafter means that Malick must portray their affair in largely non-verbal terms. In that respect, there is rather too much wandering through the woods and meadows and gazing soulfully into one another’s eyes. By the end of the movie, this has, frankly, become rather hackneyed.
There are various ‘cuts’ of ‘The New World’ in existence including one lasting a few minutes shy of three hours. I’ve only seen the standard 135-minute version and – to be honest – that’s probably more than enough. For me, there probably isn’t enough substance to the narrative to sustain the film for more than two hours and a tighter cut might have helped its overall impact. Despite such carping, there is nonetheless something about this movie that has brought me back to it for a second viewing and who’s to say that I won’t return to it in a few years time?