On a spring day in 1607 three ships sail into the headwaters of Chesapeake Bay to establish the first English colony in the New World: Jamestown. Of course, this "New World" is quite old to the Native Americans who watch in awe from the forest as the ships disgorge pale men in strange clothes and metallic armor onto the shore. "The Naturals," as the English call the locals, greet the newcomers peacefully if a bit apprehensively, expecting them soon to turn around and go back to wherever they came from. Little do they know the settlers' intentions.
To stage an exploration upriver, the impetuous and headstrong John Smith, the only one in the group who is a trained soldier, is put in charge. He's promptly taken captive by Powhatan, a powerful chief. Living with the tribe for some time, Smith meets the chief's young daughter, Pocahontas. (Notably, the name Pocahontas is never used in this movie.) And when Powhatan's men move to execute Smith, Pocahontas throws herself on him, saving his life. Smith returns the favor by falling in love with her.
Because of Smith and Pocahontas' bond, the Naturals help the English survive their first winter in Jamestown. But this tentative peace is not to last. Pride, greed and a gulf of misunderstanding between the English and the Indians lead to war, which provides the backdrop to the classic story of love, loss and a tragic clash of cultures that echoes to this day.
Pocahontas is open and generous, convincing her kinsmen to help the settlers despite past fights between the two groups. She brings water to a man being punished in stocks. John Smith is urged to take Pocahontas hostage to avenge the killing of an Englishman, yet he refuses to force her to live in the Jamestown fort. In fact, Smith is reluctant to fight the Indians at all, going into battle only when it is forced upon him. Captain Newport tells his men they are not in the New World to raid and pillage. He also pardons Smith of mutiny charges, saying that the New World will offer him a chance for a new life.
Gentleness and kindness can do as much or more to win the heart of a spouse (or a potential one) as passion and fire. A poignant exploration of this concept comes as Pocahontas is forced to choose between John Smith—whom she thought was dead—and the man she married, John Rolfe.
We get a negative lesson on the power of greed when many of the Englishmen, already on the verge of starvation, would rather dig for gold than hunt for food or tend the crops.
Pocahontas practices a form of Native American spirituality throughout the story, including after her conversion to Christianity. Typical is her prayer to "Mother" at the beginning of the story: "Come, spirit, you are our mother. We are your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you." After living with the English for a while and being tutored by an Englishwoman, Pocahontas is baptized and takes the Christian name Rebecca. She then marries John Rolfe in a Christian ceremony. Still, after moving to England she continues to pray to this vague "Mother," at one point reciting, "Mother, your love is before my eyes. Show me your way. Teach me your faith. Give me a humble heart."
As one of their first acts the English settlers erect a large wooden cross in the middle of their compound. As befits a man raised in a thoroughly Christian culture, even the rough-around-the-edges Smith frequently quotes Scripture, at one point threatening the men with a paraphrase of 2 Thessalonians 3:10: "He who will not work shall not eat." As he watches the social cohesion of the settlers collapse, he laments, "Damnation is like this." Later he prays, "Lord, turn not away thy face. I have not heeded your voice."
A mutinous man is said to have been "indicted on a chapter in Leviticus." When some settlers want to abandon the colony, Smith says, "God has given us a promised land. Woe betide us if we ever turn our back on Him."
Native American shamans try to heal a wounded man using a turtle and various fetishes. An Indian is sent back to England "to see this God they talk about so much."
According to historians, John Smith was in his 30s when he fell for Pocahontas, who was probably 10 or 12. Onscreen, John is played by Colin Farrell, 29, and Pocahontas is played by Q'Orianka Kilcher, 14. While giving the film credit for remaining largely circumspect in its portrayal of the pair's romance—there are no sex scenes—it is still important to note Kilcher's young age, as they do spend a considerable amount of time making eyes at each other, hugging and nuzzling and kissing once.
Also, the Native Americans' outfits, both male and female, reveal a lot of their upper legs and glimpses of their buttocks. Pocahontas' buckskin outfit reveals a bit of cleavage and side breast nudity, and her costume in England, as was the Elizabethan fashion of the times, reveals some cleavage. Chief Powhatan is said to have dozens of wives and hundreds of children.
A man is shot point-blank execution style. During fights between the English and the Indians, men are shot with both guns and arrows. One man gets an arrow through his neck. Some Indians are blasted with a cannon. During hand-to-hand combat, men are clubbed, hacked and stabbed, but little blood or gore is seen. In an exception, we see a gory wound to a man's gut. John Smith is ambushed and shot with several arrows, which bounce off his armor. A severed head hangs from a tree.
A man is told his ears will be cut off for punishment. Another is tied up and whipped and then hung by his ankles. An Indian warrior threatens to kill John Smith with a large war club. A man's head is repeatedly dunked in water as punishment. The English burn the Indian village to the ground.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Englishmen and Indians smoke tobacco. John Rolfe becomes a tobacco farmer.
Other Negative Elements
There is talk that the starving men in the fort resorted to cannibalism.
This is definitely not the Disney version of the Pocahontas story. We get no silly Indian babe in tight buckskins mooning over a buff, surfer dude-ish John Smith. Instead, director Terrence Malick has taken us to the heart of the story. He makes extensive use of voice-overs to give us the principals' thoughts, and while this is normally death to a movie, here it works because it lets us hear Pocahontas' musings (in English), which manage to be mature yet naive, and John Smith's self-doubt and conflicted loyalties.
Malick has taken some liberties with the story as it's generally known—with the caveat that to this day scholars dispute some of the central aspects of the tale. (Historians can't even agree on her real name. Mostly likely her given name was Matoaca, and Pocahontas appears to be a nickname that means "playful one.") For example, in the movie Pocahontas is tutored by a kindly Englishwoman, but there's nothing explicitly Christian about her lessons. In reality, most sources agree that it was the Rev. Alexander Whitaker who tutored her and introduced her to the Christian faith. Pocahontas converted to Christianity and, upon being baptized in 1613, took the name Rebecca. (A massive 14-foot by 20-foot portrait of this event hangs in the Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C.)
Despite some claims today that she was coerced into converting, there really is no evidence to support that, and Malick plays it straight down the middle, showing the baptism and Christian wedding without commenting on them. He does, however, hint that the conversion was not total by having Pocahontas continue to pray to "Mother" afterwards.
He also engages in a bit of condescending, "noble savage" caricatures when it comes to the Powhatans. Smith is tempted to go back to live with the Native Americans because he found "no guile, trickery, greed or jealousy" among them. Sure, he may be simply romanticizing his time with Pocahontas' people, and Malick doesn't make too big a deal of this sentiment, but people being people, it's safe to say that those vices did exist among the Indians.
As a filmmaker, Malick finds the journey more interesting than the destination. (He managed to take James Jones' slam-bang World War II story The Thin Red Line and turn it into an ethereal dreamscape punctuated by the occasional battle.) The New World features elegiac imagery of rippling water and tree branches against the sky. Combined with a musical score that adapts motifs from Wagner's Das Rheingold opera, Malick leaves viewers with a sense of melancholy at the tragic aspects of the Pocahontas love story as well as the sense of a world about to be lost forever.