I don’t think I’ll ever be able to do Terrence Malick movies justice on this blog. Last summer, around the time “The Tree of Life” was released, I started getting interested in Malick’s style of filmmaking, which incorporates spiritual and even Christian ideas into these impressionistic, subtle, and often confusing movies. On this site, I’ve already talked about “The Tree of Life” (which I still regard as the best movie of 2011) and “The Thin Red Line”, both films for which Malick was nominated for Academy Awards. But both of those articles I wrote were after watching the movies only once. And so there’s a lot of material that I did not even think about when writing about them on “Reel Christianity” that I realize I could have (or should have) included in my blog after watching the movies again.
Nevertheless, today I’m writing about Malick’s 2005 epic “The New World”, after watching the film only once. I feel that if I watched the movie at least once more, I could make this blog a lot more profound, but let’s face it: I’m getting close to finals week in school. I don’t have time. But I will say, after watching “The New World” once, I was still able to find material from it that I can share with you today.
“The New World” takes place in 1607 and centers around the love story of John Smith and Pocahontas. So it’s like that Disney movie, except “The New World” replaces that movie’s songs and cartoonish animals with classical music and deep, spiritual monologues that only Terrence Malick can master. Now, I haven’t seen “Pocahontas” in many, many years, so my memories on it didn’t have a huge effect while watching “The New World”. But I assume that for the most part, the plots are a little similar. John Smith (played in this movie by Colin Farrell) arrives with other Englishmen exploring land on the Jamestown Expedition, led by Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer). Smith is at first in chains when arriving to the land because he had earlier made mutinous remarks, but the Captain pardons him and tells him to keep his mouth shut basically.
So Smith goes exploring through the forests of this land looking to trade with the Native Americans there, he is captured and brought before their chief. Smith is almost executed when someone comes and spares his life. That someone is a young Native-American woman; she’s not named at first, but if you read the back of the DVD cover like I did, you’ll know that this woman is Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher). And Smith is kept there alive, but as a prisoner among the tribe. But he is about to go on a journey that none of his fellow Englishmen would understand.
As Smith stays among the tribe, he—you guessed it—starts falling in love with Pocahontas, who also starts having that same kind of feeling towards him. And this is where I want to mention what I took away from this film spiritually. There are a lot of monologues in this film where John Smith and Pocahontas question God—though He is never named, maybe for a reason—and who exactly He is. (For the record, Terrence Malick has directed five films in the last thirty-eight years. I’ve seen the most recent three, and they all have these kinds of monologues.) But what was fascinating to me when hearing them is hearing that whoever God is, they believe that He is the love that Pocahontas and Smith share for one another. One of the most powerful examples of this is a monologue we hear from Pocahontas, referring to an unnamed God as “Mother”, as in “Mother Earth”:
POCAHONTAS: Mother. Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea? Show me your face. Give me a sign. … A god, he [Smith] seems to me. What else is life but being near you? Do they suspect? Oh, to be given to you, you to me. I will be faithful to you, true. Two no more: one. One. I am… I am.
These last couple lines reminded me immediately of Genesis 2, the story of when Adam and Eve are first created. God creates Adam from the dust and then says, as recorded in verse 18, “‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’” And out of Adam’s rib as he sleeps, God creates the woman Eve. And as recorded in verses 23 and 24, “The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called “woman”, for she was taken out of man.’ That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”
I am well aware that a lot of people are still debating about what defines marriage, but in the middle of it all, I still, in my simple faith, want to point to Genesis 2 as the intended relationship of marriage. God created woman to be man’s companion, his “helper”, and the two of them were to unite and become one flesh. And that love, the love that God intends for his children, is the love that Pocahontas and John Smith are beginning to feel for each other.
However, over time, the relationship starts to get complicated. Smith is released, and when he goes back to his fellow Englishmen, he is pushed into taking control of what is now an impoverished expedition, with men starving and cold and even killing each other in turmoil. Eventually, Pocahontas and some others come with supplies to help them, and when the tribal chief realizes that the English do not intend to leave, he orders an attack on them. Pocahontas is eventually captured and used as leverage, but because Smith opposes that plan, he is removed from his position in charge of the expedition. He soon goes back to lead another expedition, promoted by Captain Newport, through the East Indies, feeling remorse over leaving Pocahontas for his career.
Soon, with Smith gone, Pocahontas is told that Smith has died. But as she mourns for him, she meets another settler: John Rolfe (Christian Bale), who she eventually falls in love with, marries, and has a child with in Jamestown. Through Rolfe, Pocahontas (or, as she is renamed, Rebecca) starts feeling how Smith did upon arriving to the New World: overwhelmed, and in love. And speaking of which, Smith isn’t actually dead—the two of them eventually find each other and talk together, realizing that what they had together was not meant to last, and Pocahontas accepts Rolfe as her true love.
And that raises the question: if Smith and Pocahontas shared this love together that only God could have provided for them, why didn’t it last? Perhaps it was because Smith made the choice to leave his love in order to leave another expedition—he was putting his love aside to, possibly, serve himself. And that is something that God does not intend to happen between a husband and wife. In Ephesians 5, the Apostle Paul writes to husbands and wives to submit to one another and love each other as Jesus loves the church:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. …Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.” (5:22, 25, 33) True love, according to Paul, is submissive and sacrificial. And this is the love that Jesus showed when He died for on the cross—he sacrificed his own sinless life for our sinful lives. And this sacrifice needs to be present in a true relationship between a man and a woman, a husband and a wife.
At the end of “The New World”, Pocahontas becomes very ill and dies. But we still hear one last narration from her at the end: “Mother, now I know where you live.” Who knows if Pocahontas was really worshipping the one true God, but personally as a Christian, I know that by loving God and loving others, I will be able to see God one day. My prayer for you is that today and this week, you would make your relationships with others sacrificial—and if there is a significant relationship in your life, that you would love that person with the love that Christ has for His church, giving yourself up for that person (and God) everyday.