[Editor’s note: Economic Measures is a new, regular column celebrating those facial and bodily gestures in film that say a lot with a little.]
By Michael Pattison
If you’re looking for an ostensibly simple dialogue exchange that also happens to be laced with a quietly devastating symbolism, you might struggle to find one more moving than the one which takes place between Smith (Colin Farrell) and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) towards the end of Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). The former lovers are briefly reunited when the Native American accompanies her husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), on a trip to England. Small talk and heavy silences culminate thusly:
Pocahontas: “Did you find your Indies, John? You shall…”
Smith: “I may have sailed past them.”
Soon after, the film enters its concluding passage, a montage cut to the prelude from Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Rolfe addresses his young son in voice-over, telling him and us that Pocahontas, the boy’s mother, took ill and died shortly before the return voyage to their Jamestown settlement across the Atlantic. Though Rolfe’s narration confirms her death, Pocahontas lives on in the subsequent sequence, in which she is seen playing with her son and dancing joyously in the grounds of their Gravesend estate.
Just as the music is beginning to swell, we are presented with an apparently incongruous image of a Native American. Played by Matthew Yeung and referred to in the end credits as a shaman, this otherwise anonymous character sits on a chair, as if posing on the throne of a European monarch, and directly eyes the camera. In the next shot, he exits the manor by bolting through a doorway and into the courtyard beyond. Confronting us one moment, he retreats in the next. Was he intruding? Is he chased? At any rate, one gesture appears to be contradicted by the other. Running through the door in a seemingly wounded fashion, Yeung’s physical vitality nevertheless plays out in contrast to that other, more celebrated doorway-silhouette, that of John Wayne at the end of The Searchers (1956).
It’s an odd moment. On first inspection it serves no narrative function. Yeung has before now appeared only briefly, on the periphery of the frame as Pocahontas alights a ship and steps for the first time onto English soil. Breaking the fourth wall, his gaze destroys in an instant what has until now been accepted as a seamlessly worked hermetic fiction. Later in the same sequence, we see an image of Pocahontas’ (imagined) grave in a present-day setting. Stitched into an otherwise conventional historical drama, both moments appear as violent ruptures. They force us out of the diegesis and contradict all notions of a harmonious narrative. Indeed, Yeung’s Native American resembles a history museum exhibit, static and lifeless – only in the next image to appear alive again, rejecting and rebelling against his own fate. The period setting is demystified.
In The New World, history records, tells and observes at the same time as it perceives, distorts and contradicts. As such, it bears during its most powerful passages the markings of an essay film, confident in nothing if not its own self-questioning. As with the violent battles that took place earlier in the film, for instance, Malick treats an otherwise finite act such as Pocahontas’ death as multifarious. It unfolds in a staggered and self-contradicting way. Edited as something that is about to happen, as something that is happening, and as something that seems already to have happened, the everyday is given urgency – and the historical is rendered immediate, even contestable. Yeung’s bounding leap through the doorway of Pocahontas’ manor seems in this way to be an active refusal of some sort – even if it is merely a refusal to be enclosed by Malick’s film.
The past and the present, the perceived and the actual, the old and the new, the historical and the mythic, the natural and the imposed – all of these and more are seen not as opposites, but as co-dependent. Because of this, The New World is able to complicate its own rueful riffs on the trajectory taken by western civilisation upon the discovery of and expansion across the Americas. In this version of the John Smith-Pocahontas fable, the romantic ideal is problematised by scientific endeavour and imperial expansion – currents and phenomena that coincided with the formation of capitalism itself. This is the essence of the heartbreak that pervades that would-be reunion between Pocahontas and Smith. When the latter remarks that he may have sailed past the Indies he had been tasked to find, he seems to be acknowledging something else entirely – a missed opportunity for moral and emotional purity.
Such notions are of course romantic in themselves. The deeper devastation, the one that makes this the powerful anti-romance film that it is, is that Pocahontas doesn’t so much reject Smith as accept that history itself would have always denied them a happiness ever after. Put another way, abstractions such as moral and emotional purity are incompatible with historical particulars. Indeed, Smith left Pocahontas in the first place because he was sent on an expedition as part of wider economic imperatives – the same imperatives, to be precise, by which Pocahontas’ peoples were to be annihilated. And somewhere amidst this terrible realisation, an anonymous Native American retreats, rejects, turns his back in disgust. Capitalism annihilates these gestures too.