History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

07 March 2007

More Movie Talk--Pocahontas on Film

Mary was recently talking about films as research, and that sparked an idea for today's blog. First off, I must confess that though I write Regency-set historicals, my academic background is actually in American History, and I focused a lot in Grad school on "first contact"--the term modern historians use for the initial interactions between European explorers/colonists and Native Americans. This has always fascinated me, and there's always particular interest in the story of Pocahontas. Recently, the most well-known 'version' of Pocahontas on film was the horrendous Disney animated film, which just makes me angry on so many levels. How many little girls grew up, thinking that *that* was the true story of Pocahontas? If the entire story was going to be fiction, couldn't they just have made up a female Native American protagonist and some English colonists?

Director Terrence Malick's version of Pocahontas' story, the film The New World (2005), comes much closer to the truth. I must say, I was thrilled with the film. It was so beautifully done, and does an excellent job of portraying the atmosphere of "first contact." In fact, I think the first ten minutes or so, where no dialogue is spoken and the music grows to a crescendo as we see the English ships approach the shoreline, land, and "meet the natives," is some of the best filmmaking I've ever seen. Of course, like most versions of Pocahontas' story, her relationship with Capt. John Smith is romanticized in the movie--in truth, there's no historical evidence defining their relationship, so this is all speculation. However, it *does* make it slightly more interesting, I guess!

But what really impressed me was the copious research done for physical historic accuracy. Dozens of local professional scholars consulted throughout the film's development and shooting. Still, there's a lot of gray area open for interpretation, particularly because there are no accounts in Pocahontas' own voice.

Some of what the historians DO agree upon:

*Capt. John Smith (who was about 27 years at the beginning of the story in 1607) had been a colorful adventurer who left rural England at 15 to become a French mercenary (in the Netherlands, Hungary, North Africa, Near East). Returning home a decade later, he joined the newly formed Virginia Company and accompanied their 1607 gold expedition to the site which became Jamestown (much of what is known about his life comes from his own journals-often regarded with skepticism, during his lifetime and now). His overbearing personality made him unpopular among fellow colonists; however, he was tolerated because of his abilities as an outstandingly resourceful leader, survivalist, and negotiator with the "Naturals" (he was a military professional--most of the first wave of Colonists were middle class merchants, gentlemen, and goldsmiths). In 1608, the year he became Colony president, full scale war erupted between natives and settlers. In the film, Smith is told that King James has offered him an opportunity to head an expedition searching for a rumoured Northwest Passage to the Indies, and instructs his only friend, Ben (the ship's cook) to wait a few months, then tell Pocahontas that he had drowned; in effect, setting her free. (Historically, he was shipped home to recuperate from severe burns after his gunpowder pouch ignited, rumored to have resulted from yet another assassination attempt by fellow Englishmen).

*It seems likely that Pocahontas did save Capt. John Smith's life on at least one occasion--at one point, Smith was captured by a group of Powhatan hunters and brought to Werowocomoco, one of the chief villages of the Powhatan Empire, and was laid across a stone and was about to be executed, when Pocahontas threw herself across his body: "at the minute of my execution, she hazarded the beating out of her own brains to save mine; and not only that, but so prevailed with her father, that I was safely conducted to Jamestown".

Smith's version of events is the only source, and there are some skeptics. One reason for such doubt is that despite having published two earlier books about Virginia, Smith's earliest surviving account of his rescue by Pocahontas dates from 1616, nearly 10 years later, in a letter entreating Queen Anne to treat Pocahontas with dignity. The time gap in publishing his story raises the possibility that Smith may have exaggerated or invented the event to enhance Pocahontas' image. However, in a recent book, J.A.O. Lemay points out that Smith's earlier writing was primarily geographical and ethnographic in nature and did not dwell on his personal experience; hence, there was no reason for him to write down the story until this point. Some experts have suggested that, although Smith believed he had been rescued, he had in fact been involved in a ritual intended to symbolize his death and rebirth as a member of the tribe. However, in Love and Hate in Jamestown, David A. Price notes that this is only guesswork, since little is known of Powhatan rituals, and there is no evidence for any similar rituals among other North American tribes.

*Matoaka, nicknamed Pocahontas, was the favorite child of Wahunsunacock (chief of the Powatans). She was estimated to have been between ages 10-13 in 1607. There is evidence of her having brought food to the struggling Colonists and of her having been a guest/hostage at the time of the hostilities in 1612 (there is some annecdotal evidence that she had been held on John Rolfe's plantation 30 miles from Jamestown.) In 1614 she adopted "Rebecca" as her Christian name, married and had a son with John Rolfe who had arrived in 1609 to farm tobacco (a milder strain preferred by the English, which he had transported from Bermuda, where his 1st wife had died when they were shipwrecked by a hurricane). For two years they lived in a brick cottage on land given as a wedding gift from Chief Powatan. Their marriage alliance was thought to have helped stabilize native/settler relations for the next several years.

*The Rolfes moved to England where Pocahontas/Rebecca Rolfe was presented to Queen Anne at the Court of James I as foreign royalty and and became a celebrity. In 1616, they intended to return to Virginia. First person accounts of Pocahontas/Rebecca's death never describe its cause. Most likely it was aboard ship while still in English waters. Various unsubstantiated assertions have been "broken heart" (a Victorian era speculation), tuberculosis (then pandemic), and small pox (ran through SE England in waves; however, the ship was never quarantined for it, so it seems unlikely.) Most sensible guess: pneumonia, or some simple infection which, today, would have been treatable. She was ceremoniously buried in St George's churchyard at Gravesend where there is a commemorative plaque (location of her grave now is unknown). She was believed to have been 21 years old.

*Rolfe continued to Virgina. He died suddenly, commonly believed to have been killed (perhaps by mistake) by the Powatan Confederacy at the same time as the Indian Massacre of 1622. (Capt. John Smith outlived Rolfe by 9 years and died a bachelor). Thomas Rolfe (the son) returned to Virginia as a young adult and later was accepted by the Powatan. He is credited with having brought peace between the factions for a generation.

Anyway, I HIGHLY recommend the movie, if you haven't seen it--it's definitely a visual treat, and far closer to the 'historical truth' than most movies based upon actual events/people. (photos from the Colin Farrell Fansite)


Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I'm so pleased, Kristina, that you found The New World well researched. I liked it a lot, but I'm entirely ignorant of the facts, so I've hesitated to recommend it.

And yes, the opening sequence is magical, supernal. I've actually thought of buying the DVD, just to play that segment again and again and again. No words and very little action -- the English ships drift into the cove, the Native Americans watch in stillness, the English are alight with curiosity and relief. No narrative yet -- no judgments applied. Just the filmmakers' (and the viewers') profound awe; a moment when the world is changed forever.

4:43 PM  
Blogger Kristi Cook said...

Pam, I got chills reading your description of the opening sequence--you hit the nail on the head! I DID buy the DVD, and I confess, I DO watch that part over and over.

My husband thought the movie quite boring--and I read one review where the reviewer said watching the movie was like watching paint dry. Well, maybe...if the painting was a masterpiece.

6:17 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Oh, and the music from the opening was also tremendous, imo.

I do think the narrative sometimes wanders, tho -- and wanders slowwwwly sometimes.

But on the plus side, Christian Bale's quiet performance is lovely, natural, real. And I also very much like the clothing, which seemed authentic to my untutored eye (Kalen, please see it and weigh in sometime), though I wonder about the pastel gowns at the end.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Kathrynn Dennis said...

The description of the opening sequence makes me want to watch the movie just for that. Talk about a hook! ;-)

8:13 PM  
Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

I focused a lot in Grad school on "first contact"--the term modern historians use for the initial interactions between European explorers/colonists and Native Americans. This has always fascinated me, and there's always particular interest in the story of Pocahontas.

I'm sure comparisons must have been drawn between her and Doña Marina/La Malinche/Malintzin/La Chingada. She had a relationship with Hernan Cortés. She's not been Disneyfied, and attitudes towards her remain very mixed.

4:45 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Can't comment. Haven't seen it. Can't stand the obnoxious Irishman with the eyebrows, and as a Native American myself, I pretty much avoid films of this kind like the plague. Why watch something that’s pretty much guaranteed to piss me off?

8:12 AM  
Blogger Kristi Cook said...

Point taken, Kalen--you should probably avoid like the plague. However, I will say that they brought in a lot of Native American historians and worked with several tribes on the film, and even taught the Native American actors to speak the language of the Powhatans--apparently it was quite authentic from that angle.

And it's really not Colin Farrell's movie at all--it's definitely an ensemble piece, and there are excellent performances by Christopher Plummer, Christian Bale, David Thewlis...and I thought the girl playing Pocahontas was wonderful!

9:08 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I do love Christian Bale . . .

12:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

If you sort snooze thru Colin Farrell's long bad hair days, it's a much better movie (why couldn't he be satisfied being a good character actor"?)

2:43 PM  
Blogger Jolie Mathis said...

I'm going to go rent this movie! Unfortunately, I let some of the negative reviews influence me or I would have seen it already.

I loved this post Kristina! I'm so interested in this time period.

Oh, and Christian Bale. I've loved him since EMPIRE OF THE SUN.

3:26 PM  
Blogger Kristi Cook said...

Jolie, you'll have to tell me what you think after you see it!

I think even if you *do* find it boring, there are still aspects you can appreciate. Like I said, my hubby found it boring and quite meandering, but still has great things to say about certain elements.

3:52 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Ok, I asked a friend and fellow historical accuracy freak about this flick and she said it looked extremely accurate to her, but that it was as boring as BARRY LYNDON, which I didn't think possible.

If you want to hear a real rant, you should listen to her go off on the latest ROBINHOOD. So freaken funny (and sadly, true). *snort* She started with “He looks like a Eurotrash skate punk with a Faire-ever pass” and then launched into the horrors of blue eye shadow and people who weren’t allowed to even touch a sword, let alone own one, doing with one (and why would two people kill and roast a whole pig for their own supper?). It was brilliant.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Boring as Barry Lyndon isn't a bad thing. Since Barry Lyndon certainly has its moments of greatness, imo. I think that the way to learn to love certain films is to watch Stanley Kubrick's 2001.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow how ridiculous you all sound! :)

11:06 PM  

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