The tale of the first meeting between the European expedition of John Smith and the Native Americans during the founding of Jamestown in 1607 is one that has captured the American imagination for centuries. The meeting of John Smith and the Native American girl Pocahontas, and their subsequent love story, is echoed by the tense clash of cultures, demonstrating a dramatic story of love being found in the strangest places, as well as issues of land ownership and the promise of a New World. The original John Smith writings tell the tale in a fascinating and Eurocentric way that belies the true tensions and controversies that truly existed between the Jamestown settlers and the Native Americans. This conflict is also expressed in Terrence Malick's dreamlike film The New World, starring Colin Farrell as John Smith; this transcendent and beautiful film demonstrates the abstract, thematic content of the story, making it more a story about two people in love, as well as the American landscape itself, moreso than a strict examination of the story at hand.
In the chapter "What Happened Till the First Supply," John Smith notes the landing of the settlers upon New England, which occurred on the cusp of starvation between the crews of the ships in the expedition. Smith's writings are chronological in order, the plot structure following a linear pattern of event-event-event, clearly modified to describe and convey the events as they occurred. However, in Malick's The New World, the art of cinema is used to create a tone poem-like atmosphere to the film, with events happening slow, almost wordlessly at times; the focus is much more on mood and atmosphere than relaying the plot. Images are shown with little regard for firmly establishing context, leaving the viewer to figure out what they are supposed to indicate.
In John Smith's writings, he as a character is written with dignity for the most part, despite describing the hellish conditions of the ships before they found land. In the meantime, the Indians are described as complete savages; when Smith is captured by them, they slew the rest of his men barbarically and treated him roughly. The description of their behavior around him, particularly their leader Powhatan, is depicted as strange and alien, with Powhatan ready to kill him, then ready to give him an entire country in exchanges for "two great guns and a grindstone." In The New World, Smith's actions are much more determined by his love for Pocahontas than any sense of real bravery on his part; Smith is also depicted not as just one of the settlers, but as a prisoner being held for execution (only spared because they discovered the New World).
In both Smith's writings and The New World, the vast forests and landscapes of New England are the setting of the events. More time is spent on the ships in Smith's writings, as the first part of "What Happened Till the First Supply" heavily emphasizes the starvation and sickness that oppressed the men of the Virginia Company. In The New World, the opening sequence shows the ships landing in New England itself, choosing to explore the story directly from the point in which they land. Smith focuses on the characters in describing the setting, having seemingly little to say about the American landscape, whereas that is Malick's primary focus. The blues of lakes, the tall green grasses, the jagged rocks and mountains and more comprise much of the focus of Malick's camera, noting their beauty and the contrast between this tranquil nature and the dirty artificiality of the settlers.
Smith's writings take the third-person point of view of Smith himself, as he writes about his experiences as if he were a fictional character. We hardly get the Native American perspective, only Smith's guesses as to the behavior of Powhatan, Pocahontas and others. Observing them in that way, the writings become a bit of an anthropological study of this alien culture. In the case of The New World, however, the point of view shifts from Smith to various other characters, most notably Pocahontas; the aforementioned opening sequence intercuts between the Europeans and the Indians, as the Europeans land and explore the New World while the Indians look on from a distance.
Malick is an effortlessly symbolic filmmaker, and so it stands to reason that his The New World would contain many symbols of the conflict between nativism and colonialism, as well as the love story between John Smith and Pocahontas. God is a perpetual presence in the film, between images of ladders, chairs and trees (even tall grasses), all things that reach up to the sky and demonstrate the power of this strange land. This is further cemented when Pocahontas has her baby baptized, the ultimate gesture of transferring to Anglicism and abandoning her old ways in favor of Christianity. In Smith's writings, the symbolism is much more overt and direct; Smith focuses on the use of paint, coal and oil that the Indians use to coat themselves to explore their native behaviors, and the pow-wow around the fire after his life is spared is indicative of starting life anew, as well as a symbol of him joining the Indian community in which he lives for quite some time.
Malick and Smith both tackle theme in their works, mostly dealing with the communication between cultures and the mutual learning that occurs between each set of peoples. Smith writes about starting his life over again after speaking ill of the Council that sent him out to the New World without adequate supplies, all the while being threatened with death, first from famine and then from the Indians. It is this constant threat of death that makes him feel alive and finds renewed purpose in the New World. In Malick's world, the theme of connections between people is echoed most strongly in Pocahontas' affairs with both John Smith and John Rolfe; John Smith is her one true love, which they note through her constant pining for him, while John Rolfe is the reliable, loving man who wants to bring adult, mature stability to her life. This dilemma between passion and practicality is one major theme found in The New World.
In conclusion, Smith's writings and The New World find two distinct ways to tell the story of the settlers of Jamestown, and Smith's encounters with Pocahontas. Smith uses his works to describe the terrible situations he was put in, as well as paints exotic pictures of the alien Indians. Meanwhile, The New World is focused on the love between Pocahontas and John Smith, as well as the sense of discovery (on the part of both peoples) every character has about their new environment.
Malick, Terrence (dir.) The New World. Perf. Colin Farrell, Christopher Plummer, Christian
Bale. New Line Cinema, 2005. Film.
Smith, John. "What Happened Till the First Supply." Norton Anthology American Literature 7th