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The initial interactions between the Native Americans and the British is one of the most romanticized topics in literature and cinema. Many descriptions done by early authors like Christopher Columbus, John Smith and William Bradford, who experienced the encounters with the native people of America first hand, are now finding a new life in the modern films and animated cartoons. All these works of art create various representations of the Native Americans.
Judging from my previous experience with the standard portrayal of America’s native people in the movies, which is showing them as rather primitive barbarians, the film The New World (2005) presents one of the most realistic and unbiased descriptions skillfully done by director Terence Malick.
The film is based on historical events happening in Jamestown, VA, in 1607, when a group of exhausted full-armored white settlers led by Captain Newport set feet on virgin lands of the new world, violating the harmonious existence of the Indians.
John Smith was among the first settlers and played an important role in establishing the new colony at Jamestown.
He left numerous publications that provide us with his visions of the early life in the first colonies, for example, “The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles” (1624), “A description of New England” (1616) and “New England’s Trials” (1620, 1622) . Another author who shares her view of the Indians and the account of their way of life and manners is Mary Rowlandson.
She was a Lancaster settler, born in England, known for the record of her life among the Indians in the captivity published in 1628 under the title “A Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs.
Mary Rowlandson”. While the John Smith’s and Mary Rowlandson’s descriptions of their interactions with the Native Americans are greatly influenced by the authors’ personal experiences and intentions, Terence Malick in his film “The New World” makes an attempt to tell the candid and unprejudiced story of the first encounter of the English settlers with the native residents.
Smith writes in his third book “The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Islands”: ”Sixty or seventy of them, some black, some red, some white, some parti-colored, came in a square order, singing and dancing out of the woods…”(85). Barely clothed, with painted faces and bodies, they gathered around the newcomers. The similar scene can be seen in “The New World” movie, when the Native Americans started to get acquainted with the British by licking, touching, sniffing them.
It’s interesting how the movie emphasizes Smith’s admiration for “the naturals” since the first time he meets them, and how stiffly he describes his feelings in his own writings. His attitude towards the Indians can be only seen in the overall tone of his narrative. In “The New World” Smith describes the tribe he was kept captive in such a way: “They are gentle, loving, faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, or sense of possession”.
In “The General History of Virginia, New England and the Summer Islands” Smith calls them “barbarians” (87) and describes their looks as “like devils” (89). The Native Americans portrayed in the film are peaceful and gentle people. They are not evil, just very different from the settlers. This doesn’t agree with Smith’s descriptions, which provide us with scary portrayals of the Indians’ ceremonies: “A good time they continued this exercise and then cast themselves in a ring, dancing in such several postures and signing and yelling out such hellish notes and speeches; being strangely painted…” (88).
Malick does an exquisite job showing the Indians as naive, genuine children of forests and rivers, while Smith in his narratives introduces them as ignorant savages. Another work by John Smith “A description of New England” might sometimes be read as advertisement article written by him in order to attract as many people to arrive to the colonies as possible, because “…there is a necessary mutual use of all. ” (96).
This narrative shows a reader a blossoming new land, while the author doesn’t mention the native inhabitants as if they were an insignificant hindrance in the way of the brave settlers, who can easily acquire riches with almost no skills: “He is a very bad fisher [that] cannot kill in one day with his hook and line, one, two, or three hundred cods…” (95). In “The New World” the British are shown as dull, brutal white men, digging for gold, tortured by their idle existence, numb in search of easy gains. Being such a backdrop, the old world people vividly accentuated the Native Americans as beautiful and harmonious as gods.
They are very alive, expressive and united with nature. The best scene to see that is when Pocahontas is showed playing the game with her brother: their hiding in the tall grass. In such a way the film casts a light on the difficulties the first settlers had to face, correcting Smith’s finely adjusted pieces of propaganda written to influence people to leave native England and cross the ocean to start a new promising life in a wild free land. Mary Rowlandson’s brutal description of the attack on Lancaster by the Indians shows her extremely ambiguous attitude to the Natives.
She thought of them as hardly being human. Rowlandson calls the Natives “merciless heathens” (258), “ravenous beasts” (259), “barbarous creatures” (259), “black creatures” (259), “inhumane creatures” (260) and “pagans” (261). The filmmakers represented the Indians as unique group of people, rather than vindictive Indians in Rowlandson’s account where they are represented as inhumane killers and indifferent creatures. “The New world” soundtrack mainly consists the natural sounds of trees and grasses in the wind, birds singing, water pouring, shotgun fired far away in the woods.
The use of silence in the movie creates an intimate atmosphere that assists the viewers in seeing how close the Native Americans are to the nature, how they live in harmony with their surroundings, how much knowledge they have necessary for successful survival in the wild lands and how rich and vivid is their culture. Besides such a unique soundtrack makes the viewer see the Indians as gentle, loving, kind people. The movie has a many scenes where the Indians are shown interacting and playing with each other, adding to the overall image of pure, childlike, innocent people.
Even though Rowlandson provides a lot of descriptions of the Natives being very kind and helpful to her (she was give a Bible and often was being fed by the Indians, for example Mary writes: “… found a squaw who showed herself very kind to me, and gave me a piece of bread” (269)), still she thought of their culture as totally barbarian. Terence Malick consulted with the actual tribe members who live there today in order to make his perspective of Native Americans as accurate as possible: “He wouldn’t even let them build it with 21st century tools.
The whole set was built with tools that were used at the time. Same with the wardrobe. It was all done the way it was done then. ” This, as well as the location the filmmakers chose, reconstruct the living conditions and traditions of the Native Americans and makes it possible to compare them to those described by Smith and Rowlandson. I believe the accurate reconstruction of the Natives’ settlement gives the viewer a more accurate understanding of what the people who lived there were like. For example, the Native Americans live in a rounded long houses , were very good at their farming, their houses are set between the beautiful trees, there’s a lot of green around them – all these gives an impression of happy lives synchronized with natural surroundings. The contrast scene introduces us to the horrible environments the English had to survive: the gate hides dirty, moist, and stripped of grass and trees yard, full of visibly sick children and adults. Such a contrast disrupts the negative representation of the Indians provided by John Smith and Mar Rowlandson and shows the native inhabitants as pure children of their lands.
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