You probably already know the answer to that question. Let’s face it: when Hollywood meets history, Hollywood wins. Facts don’t really matter as much as telling a compelling story that people would want to experience again and again, and The New World definitely fits that bill. The 2005 film was both written and directed by Terrence Malick, and is sometimes heralded as one of the best films of that decade. Although many loved it for its memorable story, acting, cinematography, and fantastic music, we’ll do our best to pick it apart piece by piece and obliterate any respect you might have for this (maybe) historically inaccurate Hollywood blockbuster. Actually, it’s hard to do that.
First of all, the film built on the already-present historical inaccuracies of Disney’s retelling of this historical period piece. When John Smith and Pocahontas met, Pocahontas was ten or eleven years old. She wasn’t exactly ripe for the picking, and there is no historical evidence whatsoever that these two were in any way romantically involved. The film would most definitely make you think otherwise.
Although John Smith writes that Pocahontas saved him from execution by placing her (very young) head over his own, some scholars indicate that he may have either lied or been altogether mistaken in his retelling of events. Instead, it’s possible that his potential execution may have been nothing more than a ceremony played out to integrate him into the tribe as a full-fledged member. In other words, he might have never been in any danger at all. Sometimes cultures clash and a lot is lost in translation. There’s no telling what was actually happening since we weren’t there and Smith is hardly a reliable source of information.
In The New World, the Native American tribe is portrayed as innocent and mostly peaceful. In reality, Pocahontas’s father Powhatan was more into domination than submission, and that was the way he ruled throughout the region. Although the film portrayed them as violent with the English, that was probably more the rule than the exception. If a nearby tribe came into conflict with Powhatan’s, then that other tribe would be subjected to conquest. That’s the way it was. Yes, it can definitely be argued that Malick’s interpretation of the Native Americans is a lot softer–nicer, rather–than a lot of other movies that present them as cruel, ruthless barbarians, but it’s still a fabrication far from reality. Not everything is so cut and dry.
In the way of complete inaccuracy, that’s really all there is. The viewer, unfortunately, doesn’t get to see much of the Native American way of life and the film arguably focuses on historical aspects that are either untrue or don’t matter as much as the larger forces at work, but the clash between the two cultures is steeped in truth. The visual representation of Jamestown, Phoenix is perhaps the most realistic part, but the love story we could most certainly do without. Not everything needs to be romanticized in order to be fun or relatable, and sometimes history demands the truth.