Saturday, November 26, 2005

The Myth of the Native Babe: Hollywood's Pocahontas

NATIVE AMERICANS have taken a beating in American cinema dating back to silent pictures, generally depicted as marauding terrorists at worst or noble savages at best. Against this backdrop of violence, warriors like Geronimo, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse have played recurring roles, but pacifists like Pocahontas have proven more elusive.

Despite her status as a key figure in our nation's birth, the Powhatan princess - a mere 10 to 12 years old when she first befriended the English explorer Capt. John Smith and the Jamestown settlers in 1607 - has been mostly relegated to obscure B movies that relied more on legend than fact. The 1953 United Artists clunker "Captain John Smith and Pocahontas" veered so far off the tracks of history that it married the lead characters, serving up lines like "It may well be that on the shoulders of that Indian girl will rest the whole future of Virginia."

Four decades later, the animated Disney box office hit "Pocahontas" depicted its heroine as an exquisitely beautiful, fully formed woman with flowing black hair, almond-shaped eyes and just the hint of a nose, and Smith as a dashing adventurer with square jaw, Herculean build and a blond surfer mane. It was "Romeo and Juliet" without the tragic ending.

But come Christmas Day, New Line Cinema and the writer-director Terrence Malick will offer in "The New World" what promises to be a far more complex take on the Jamestown saga and its clash of cultures between English colonists and the Powhatan tribes. The project, as is usual with Mr. Malick's work, has been shrouded in secrecy, though publicity materials have stressed the verisimilitude of a film shot close to where the actual events took place along Virginia's Chickahominy and James Rivers, before wrapping in London.