The New World

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

20 May

Christopher Columbus dies, 1506

Start typing “Christopher” into Wikipedia and , after getting to “Christo…” it will auto-suggest Christopher Columbus. This man who died over 500 years ago, on this day in 1506, still has an immense hold over the imagination, though he wasn’t the first person to discover the New World, nor even the first European, as is commonly held, nor did he even accept that he had found it, preferring instead to believe that he had arrived in the East Indies (which is why he called the natives Indians). And he was an Italian, sailing under the auspices of the Spanish monarchy, his crackpot idea to sail west to the spice islands of the East Indies having been rejected by the Portuguese and the English. Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic, in search of the easterly approach to Japan, which he believed was about 3,700 km distant from the Canaries (it is around 12,500 miles) took him to the Bahamas in 1492, where he first made unwitting landfall in the New World. He made four voyages in total, between 1492 and 1503, to what we now call the West Indies, Central and South America. Having become a brutal Viceroy and Governor of the Indies after his first voyage, Columbus was removed from power in 1500, though his voyages of exploration continued. In 1503 be became stranded on Jamaica for an entire year, finally returning to Spain in November 1504. For the last two years of his life he lived in Valladolid, writing about his voyages and petitioning the Spanish monarchy for the money he believed was due to him, as per their prior arrangement. He died of a suspected Reiter’s Syndrome, a disease causing joint inflammation possibly provoked by food poisoning picked up on one of his expeditions.

The New World (2005, dir: Terrence Malick)

Terrence Malick’s second film in four years, after the gigantic 20 year hiatus between 1978’s Days of Thunder and 1998, confirmed what had just been a suspicion when The Thin Red Line came out. That he’d lost it. At least it did if you were never quite signed up to the Malick project, which is a poetic rather than prosaic way of making movies. Telling the story of Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) and the first settlers of the New World, it first presents us with a litany of woe, as the newcomers catch diseases, start quarrelling, fighting, mutinying. Malick contrasts this with the life of the natives – who are beautiful, peaceful, wise, cultured, artistic, kindly, dressed in beautifully cut clothing finely decorated. And then Captain Smith (Colin Farrell) falls for one of the natives, a beautiful young woman (Q’orianka Kilcher) who looks like something out of a Calvin Klein perfume advertisement. Together these two then conduct one of the most languid courtships in cinematic history, which is largely wordless except for a voiceover by a mumbling Farrell, which Malick intersperses with shots of an impassive Captain Smith, then the sky, then a corn plant, birds flocking, water, trees, Pocahontas (for it is she, though she is never named), Captain Smith, water etc etc.

If you want the full Malick thing, in other words, this is it. The images are astonishing, it has to be said, but the message flirts with banality – the savages are noble, the newcomers are bad and nature is mighty. Malick also introduces his variation on the foundation myth of America, a country built on youth, as Christopher Plummer’s Captain Newport makes clear in his sinew-stiffening speech about a new generation for a new country. Malick even makes guarded claims that these early explorations and settlements are the beginning of the modern era of globalisation. And then he whisks Pocahontas and John Rolfe (Christian Bale) off to England – Smith having dropped out of the picture for reasons I’ll let the film elucidate – where there is more visual astonishment, in what are the best scenes of the film, Pocahontas being received as a queen in a foreign land and being dressed as such.

This is a strange film of sledgehammer subtlety, but what it does have is a naive honesty – Malick makes us see things as they might have been seen by people experiencing them for the first time, almost as an alien from outer space might (see The Thin Red Line for a war film through alien eyes). This is very unsettling. Instead of being absorbed by the story – the love between Smith and Pocahontas, for instance – Malick throws the focus onto the details of the things in front of our faces in a forceful way. So – her clothes look nice, those must be chamois leggings, oh, is that corn, they’ve got dogs in that stockade, I wonder if it smells of shit in there, oh look grass waving and so on. Depending on your point of view this is all very distracting, takes us out of the film we’re trying to immerse ourselves in, or it is the film itself.

Why Watch?

  • The debut of 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher
  • More fine work by DP Emmanuel Lubezki
  • The great cast includes Wes Studi, Christopher Plummer and David Thewlis
  • Malick’s unique view of the early colonisation of America

The New World – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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