It has been hard to find Hollywood movies about the first two footholds of European colonies on North American shores. There is a movie called Hurricane Island (1951), which has been unavailable. You can find, however, a good overview of the movie on the TCM website. It is the story of Ponce de León and the early colonizing of Florida in the area of St. Augustine. It was a surprise to me that I could find only one movie about Plymouth Colony, called Plymouth Adventure (1952). It neglects first contact with the Indian inhabitants of Massachusetts and favors the love interests of the Puritan colonists onboard the Mayflower. The cynical captain is played by Spencer Tracy.
So far as we knew at the end of the 20th century, the peopling of North America began from across the Pacific by 12,000 years ago. The global weather conditions that made this possible had much to do with the melting of the Arctic ice cap creating a land bridge between Russia and today’s Alaska. The forceful colonizing of the Americas in the 15th century, on the other hand, began with the arrival of the Europeans on the Atlantic side. The meetings of these two groups of adventurers mark the completion of the human circum-migration of the world and fostered certain romantic possibilities. We don’t have to wonder if conquistadors slept with native women. We know it to be true. Thus began the creation of a mestizo world. For first contacts of the two worlds, see Central America, included under The Southern Americas.
In the northern regions, there was somewhat less of this sort of social intercourse but this is not to say it did not happen. The arrival of the English on the James River in Virginia and the founding of the Jamestown colony in 1610 made an occasion for the first love story between a renegade captain and an Indian princess. The familiar story of Pocahontas is a case study in the development of a popular romantic legend. Often the point is made that Pocahontas was between the ages of nine and twelve when she met Captain John Smith. The history behind these fictional events is poorly served in the movies but the themes are not untrue to the situation. This is a rough allegory of the first contact between the British and the Indians of Virginia, with all the expected prejudices. Contrary to popular surmise, the princess did not marry her captain but instead made the sensible choice to wed the more steadfast and conventional colonist, John Rolfe. It was good to be named John in these times. The union of Rolfe and Pocahontas is the first interracial marriage in American history.
Here is a sampler of Pocahontas movies in descending order by date. As always, the Hollywood dream machine adds whole new dimensions of historical distortion and in the hands of the Disney studio, even provides power ballads.
The New World (2005)
It seemed to me that this film got poor reviews and disappeared quickly from the big screens. So I was more than a little surprised at how much I admired this work when I rented the DVD in June 2006. Checking Ebert’s website, I was glad to learn that he admired it too. Set in Virginia of 1607, it opens with the arrival of three ships at the mouth of the James River. Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell) is in the brig for a not thoroughly explained offense. The flagship captain is Christopher Plummer. He calls the Indians “naturals.” Smith is about to be hanged onshore when Plummer intervenes and charges him to mend his ways and remember the lesson of this day. The cinematic technique resembles that of Robert Altman; it puts great emphasis on nonverbal communication, music, and silence. Not long after the colonists settle in and begin to build a fort, Pocahontas is seen among her people. She is played by fourteen-year-old actress, Q’orianka Kilcher (say Quor-ee-anka).
Favorable comparisons to the girl in Whale Rider (they are both exemplary indigenous women) will be inevitable. The love affair between Pocahontas and Smith struggles to avoid Hollywood romanticizing and adhere to the strangeness of an attraction across such a great gulf. Smith is captured and taken to the Algonquin village but manages to survive partly through the intervention of Pocahontas, the chief’s daughter. He is returned to the colony where he assumes an uneasy command over the unhappy settlers surviving the winter in the New World.
Warfare breaks out between the naturals and the settlers; it is fierce and realistic. The Altman-like randomness sometimes makes it hard to follow the sequence of events. Pocahontas is banished by her father for her complicity with the intruders and Smith falls out of favor with the colony. He is sent to search for a passage to the Indies in the northern seas. Pocahontas, called the “Princess” by the whites, goes to live in the colony and learn European ways. She captures the attention of a young man named John Rolfe (Christian Bale) who after a time proposes marriage. She accepts but her heart is still with Smith, whom she thinks is dead. The King and Queen of England invite Pocahontas to make a prolonged appearance at court. She and her family (husband and son) make the voyage to England. She has been trained well but even so the world of European culture is strange and wonderful to her. She lives among the orderly rows of English gardens and palatial buildings. Smith turns up and makes a half-hearted effort to re-enter her life. She comes to the realization that her heart now belongs to her husband and son. During preparations to return to the New World, she falls ill and dies. The ship returns without her.
The Making Of documentary on the DVD covered exhaustive efforts to capture the authenticity of the Jamestown experience not just for the English colonists but even more for the Algonquin/Powhatan people native to the area. Historical consultants, both white and Native American, were used extensively and all seemed to be very dedicated to this enterprise. Filming was done in Virginia very close to the original site. They used the ship Godspeed and others from the Jamestown museum. Writer-director Terry Malick is shown to be gratefully respected among his collaborators.
Pocahontas (1995) – Disney
This is history according to the Disney Studio in the 1990s AD (After Disney – Walt died in 1966). The overture is set in England of the early 1600s where the first colonists bound for Jamestown are boarding a ship and setting off across the unwelcoming Atlantic. The men sing of shooting themselves some savage Injuns. The key characters on the ship are the handsome Captain John Smith and a monumentally pompous and greedy Governor (he will later sing of how the Spanish found mounds of gold in the Americas, “now its our turn.”) After the credits, we see the New World from the Indian point of view. The striking young Pocahontas is the daughter of a wise chief to whom she is devoted. He wants her to marry a warrior who has distinguished himself in a recent war. She runs off into the woods and into the arms of John Smith. Both the love story and the hostilities between the English and the Indians are strangely adult for a Disney film. Smith foolishly refers to the Indians as savages, and a very 90s Pocahontas takes exception to his attitude. He explains that “savage is just a word for people who are uncivilized.” This is the Andrew Lloyd Webber generation of animated musical. As they march off to slaughter the Indians, the English sing, “Savages, savages, … barely even human …” Smith has been captured by the Indians and in the climactic scene he is about to be executed by the chief when Pocahontas throws herself upon her true love. The father realizes that his daughter has a greater wisdom than that of the warrior culture and sets the prisoner free. He is then shot by the Governor as he leaps to shield the chief. He must return to England to recover. Pocahontas stands on a cliff to watch the ship put out to sea. There is a song over the credits.
Captain John Smith and Pocahontas (1953)
Having low expectations for this movie, I was surprised by the pictorial quality of this 1950s low budget color epic. This is not to say that there are not ridiculous elements to the picture. Captain Smith runs around with his shirt off, the colony of Jamestown has little aptitude for defending itself, the Indians, including Pocahontas, speak American English very well, and the Indian princess wears a cute buckskin cheerleader outfit.
In short order, Smith is captured and Pocahontas saves him from execution. This requires the two to marry and the ceremony is conducted in perfect English by Chief Powhatan, with no dancing or other rituals. Smith brings his bride back to the fort where she teaches the colonists Indian farming techniques. Meanwhile, gold has been discovered by greedy men, who conspire to keep it for themselves. Tensions with the Indians begin to grow, and the greedy men supply them with guns. Pocahontas has strong ideas and refuses to obey her husband’s commands, as he requires.
The Indians make an attack on the fort matching their superior number to the English guns. They are driven back. Pocahontas runs into the forest to attempt another intervention. The result is a challenge for Smith to do hand to hand combat with a warrior. He wins, of course. There is a muddled ending in which the greedy men are exposed and Smith falls ill, necessitating his return to England. Pocahontas is meant to accompany him but in the end she elects to stay in the care of the always-attentive John Rolfe, whom she will marry. In reality, Pocahontas did make the trip across the water. There is a statue of her in England, at Saint George’s church, Gravesend, dated 1595-1617. She died of an illness at the age of 21 or 22.