Malick is dreamy as usual. His characters exist in mists and fog. The world is fluid and flows around them. They drift through landscapes. Even their encounters with others are not solid. Little dialogue, limited interaction, the other an alien being. Is life then a dream? Is this what his poetics say? Could be. It's one reading. I like the lack of solidity in him. There are spaces and cracks in reality through which our certainties fall. Things aren't always what they seem, he says, and for this reason he's deeply loved by those who love great cinema. He is not a pretender. Instead, that rare thing — a film artist.
He gives us a John Smith in chains, rocking in the hold of the ship. He is incarcerated for another serious infraction. He will be judged when the ship reaches land. He may be hanged this time. He has come all the way to the New World in chains to die, a fate that many African slaves will later encounter. But if this happens, if Malick allows Smith to die, history will be altered and Pocahontas will not emerge as she actually did. So he must live and they must meet. He does and they do.
In Malick's hands the encounter is beautiful. They meet the way wild two animals in the bush do. At first, recognition, the image of the other. Then stillness, silence, intense observation. Then slow, deliberate movements, a cautious approach, a better look. Finally, the close-up gaze, the wonder, the first touch. In it we feel the deeper symbolism. Old World is Smith, Pocahontas the New. Europe is decadent, despoiled, rotten. America is fresh, pure, beautiful. Smith is hairy, bearded, dirty, barbarous. Pocahontas, the regal princess, looks every inch a royal. Smith knows what good fortune has brought him. This is Eden and he can begin again in it. The look in his eyes says he loves her from the start, and any man of feeling feels the same in seeing her on the screen.
Such was the promise the New World made, an accident of history that gave some second chances. An idea then, a thing of the imagination, as much as a physical place. But trouble, never far away in life, was built-in. With the Europeans came Old World ideas. God was in the sky, not in the rivers and trees. Power was iron and steel. The land looked different too. It was wilderness that needed taming. Timber filled the forests, not trees. Open spaces were farmland, not meadows and fields. Land became property; it was monied and could be owned. The natives thought the newcomers were mentally ill, and perhaps they were. Whoever thought of that — owning land, forests, lakes, the sky? Who made these foolish ideas, and who was foolish enough to follow them? The Europeans were laughed at. They were children, not serious, not mature adults. But there was a problem. They had gun powder, muskets, cannons — all these magically destructive things. And more and more of these would come from over the ocean. When this was understood the laughter ceased. Accommodation, compromise and treaties were tried. But these were disingenuous, a way for the Europeans to buy time, because in the end they wanted and took everything. Greed was one of the Seven Deadly Sins, but they didn't care and so they sinned, and thereby handed on their sins to us.
The Old World conquered the New and made it old. Pocahontas and her kind would fade into history as if they barely had been. Hence her legendary status today, half-real, half-myth. She was real for sure, but the world she lived in, a world plunged into deep crisis, would be altered beyond recognition.
It's easy to romanticize the past, especially the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. Once destroyed, they become noble, a nobility created by their harmlessness. Then they are safely celebrated, even deified. Today many Americans of European stock are eager to search their ancestries in the hope of finding some native blood. Odd, isn't it, the way we come to love the things we destroy.
Malick doesn't go in for romance. At least not the phony kind. His story of contact is tragedy. We see what's about to be lost and we ask ourselves for what? For strip malls, highways and nuclear reactors? His poetry forces us to look and wonder, to see his green world and the natural beings in it, both human and non-human. We see the newcomers too, struggling to make a foothold in a beautiful but hostile world, one for which they are hardly prepared and ignorant of.
The history of conquest is filled with blood and tears. Malick wants us to remember this. He shows us what will be lost — a vast and great heritage that we'll never have because we chose to destroy it.