Terrence Malick’s “The New World” (2005)

Inducted into the Criterion Collection:  2016

There are many films I regret not seeing in a theater.  Sure, watching movies at home offers the ability to avoid those annoying crowds and plunking down serious cash for two hours you may very well want back.  It now even offers a comparable technical experience thanks to advancements in 4K televisions and their companion UHD disc players. Still, even the sweetest home theater setup pales in comparison to the communal experience of the theater.  Hundreds of films, if not thousands, have been released over the course of my lifetime, and as someone who counts the experience of going to the movie theater as one of his earliest memories, I’ve made every effort to journey to cinema screens when duty demands it.  Even then, far too many films have slipped through the cracks. There is one film, in particular, that I most regret not having seen in its intended venue: director Terrence Malick’s 2005 opus, THE NEW WORLD— the trailer to which caused me to inexplicably turn my young, callow and unsophisticated nose up at the prospect of ever going to see it.  The trailer was everywhere that summer, but for whatever reason, the images didn’t speak to me in an appealing way. I had yet to discover Malick’s work as a whole, so I suppose I thought it another overstuffed period epic trying to ape TITANIC’s success nearly a decade on.  What a stupid, ignorant fool I was.  Because of this mistaken impression, I missed out on the opportunity to see what would one day become my favorite film from my favorite director.  Now, every time I watch THE NEW WORLD, I try to imagine how its majestic images would feel being twenty or thirty feet tall, washing over me in a cascading wave of sound and image that envelops my entire field of view… and I feel the sting of heartache that one might feel after The Rapture when he realizes he’s been left behind.  I fully realize the ridiculousness of the statement I just made, but… damn it, that’s how it feels.

Having built his cinematic career on the foundation of American myth, Malick’s desire to tackle a film about its origins seemed a natural move.  Indeed, the director had long harbored a desire to realize his vision of the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia and its accompanying legend of Pocahontas and Captain James Smith.  His first draft of the screenplay for THE NEW WORLD would date back to the late 1970’s, shortly after the completion of his second feature, DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978).  He no doubt tinkered away at the idea during his ensuing twenty-year sabbatical from the industry, but it laid otherwise dormant until his re-emergence with THE THIN RED LINE in 1998.  Disney had released their own take on the Pocahontas story three years earlier, taking some of the wind out of Malick’s sails even as he expressed his fondness for the now-classic animated feature (1).  After the success of THE THIN RED LINE, Malick turned his attentions to a project about Che Guevara’s failed revolution in Bolivia (2) — a story that would later be realized in 2008 by director Steven Soderbergh with the second half of his two-part epic, CHE.  When Malick’s Che project ultimately failed to find financing, leaving his development slate relatively wide open, his longtime editing partner Billy Weber reminded him of his old project on the Jamestown settlement.  Ever since reading the original draft from the 1970’s, Weber had repeatedly expressed his desire to see Malick tackle THE NEW WORLD— and this time, Malick agreed.  

Malick’s vision of the founding of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia during the early 1600’s blends factual accounts with apocryphal myth to become a towering meditation on both the destructive, imperial nature of advanced civilizations as well as love’s ability to transcend linguistic and societal barriers.  There is actually no factual account that Captain John Smith and the Algonquian princess Pocahontas cultivated a romantic relationship — indeed, their significant age difference alone would’ve made such a prospect unlikely. Nevertheless, the legend endures, and it’s upon this legend that Malick bases the foundation for his staging of America’s complicated and bloody origins.  The settlers of Jamestown sailed from England to the New World looking not just for a passage or trade route to the Indies, but also for a fresh start. However, they brought with them the centuries of xenophobia, distrust, and craven greed that marked their imperial homeland. They came not as settlers, but as conquerors, drunk on rumors of the untold riches that awaited them across the sea.  Among the ranks of these would-be conquerors, Colin Farrell’s Captain John Smith emerges as an unlikely hero— a grungy, bohemian mercenary who arrived on these shores in shackles as a result of an attempted mutiny against his commander, Captain Newport (played by Christopher Plummer with his characteristic air of dignified prestige). Farrell benefits from the real-life Smith’s extensive accounts of his travels, having pored through all seven of the Captain’s books (1) to arrive at an understanding of a conflicted man at odds with his own people and utterly transformed by his encounters with Virginia’s native population.  When he’s ambushed and captured by members of a local tribe headed by August Schellenberg’s Chief Powhatan, he finds himself facing imminent execution— that is, until Powhatan’s teenager daughter, Pocahontas, throws herself on his captive and appeals to her father’s begrudging compassion. As depicted by newcomer Q’orianka Kilcher in a revelatory performance, Pocahontas is a lively free spirit, inspiring Smith to appreciate the wonder of the natural world that surrounds him. What begins as an effort to teach each other their respective languages for trading purposes blossoms into a full-throated romance for the ages— albeit one that threatens to tear the early Jamestown settlement apart at the seams.  As tensions between the settlers and the natives spill out into open conflict, these star-crossed lovers are forced to choose between their people or each other, pulled apart by the increasingly overwhelming forces that shaped America’s beginnings.

As the filmmakers themselves are quick to point out, THE NEW WORLD’s title works on two levels— there’s the New World the settlers experience in Virginia, and then there’s the New World experienced by Pocahontas when she sails to England for an audience with the King and Queen, played by seasoned character actor Jonathan Pryce and Malick’s own wife, Alexandra.  Pocahontas finds herself a stranger in a strange land, its cobblestone streets and manicured topiaries standing in stark contrast to the untamed wilderness of her home. Surrounded by the trappings of Anglo-Saxon civilization, she becomes an exotic specimen, comforted only by her husband’s loyalty and a watchful guardian from her tribe back home, played by Wes Studi.  In the first of several performances for Malick, Christian Bale assumes the guise of Pocahontas’ husband, John Rolfe: a former widower and tobacco farmer who takes the exiled Pocahontas into his homestead when news arrives that John Smith has perished at sea. Bale is no stranger to the Pocahontas legend, having played the role of “Thomas” in Disney’s animated version prior, but here he serves as an emotional rock for the Algonquian princess.  His quiet compassion knows no bounds, especially when John Smith re-emerges alive and well, and Pocahontas must make the last in a series of extremely difficult decisions. THE NEW WORLD’s expansive canvas affords ample room for key supporting players to emerge, like David Thewlis’ treacherous usurper, or Ben Mendolsohn’s supportive settler.  Some familiar faces from THE THIN RED LINE also join the fray in minor roles, like Ben Chaplin and John Savage, while still others can technically claim credit as a cast member without making any appearance at all— victims to Malick’s merciless approach to editing that compensates for his free-form shooting style.  

It’s easy to criticize said shooting style on its face— after all, filmmaking as a commercial medium lends itself to nothing less than a disciplined, organized approach.  It’s not so easy to maintain that criticism when one sees the images that result: a cascading flow of imagery that contains some of the most evocative and beautiful frames ever captured to celluloid.  Malick reportedly exposed over a million feet of 35mm film (1) during the production of THE NEW WORLD, working for the first time with Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki— the man who has since gone on to become arguably his most vital collaborator beyond returning production designer Jack Fisk and recurring producer Sarah Green.  THE NEW WORLD also marks Green and Malick’s first collaboration together, with Green’s gift for anticipating her director’s unpredictable, ever-changing needs creating an environment primed for creativity.  Malick and Lubezki take full advantage of this supportive environment, quickly accumulating a staggering amount of achingly beautiful CinemaScope footage that would handily earn Lubezki an Oscar nomination come awards season.  THE NEW WORLD’s cinematography is also notable for its use of the 65mm gauge for select shots, becoming the first feature in nine years to shoot on the format for narrative purposes unrelated to visual effects work (1).  Having found his groove with a wandering, instinctual shooting style on THE THIN RED LINE, Malick pushes this approach even further to better capture the elegant chaos of the natural world, caring not a whit for pesky concepts like continuity or proper coverage.  Virginia’s plentiful sunlight aids in this pursuit, generating a textured, naturalistic feel that eschews any pretense of Hollywood glamor or polish. Malick and Lubezki repeatedly harness the beauty of magic hour, which casts lingering shots of lush woods and wetlands in a dim, rosy glow that lends itself well to the film’s pursuit of a mythic, epic aura.  Like THE THIN RED LINE and other subsequent works, Malick’s camera is characterized by a restless, searching spirit— a product of a fleet-footed shooting style that favors handheld and Steadicam setups.  The overall effect is that of an eye-level account of history actively unfolding, with all the realism and visceral immediacy that implies. THE NEW WORLD also retains THE THIN RED LINE’s use of elemental imagery, with Malick evoking the vibrancy of his surrounding natural environment by anchoring his compositions to the recurring visual motifs of earth, wind, water, and fire.  This conceit becomes increasingly resonant as the film progresses and we witness the Jamestown settlers continually diminish Virginia’s untamed wilds in their pursuit of civilization-building, ultimately making for a stunning contrast in the world that Pocahontas encounters when she sails across the Atlantic: a world of dirty cobblestone streets, soaring feats of baroque architecture, and manicured gardens with trees sheared into unnatural geometric shapes.  These visual comparisons strike at the core of THE NEW WORLD’s narrative conflict— the clash between those who endeavor to live in harmony with the world that sustains them, and those who conquer and manipulate that world towards increasingly unnatural ends.

THE NEW WORLD benefits from Malick’s continued partnership with longtime production designer Jack Fisk, who commits himself absolutely to the utmost historical authenticity.  They had already achieved an authentic atmosphere by finding locations that were no more than ten miles away from the actual Jamestown settlement, but Fisk and his team went even further, rebuilding the fort with the same relatively primitive methods with which it had been constructed over four hundred years ago (1).  The Algonquin language, having long been considered a dead tongue, was fully resurrected so as to make the Powhatan tribe’s dialogue as accurate as possible (1) — with the added benefit of making the language available for their descendants today and for generations to come. Reason might expect only certain words and phrases to be recreated, according to what dialogue is mandated in the script.  However, this being a latter-day Malick project, his team knew that it was only a matter of time until he threw out the script entirely in favor of informed improvisation— necessitating an entire language to be recreated and pulled from as the situation demanded. Malick’s almost-casual disregard for his own script places an inordinate amount of responsibility on the shoulders of his editors, who must make sense of the mountains of film shot with no clear idea how it would be integrated into the final product, if it all.  Thankfully, THE NEW WORLD benefits from a crack team of editors including the likes of Hank Corbin and Saar Klein, who came aboard to expand upon the prior efforts of Richard Chew and Mark Yoshikawa.  While he served only as an associate producer on THE NEW WORLD, longtime Malick editor Billy Weber no doubt wielded a sizable influence on the post-production team, helping them make sense of Malick’s unique thought process and to “unlearn” what they had learned on other, more-conventional jobs.  The result is an impressionistic experience that builds upon the narrative foundations Malick laid with THE THIN RED LINE, telling his story with elliptical jump-cuts and lyrical vignettes; an ever-flowing river of images strung together and given meaning by meditative voiceovers.  Even in the thick of a chaotic battle, THE NEW WORLD’s characters express their inner monologues in Malick’s characteristic hushed timbre, lamenting the unfolding bloodshed as the loss of the dream upon which Jamestown — and America — was founded.

To take a job — any job — on a Malick production is to subsume one’s own ego or die trying; Plummer publicly expressed his desire to never work with Malick again after learning that his performance had been chopped to bits in the final edit.  Malick is unafraid of bruising the egos of his collaborators in pursuit of his vision, and those who excel in the face of challenge — actors like Christian Bale, Sean Penn, Cate Blanchett, and Natalie Portman as well as craftspeople like Sarah Green, Jack Fisk, and Emmanuel Lubezki — are the ones who keep coming back to the director’s fold time and time again.  The venerated film composer, James Horner, would not join the ranks of Malick’s repeat collaborators after his stint on THE NEW WORLD — an experience that earned Malick the late maestro’s bitter enmity.  “I’ve never felt more letdown by a filmmaker in my life”, Horner exclaimed in an interview shortly afterwards (1), expressing his sincere frustration with Malick’s impulsive creative process and the manner in which his score was used…. or wasn’t used, as is the case with the bulk of THE NEW WORLD’s musical landscape.  Horner’s score here is very characteristic of his unique aesthetic — a stately blend of regal horns and majestic orchestration that immediately invites comparisons to his landmark scores for Mel Gibson’s BRAVEHEART (1995) and James Cameron’s TITANIC (1997).  Indeed, Horner’s approach underscores his initial impression that THE NEW WORLD would replicate the alchemy of sweeping romance and epic historical drama that made TITANIC such a cultural phenomenon; he even wrote an original song sung by Hayley Westenra called “Listen To Wind”, in a somewhat-transparent bid to succeed Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”.  Malick, however, had no interest in making the next TITANIC, and thus retains only the most relevant and resonant qualities of Horner’s score while falling back on an inspired selection of sourced classical works to fill in the gaps.  Well-chosen cues like Wagner’s “Vorspiel to Das Rheingold” and Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” lend THE NEW WORLD an aura of mythic timelessness and a rapturous sense of destiny while displaying Malick’s deep appreciation for the classical genre.  In choosing such operatic cues, Malick certainly runs the risk of inflating his narrative with the airs of pompous self-importance, but his unconventional approach to montage as well as his focus on the purity of the image delicately balances his musical palette’s operatic energy while further reinforcing the film’s contrasting of Virginia’s untamed wilds with the supposed civility of England’s contemporaneous society.  

Malick’s artistic proclivities uniquely suit him to THE NEW WORLD’s storyline — indeed, it’s hard to think of a more harmonious match between artist and subject matter.  The film’s narrative turns are anchored to the core conceits of Malick’s artistic profile: the radiance of the natural world, spirituality, the loss of innocence, the bitter conflict between agrarian and industrial societies, and the pursuit of a more-perfect cinematic realization of his characters’ interior lives.  Like THE THIN RED LINE before it, THE NEW WORLD is predicated upon the idea of conquest— specifically, that of an untouched paradise by a more-advanced civilization.  “Conquest” is the prism through which all other ideas flow, evoking comparisons to the biblical story of Adam & Eve in the Garden of Eden, whereby the Garden is sullied by the introduction of sin, murder, and money— that evergreen root of all evil.  After initial efforts to live in harmony with the indigenous population fail, the English resort to bloodshed and brute force to colonize Jamestown, violently remaking the land in their image. THE NEW WORLD’s elegiac tone stems from the loss of innocence incurred by this conquest— a stain tarnishing the purity of America’s baptismal gown.  

Of course, that’s assuming a historical perspective that’s decidedly Anglo-Saxon, disregarding the fact that the native population had already been there for centuries, building a thriving civilization all their own.  Malick treats these two societies — agrarian and industrial — as simply incompatible, their principles and values eternally at odds with one another. Innocence against corruption; purity against filth; raw exploitation against sustainable ecosystems.  In this manner, the centerpiece battle sequence that finds Powhatan’s tribe laying siege to Jamestown becomes so much more than a cinematic recreation of a key skirmish in Virginian history— it assumes the weight of apocalyptic stakes, deciding nothing less than the fate of the Americas themselves.  This conflict is also embodied in the contrast between each side’s spiritual beliefs. There’s the earthiness of the Algonquian belief system — an all-encompassing divinity in the world around them — and the celestial loftiness of the English’s Christian faith. Shots of characters enraptured by the sun-dappled radiance of the natural world are framed similarly to shots of towering cathedrals and stain-glass windows, suggesting the common spiritual thread between the two factions; a universal language that allows John Smith and Pocahontas to communicate with each other, despite the worlds of difference between them.  This free-flowing, at-times agnostic spirituality has increasingly come to define Malick’s later work, but THE NEW WORLD arguably serves as the prime example of this particular conceit.  It is here that Malick’s recurring references to nature as “Mother” first emerge, with Pocahontas using the term in hushed, prayer-like voiceovers to invoke the creation that surrounds her.  Her ephemeral, abstract monologues contrast with Captain Smith’s matter-of-fact narration, which itself was derived from Smiths’ many writings about his travels. Both monologues profess a profound awe towards this untouched paradise; a desire to become one with it rather than tame it.  This is the root of their connection, which renders their surface differences as minor obstacles easily overcome by simply listening to each other. Malick weaves these interior sentiments together into a coursing river of thought and speech, sometimes even overlapping the voiceover with the diegetic dialogue to create an immersive audio mosaic that’s not supposed to be necessarily listened to, but rather absorbed on a penetrating, subconscious level.  

There’s little doubt that THE NEW WORLD stands as a staggering achievement by any filmmaker’s standards, but for Malick in particular, the film would struggle through several rounds of releases before achieving its latter-day status as a milestone work in his canon.  THE NEW WORLD would see the release of no less than three different cuts, each attaining their own lyrical pace and atmosphere while essentially telling the same story.  Indeed, to watch the three cuts together in quick succession is to gain an appreciation for the subtle complexities of montage— more specifically, the manner in which the shortening or lengthening of shots can generate a cumulative impression or energy that’s entirely different to an alternate timing of the same sequence.  Perhaps the least-seen version of the film (until its inclusion on the Criterion Collection’s 2016 home video release), The First Cut is just that— the first version screened for audiences. Running 150 minutes, The First Cut screened at the world premiere despite the fact that Malick felt the film was far from finished. Indeed, his editors would later recount sitting in the audience that night, actively taking notes on what they could trim.  Further compelled by New Line Cinema’s mandate to cut the runtime down by at least fifteen minutes, Malick and his team delivered THE NEW WORLD to theaters in a version now known as The Theatrical Cut, keeping the same free-breathing, elliptical pace of The First Cut while condensing the length down to 135 minutes.  In retrospect, it seems that Malick’s sprawling, atmospheric vision did not benefit from quickening its pace; many contemporaneous reviews, while mostly positive, expressed an opinion that the narrative was too meandering, or too unfocused.  The late Roger Ebert, however, had nothing but high praise— his four-star review echoed the sentiments of other prominent critics like Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle, joining a growing chorus that praised the film as an outright masterpiece.  Unfortunately, mass audiences more-attuned to the straightforward conventions of mainstream cinema didn’t share this sentiment. In the eyes of the industry and its lofty financial expectations, THE NEW WORLD’s $30 million take on opening weekend was a major disappointment… despite being enough to recoup the production cost.  

The third version of the film, known as The Extended Cut, was first distributed via New Line’s special edition re-issue shortly after its initial home video release.  Running a staggering 172 minutes, The Extended Cut differs quite substantially from the two versions before it. The longer runtime, longer even than The First Cut, creates much more of an experiential atmosphere, lingering on its sublime compositions while fleshing out its protagonists’ interior thoughts in deeper detail.  A distinct literary influence courses through The Extended Cut, beginning with a direct pull quote from Smith’s journals and continuing on with chapter-like intertitles that break up the ensuing action into distinct blocks of story. In the years since, Malick’s Extended Cut has emerged as the definitive version of THE NEW WORLD, but each of the other two cuts remain equally valid expressions of his immersive vision.  The work as a whole, even when compared against its multiple variants, has endured over the past decade, enshrining itself in our collective cultural memory as a new classic of American historical cinema — one that brings renewed vigor, immediacy, and — most importantly — humanity to a turbulent period long since relegated to stately oil paintings on canvas.  Four features and thirty years into his celebrated career, Malick had finally hit his stride, finding artistic reinvigoration through his development of a convention-shattering aesthetic and applying it to two sweeping historical epics in order to uncover the underlying humanity that drives them. Something had been unlocked inside the enigmatic filmmaker, kickstarting an accelerated creative momentum that would thrust him headlong into hist most prolific and radical phase yet.

THE NEW WORLD is currently available on high-definition Blu Ray via The Criterion Collection.

Credits:

Produced by: Sarah Green

Written by: Terrence Malick

Director of Photography: Emmanuel Lubezki

Production Designer: Jack Fisk

Edited by: Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein, Mark Yoshikawa

Music by: James Horner

References:

  • IMDB Trivia Page