The danger of a short summary of Terrance Malick’s impressive career is it would make him sound like many other working directors, a career which has, to the time of this writing, included seven feature films, two Academy Award nominations for Best Director (The Thin Red Line, The Tree of Life), and one for Best Adapted Screenplay (The Thin Red Line); two nominations for the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Palmes d’Or (Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life) and a win for Best Director (Days of Heaven). But once you have seen a Terrance Malick film, it becomes terribly difficult to confuse him with anyone else. Malick is a rare breed. He is not concerned with trends, publicity, or turning his name into a “brand.” Included in his contracts are conditions that his image cannot be used as promotional material for his films, he doesn’t record commentary tracks for DVDs, and he very, very, very rarely does interviews – once consenting to an interview only after the host agreed not to ask questions about his films. Malick doesn’t seem worried about being universally loved or admired: he simply makes movies he wants to make, and very little about them follow conventional filmmaking wisdom. Compared with the heavy preference in mainstream movies for plot-driven narratives, the plot line in any of Malick’s works are far from “the point” of his films. He rejects the (overwhelmingly) standard three-act narrative structure for more sprawling modes of storytelling, which can create the feeling Malick’s films are unfocused and diluted. Favouring voice-overs, despite how often they are demonized as “bad filmmaking”, his films have very little on-screen dialogue and next to no exposition, leading many viewers to conclude his characters are hollow, distant, and unsympathetic as Malick offers no secure insights into their motivations or intentions. And characterizing his cinema, above all, is Malick’s love of nature: his films are full of beautifully framed, lingering shots of landscapes in completely natural light. In fact, nearly as much screen time is given to landscapes as it is to characters and events: an unconventional editing choice which is often attacked as making his films slow, tedious, even boring (sometimes even by his fans). Malick’s highly individual filmmaking style is definitely not for everyone, but simply, Malick is not interested in producing entertainment. Rather, Malick revels in asking questions, and creating experiences which require the interaction between the viewer’s individual beliefs and point of view and the film itself. His films are not distractions, in the words of Matt Zoller Seitz, if the cinema of Terrence Malick is invested in anything, it is “unfashionably concerned with the soul.”
Surely owing to Malick’s atypical approach to storytelling, reviewer Todd McCarthy accuses Malick of being unable to “get inside the heads of any of his characters.” Likewise, in her review of The New World, Stephanie Zacharek also criticizes Malick’s apparent disinterest in characterization and quips “Terrence Malick may not care much for people, but he never met a tree he didn’t like.” McCarthy and Zacharek can’t be blamed for these impressions, as Malick’s films do not offer the same depth of insight into a character’s life most mainstream films do, which can leave his characters feeling unexplained. Captain John Smith, for example, lead a remarkable life before arriving in the “New World”: a life which included adventures in piracy, participation in several European wars as a mercenary, three duels with Turkish commanders (all of whom Smith beheaded), and even two years spent as a slave, from which he escaped… after the mistress of his master fell in love with him. This is all the kind of “hero stuff” Hollywood films normally salivate over in a dark and handsome leading man, and represents the kind of back story often prized as integral to understanding a character’s motivations and point of view. Yet, mysteriously, without fanfare, flashback, or explanation, Smith appears on Virginia’s shores as if materializing from darkness itself, into which he later retreats and again, simply disappears.
It is not, perhaps, that Malick doesn’t care for people, but that he takes an unusual perspective on human life. Malick’s films are reminiscent of the classical Greek words which describe two different views of life: bios and zoe. Bios, literally meaning “life,” and an early ancestor of the term ‘biography,’ refers to the scope of a single life, its duration in time, and the series of events which characterize that life. Zoe also means “life,” but is more expansive: being closely related to the Greek ‘aemi,’ which translates to “the breath of life,” zoe does not represent a single life, but the whole of “existence itself.” If bios is the perspective given from a single life, zoe is the perspective of all life through all of time, the broadest scope possible, in essence, the point of view of God. Malick’s films favour the zoe perspective, and thus, Malick is not disinterested in individual lives, he is only more interested in how each life is intertwined and woven into existence itself. Malick cares deeply for people: he simply doesn’t care much for egos. Egos would only be a distraction from what he’s really after: the soul.
Critic and Malick fan Matt Zoller Seitz describes this tendency in Malick’s cinema as “the contrast between the hugeness of the world at large and the machinations of the cosmos, and the needs and desires of individual people.” The clearest example of this is in The Tree of Life, which follows the evolution of a family in Texas as their three sons grow up with a father who urges them to be tough and hard-hearted, and a mother who teaches them to be gentle and kind. The film jumps back and forth in time as Jack, the oldest son now in his middle age, remembers his childhood, the death of his youngest brother, and attempts to integrate his conflicting feelings for his parents, and their teachings. After a short snapshot of the family accompanied by a voice-over of their mother explaining her approach to life as “the way of grace,” Jack’s parents receive the news of their son’s death. A well intentioned friend tries to comfort Mrs. O’Brien with “You’ve got to be strong now. … Life goes on. People pass along, nothing stays the same. … The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away.” Mrs. O’Brien also comforts herself with the idea of ‘God’s unknowable plan’ as she tells herself, over shots of her son’s funeral, “He was in God’s hand the whole time.” Yet, she also asks in her grief, “Was I false to you? Lord, why? Where were you?” Her question initiates a 15 minute sequence presenting the creation of the universe. The sequence is set to Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa”, from his work Requiem For My Friend. An explicitly Catholic tradition – in a sequence which is tempting to read as the scientific view of the universe in which there is no room for spirituality – a requiem is a mass held for the rest and peace of a soul after death. The sequence not only responds to Mrs. O’Brien’s anxiety about God’s presence, but also offers a prayer of peace for her son’s soul as it leaves its individual life and returns to the wider perspective of the universe. While the “creation sequence” in The Tree of Life can feel “tacked on” or even boring, Malick seems to be making the point that while the presence of God permeates everything (and perhaps because of this), from the widest perspective of the universe, zoe, individual people are no more important than birds, trees, or insects; as Pocahontas tells John Rolfe in The New World, “We’re like grass,” and as the The Tree of Life’s priest laments in his sermon, “We run before the wind, we think that it will carry us forever: it will not. We vanish as a cloud. We wither as the autumn grass. And like a tree are rooted up.”
As he prioritizes the zoe perspective, Malick does not, as McCarthy suggests “get inside the heads” of his characters by revelling in the details of their lives. Rather, Malick explores the bios only as a means of accessing an individual’s relationship to zoe, the universe, or God. Malick suggests this by continually contrasting individual human drama against the background of the greatness, and perhaps indifference, of nature. As such, one of the primary ways in which Malick conveys character is by exploring an individual’s beliefs about nature. Often called a “hippie transcendentalist,” Malick is clearly influenced by the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the ‘spiritual father’ of transcendentalism. Transcendentalism was a cultural movement which gained steam in the mid-19th century, and its central belief is that the spiritual realm is the highest reality and the spiritual essence of each human being and nature is essentially good. For transcendentalists, knowledge comes from spiritual revelation and insight rather than logic, and they denounced the cultural supremacy of religious and cultural institutions that vied to control the beliefs of individuals. Like Malick, Emerson was also fixated on the relationship between the human soul and the surrounding world, and values an individual’s relationship to the universe itself, over the details of a single life. Malick’s films also enact the transcendentalist belief that God is reflected directly in the natural world, as Emerson states in his famous essay Nature, “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” Malick extends this belief into his characters, whose internal life, the state of their souls, are directly related to their relationship with nature and their assumptions about the natural world and each other. Malick reveals an individual’s connection, or disconnection, to the universe by concentrating on how they interact with, and their beliefs about nature. For Malick, a character’s particular relationship to and assumptions about nature is the foundation of their motivations and structures their moral code.
In The Thin Red Line, Malick’s philosophical vision of the conflict in Guadalcanal during World War II, the soldiers struggle to make sense of the existence of war in humanity, its seeming inevitability, and humanity’s relationship to and place within nature. Pvt. Witt, the company’s non-conforming mystic, continually sees love and evidence of the eternal even in war, as he describes, “All things shining.” Competing with Pvt. Witt’s beliefs, Cpt. Staros and Lt. Col. Tall argue about what constitutes honourable conduct in war, and Malick is careful to relate each man’s justification for his opinions and behaviour to their respective beliefs about nature. Rebuffing Staros’s compassionate approach to leadership, Tall reprimands Staros for not being tough enough to lead and offers: “Look at this jungle. Look at those vines, the way they twine around the tree, swallowing everything. Nature’s cruel, Staros.” Embedded in this kind of argument is the assumption that nature is a reflection of God’s laws and thus serves as a model for moral self-conduct. Indeed, part of the philosophical contemplation of war in the film includes questioning weather war is some kind of ingrown sickness or disease in humanity, and therefore an offence against nature, or whether it originates as part of nature itself. The Thin Red Line opens with the rather unsettling image of a crocodile slipping beneath the surface of a river to a menacing score and the voice-over asks, “What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power but two?” Likewise, at the end of the film, the voice-over continues to wonder, “Darkness, light, strife and love, are they the workings of one mind? The features of the same face?” For Tall, because he sees nature as cruel and war as natural, compassion has no place in warfare, and throughout the film he continually makes decisions based on this conclusion, including ordering Staros to send soldiers directly into the line of fire even against Staros’s insistence he’d be sending the men to their deaths. Similarly, in The Tree of Life, Mr. O’Brien pushes his sons to be tough, teaches them to fight, and is a stern father, contrasting the loving, gentle teachings of his wife, he instructs his sons, “Your mother’s naive. It takes a fierce will to get ahead in this world. If you’re good, people take advantage of you.”
In The New World, Malick explores the difference in how the Powhatan tribe lives with and respect the natural world versus the conquer and exploit attitude of (most of) the English settlers. These conflicting relationships with nature are reflected in the Powhatan tribe and the English settlers different concepts of “civilization” which in turn are based on their understanding of God’s will. In the film, the Powhatan tribe live in small villages which are at one with nature: their camps are lush, green, and full of life. By contrast, the English camp is gray, and unable to sustain life as the settlers die of starvation and disease. Mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his posthumously published Pathways to Bliss, suggests that the difference in the relationship between varying cultures and nature is based on a particular view of spiritual life. Campbell explains that in indigenous cultures whose practices rely on rituals around the hunting, killing, and the use of animals comes from a deep respect for nature, “they would not kill more animals than they could eat. If they were to do something so wasteful, they could be quite sure that the animals wouldn’t come back the next year. So they killed only as many as they actually needed, and they thanked the animals, performing a ritual so there would be food again. You don’t have people strip-mining the earth when they respect it in that way.” Campbell explains that a concept of the world which sees God’s presence in every living being and every natural element conflicts with the Judeo-Christian concept of the purpose of nature as it is laid out in Genesis. Campbell argues that in the Western tradition, “man is made to use the animals and use the earth and all that kind of thing with complete disregard. ‘And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.’ The earth is simply that which has not been conquered yet; it is something to be utilized. That’s a ruthless attitude.”
This attitude in the English culture is revealed in their rejection of the Powhatan tribe’s culture. When the Powhatan tribe and the settlers violently confront each other in the fields outside Jamestown, one of the Englishmen yells in frustration at the Powhatans “You’re like a herd of deer! How can you own land?! This earth was made for such that shall improve it and knows how to live!” He then connects this condescending view of their lifestyle by connecting his superior view of the English project of “improvement” to the English concept of God by calling the tribesmen “heathen bastards.” The irony, of course, is that the English camp, a glorified mud pit, is not an improvement on the land, but a destruction of it. As Emerson explains, the settlers suffer from pride: “All men plume themselves on the importance of society, and no man improves. Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. Its progress is only apparent, like the workers of a treadmill. It undergoes continual changes: it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not an amelioration. For every thing that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts and loses old instincts.” Emerson proposes that too much faith and investment in “civilization” leads to a loss of connection with the natural world, “The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet. … He has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun. A Greenwich nautical almanac he has, and so being sure of the information when he wants it, the man in the street does not know a star in the sky.”
In light of Malick’s eternal search for the soul, it is no surprise that the other major way Malick reveals character is through each individual’s search for proof of the existence of the divine in the visible world – something which, in turn, influences their relationship with nature. In The Tree of Life a young Jack kneels in prayer at his bedside and in voice-over, asks “Where do you live?” This is a question repeated by several characters in Malick’s films, including Pocahontas in The New World, who, calling God ‘Mother,’ wonders, “Mother. Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea?” Jack also relates God to his mother, whose belief in “the way of Grace” opens the film, “You spoke to me through her. You spoke with me from the sky, the trees. Before I’d knew I’d left you, believed in you.” Pvt. Witt in The Thin Red Line searches for the divine all around him, even in the horrors of war, and repeatedly challenges Sgt. Welsh over the existence of a spiritual realm. Welsh insists “In this world, a man, himself, is nothin’. And there ain’t no world but this one.” But Witt holds, “You’re wrong there … I’ve seen another world.” Later in the film, when Welsh asks Witt is he’s “still believing in the beautiful light,” Witt replies, “I still see a spark in you.” And at the close of the film Witt offers a kind of prayer: “Oh my soul, let me be in you now. Look out through my eyes. Look out at the things you made. All things shining.” Likewise, The New World opens with a prayer: in a very low angle shot of Pocahontas reaching towards the sky, her voice-over invokes, “Come Spirit. Help us sing the story of our land. You are our mothers, we, your field of corn. We rise from out of the soul of you.” Pocahontas continues to pray throughout the film, and her outstretched, upwards reach becomes a visual motif throughout the film.
At the bios level of an individual life, this zoe desire for a connection with the divine is not only conveyed in prayer but is often translated as an individual’s ability, and above all willingness, to love, reach out, and connect with others. This is expressed in many of Malick’s films, for instance, in The Tree of Life, Mrs. O’Brien’s “way of grace” leads her to advise her sons “Help each other. Love everyone.” In The Thin Red Line, as Pvt. Witt cares for the wounded soldiers, in voice-over he expresses a revelation about the nature of the divine, suggesting “Maybe all men got one big soul, where everybody’s a part of. All faces of the same man, one big self.” From Witt’s point of view, loving one person is loving all people. The desire for oneness with God being expressed through love is at the heart of The New World, and is most clearly embodied by Pocahontas. Often, as Pocahontas prays and speaks to Mother, she seamlessly speaks to, and of, Smith. In one of her voice-overs she asks Mother “Where do you live?” and then seamlessly addresses Smith, “Oh, to be given to you, you to me. I will be faithful to you. True. Two no more. One. One.” Pocahontas sees that love is a creation of oneness, and explicitly aligns earthly love with a desire for oneness with God when she describes Smith: “A god, he seems to me. What else is life but being near you?” Later, when Smith leaves Virginia, a grieving Pocahontas again aligns loving another with a connection to the divine: “You have gone away with my life. Killed the god in me.” Pocahontas explicitly collapses loving Smith with loving Mother.
Like Pocahontas, Smith senses the connection between loving another and feeling oneness with God. Smith not only recognizes her beauty through his own eyes, but appreciates her from the broadest perspective of the universe: “All the children of the king were beautiful, but she, the youngest, was so exceedingly so that the sun himself, though he saw her often, was surprised whenever she came out into his presence. … All loved her.” Matt Zoller Seitz describes Pocahontas as a “dream come true” for Smith, “a dream not just of a woman, of a mate, but of the embodiment of so many things he stands for and didn’t know he stood for until she showed them to him.” Smith clearly yearns for the kind of connection to the soul which itself generates love between people, and not just romantic love, but the ability to love all others. As Smith explores Virginia, he expresses his wish to find “a world equal to our hopes.” He describes this as “a true commonwealth … No man shall stand above any other, but all live under the same law. None shall eat up carelessly what his friend got worthily or steal away that which virtue has stored up. Men shall not make each other their spoil.” Smith finds these virtues within the Powhatan culture, he describes, “They are gentle, loving and faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession. Real what I thought a dream.” Smith cherishes that the Powhatans “trust [him] as a brother,” and his desire for “a true commonwealth” based upon mutual respect and love for each other is fulfilled living with them.
The connection between Smith’s desire for this “commonwealth” based on love and a greater oneness with the soul is evident once Smith returns to the English settlement. For the first time Smith is heard to pray, and as the camp’s new president, he tries to guide the settlers towards the values of equality, telling them “He that will not work shall not eat! The labours of honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain the idleness of a few.” But the settlers clearly resist Smith’s doctrine, and as the camp sinks into desperation, Smith laments “Damnation is like this,” and believes the reason the settlers do not respect the land and each other as the Powhatan do is because, aside from laziness, they are disconnected from God: “The country is to them a misery, a death, a hell.” Smith’s “commonwealth” cannot survive in Jamestown because the religious institution rooted in the English settlement makes a divisive split between the love of God and the love of another person. When Rolfe seeks permission from the church to marry Pocahontas, the church leader is careful to advise Rolfe that his letter to the church must clearly state his desire for marriage is part of a greater project of “converting the naturals” and “that this idea came to [him] in no way through any carnal affection.” Ultimately, the characters in The New World all sense what is expressed in 1 John 4:7: “Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God.” In Malick’s cinema, to love another is literally an act of channeling the divine, just as the loss of love brings the death of faith.
While many of Malick’s characters have deep faith in the reality of the eternal, and sense that oneness – with others, with nature, and the divine – is the ultimate truth, tension arises from the fact that no concrete proof of this realm or the divine can be found in the physical world. And each character is closer or further from feeling the reality of oneness and the divine to varying degrees. In The Thin Red Line, Pvt. Witt clearly believes in the ultimate oneness between all people in “one big soul,” and he defends his belief in “another world” against Welsh’s insistence “there ain’t no world but this one,” but even Witt cannot produce concrete proof of this world. In fact, Witt even doubts his own convictions: “I’ve seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.” Likewise, Staros, who valiantly disregards orders from Tall in order to save his men from certain slaughter, though he clearly believes in the rightness of his actions, admits “Not knowing if you’re doing any good: that’s the hard part.” For those who are further away from the reality of oneness and the divine, their experiences tend to be self-validating, for example, although Welsh admires Witt’s ability to believe in “the beautiful light,” asking him “How do you do that? You’re a magician to me,” when Witt is shot and killed, Welsh’s despair validates his cynicism. At Witt’s make-shift grave Welsh kneels, and crying, asks, “Where’s your spark now?” At the end of the film, as Welsh joins a new company, he internally rejects the structure of the military along with Witt’s vision of another world: “Everything a lie. Everything you see, everything you hear. So much to spew out. They just keep coming, one after another. You’re in a box, a moving box. They want you dead, or in their lie. Only one thing a man can do: find something that’s his, make an island for himself.”
The choice between believing only in the physical world or putting faith in a spiritual reality is not an easy one, and is the choice around which The Tree of Life revolves. The film opens with Mrs. O’Brien in voice-over making this choice explicit, “The nuns taught us that there were two ways through life: the way of nature and the way of grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself, accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself, get others to please it too, likes to lord it over them, to have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy when all the world is shining around it, and love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you, whatever comes.” Her decision to be true to “the way of grace” is immediately followed by the news of her youngest son’s death, and in her grief her faith is seriously tested. Mr. O’Brien, on the other hand, like Sgt. Welsh, clearly follows the “way of nature,” teaching his sons that “You want to succeed you can’t be too good,” and insists their mother is “naive.”
In The New World, this tension between the “way of grace” and the “way of nature” is played out in the contrast between the English and Powhatan cultures. While the Powhatan tribe are often shown engaging in rituals and various types of prayer, there is no sense of an organized religion. The settlers, on the other hand, have a clear and institutional religion. They build a church in their camp, and when Rolfe pursues his desire to marry Pocahontas, he must ask the permission of the church who chastise him for wanting a “strange wife” but agree only after Pocahontas is baptized and Rolfe writes a letter explaining his marriage to Pocahontas would be “the beginning of the great work of converting the naturals” to Christianity. The strangeness of Christianity to the Powhatan tribe is underlined by the adviser of the Powhatan Chief, who accompanies Pocahontas and Rolfe to England “to see this God they speak so much about.” The shots of England include several images of a church and stained glass featuring biblical imagery in camera movements which directly mirror the shots of Virginia’s landscape. This is important because, to recall Joseph Campbell, a society’s relationship with nature is not separate from their concept of God. And the English and Powhatan concepts of the divine are clearly reflected in how they treat the land: the English see land as something to lord over, whereas the Powhatan live with nature, within its rhythm, and rather than put faith in institutions, seem to extract their understanding of spiritual reality directly from nature.
Reviewer Stephen Hunter, not exactly a fan of Malick’s work, having once referred to him as “the only man in history who could make a boring movie about the battle of Guadalcanal,” was unimpressed with The New World’s contrast between the Powhatan and English cultures, arguing the morality Malick presents as “deep” is too obvious: “the interior of a tribal lodge is filmed as if it’s a cathedral bathed in radiant light through a stained-glass window, while the interior of the English hutches at Jamestown are threadbare, not merely decoratively but by metaphorical extension, spiritually impoverished. Again easy.” Even though this is meant critically, it is, at least on the surface, still accurate. Clearly there is a “spiritually impoverished” quality to life in Jamestown. When Smith returns after being held “captive” by the Powhatan tribe, he is immediately confronted by Jamestown’s current President, Wingfield. While Smith describes the Powhatan culture as “lacking in all guile and trickery. The words denoting lying, deceit, greed, envy, slander, and forgiveness have never been heard. They have no jealousy, no sense of possession,” his confrontation with Wingfield is a direct contradiction to the Powhatan culture. Wingfield immediately informs Smith that he was “indicted upon a chapter in Leviticus and tried” while he was away. The other settlers are quick to point out, though, that Wingfield has “been keeping all the good food for himself.” Although Wingfield protests “I have shared all. I have kept nothing for myself. Nothing!” he immediately moves to kill Smith, declaring, “There’s no sense waiting for a trial. This is mutiny. I dispatch you herewith in the name of the king,” but is shot by one of the other men before he can harm anyone. The concepts of law, possession, and sharing are heavily legalistic in Jamestown, and unlike the Powhatan culture which is based on a shared sense of being, and a sense of oneness, the legalism in the English settlement is based on a deep mistrust of one another. Smith’s dream of men not making “each other their spoil” is a reality in the Powhatan camp, but is clearly not the way of life in Jamestown: as one of the English children tells Smith on his return, it has been “Four months of stealing and stealing and stealing.”
There is clearly a sense of disunity among the English settlers, a deep sense of separateness from one another. This is in direct contrast to the sense of oneness Smith discovers is the basis of Powhatan life which has “no sense of possession” or words for greed or envy. The willingness to take advantage of others is symptomatic of disconnection, not only with others, but as earthly love is the bios incarnation of the zoe reality of oneness, it is also symptomatic of a disconnection from God: the “spiritual [impoverishment]” Hunter observes. This disconnection is also reflected in the Jamestown church, who’s construction remains unfinished through most of the film, appearing simply as a frame.
The exploration of the “New World” for the English is also a reflection of their “spiritual impoverishment.” The first intertitle of the film, reads “A New Start,” and the tendency to see Virginia as an opportunity for a new beginning, and a new life, is something Smith values highly. Shortly after arriving, in voice-over, Smith calls Virginia “the fabled land” and idealizes the opportunity to begin again: “There life shall begin. A world equal to our hopes. … We shall make a new start. A fresh beginning.” Once he returns from England, Cpt. Newport echoes Smith’s idealism to the second wave of settlers: “Let us make a new beginning and create a fresh example for humanity. We are the pioneers of the world.” Smith hopes the “fabled land” where “life shall begin” is “a land where one might wash one’s soul pure, rise to one’s true stature.” Likewise, Newport practically quotes Smith in his speech to the new settlers, “Let us prepare a land where a man may rise to his true stature, a land of the future, a new kingdom of the spirit.”
The emphasis on pure souls and “a new kingdom of the spirit” underlines the extent to which the discovery of the new world is also a search for the divine; however, their emphasis on the desire for a “purified” soul and “new kingdom” of the spirit speaks to the extent of their disconnection, as they would not go half-way around the world in search of God if they felt connected to the divine. This idealist hope about the new world’s potential to cleanse the spirit is fulfilled for Smith while he lives in the Powhatan camp, but is short lived. Once Smith returns to Jamestown this ideal, which does not find expression Jamestown’s culture, is overwhelmed. At this point, the tone and content of Smith’s voice-overs change: his idealism rots to pessimism, and his clear, coherent voice-overs increasingly split into the intersection of several interior voices, and his tone increasingly becomes one of despair. His early faith in Virginia being “a world equal to our hopes” becomes an awareness of the settlement’s failure: “Damnation is like this.” Following the violent clash with the Powhatans, Smith betrays his fear that God has abandoned Jamestown: “Lord, turn not away thy face. You desire not the death of a sinner. … Let us not be brought to nothing. … Deliver us from evil that sit in darkness.” Smith then explicitly identifies his disconnection from God, in a prayer he regrets: “I have gone away from You.”
More than anything, Smith desires salvation. Smith feels “saved,” though temporarily, while living with the Powhatan, as he discovers a life which is the realization of his hopes: “Real what I thought a dream.” Smith’s sense of salvation is not just because the Powhatan who are in his eyes “gentle, loving and faithful, lacking in all guile and trickery,” but because they do not judge him: “They trust me as a brother. I, who was a pirate who lived to steal what I could. I am a free man now. All that they have is given me.” Smith recognizes that his “lawless” past was one of disconnection, and that the release he feels with the accepting Powhatan is what he has truly been searching for: “Lawless, I was a dead man. Now I live.” Once Smith returns to Jamestown this sense of salvation dissipates, and he begins to yearn in his voice-overs for redemption. He again clings to his hopes for a new beginning: “That fort is not the world. The river leads back there. It leads onward too. Deeper. Into the wild. Start over.” But there is a marked sadness about Smith now, a guilt or regret, as he prays for himself and Jamestown to be delivered from evil. Smith calls himself “a monster unto many” and over the most desperate image of the film, he pleads “Cast me not away. Make me a clean heart.”
Curiously, Smith begins to doubt the reality of his salvation with the Powhatan. Although while living with the tribe he declares “There is only this. All else is unreal,” after returning to Jamestown and settling back into the harsh lifestyle in the settlement, he despairs, “It was a dream. Now I am awake.” It is as if Smith’s conscious awareness of the salvation he feels in the Powhatan camp cannot survive in the “spiritually impoverished” Jamestown. This sense of spiritual impoverishment is crucial because in Jamestown Smith’s yearning for atonement is explicitly religious. Smith’s voice-overs are peppered with references to the Bible and religious hymns. For example, Smith’s self-condemnation that he has “become as it were a monster unto many” is Psalm 71:7 in the 1599 Geneva Bible. Likewise, Smith’s plea “Cast me not away. Make me a clean heart” comes from Psalm 51:10-12: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from thy presence, and take not thine holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of thy salvation, and establish me with thy free Spirit.” Smith is explicitly yearning for salvation and freedom, a desire Smith clearly identifies as a matter of the soul. These prayers are a strong indication that what Smith really feels is a profound disconnection from a divine presence in his life, at least in Jamestown. After all, divinity in Malick’s films is not restricted to a religious or dogmatic view of God. For Malick, one’s connection with the divine extends to one’s relationship with nature, which Malick clearly places as a manifestation of God. This reverence for nature is strongly honoured and practised within the Powhatan culture, and is largely ignored by the English settlers who see nature as something to control. It is to their detriment, however, as their crops consistently die, the land inside their settlement is entirely mud, and they starve despite being surrounded by wealth.
The difference between the English and the Powhatan in their respective connections with the divine extends beyond their differing relationships to nature. Whether one feels at peace with God, or in need of salvation is largely a matter of one’s concept of time. The English and the Powhatan have opposing concepts of time and therein experience divinity differently. The settlers have a strictly linear sense of time: it proceeds in a straight line from the past, through the present and into the future. Hailing from a heavily traditional culture, the English believe absolutely in the reality of the past, and likewise, they are absorbed by the concept of progress (hence their exploration of the New World itself) which, as a by product, creates a kind of worship of the future. The goal of coming to the New World for the English is indeed a “new start,” but the strongest barrier to this freedom is their habit of chaining each other to the past. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the structure of English culture (at the time) rests on concepts of lineage: no self-respecting monarchy overlooks the importance of bloodlines. Concepts like noble birthrights and a hierarchical class system also privilege particular relationships to the past, who your family is – or is not – matters absolutely. This is the exact culture the settlers are eager to shed in the new world. Smith clearly longs for the equality of a society which does not place limitations or bestow entitlements to individuals based on lineage but rather merit: “Here the blessings of the earth are bestowed upon all. None need grow poor. Here there is good ground for all and no cost but one’s labour. We shall build a true commonwealth, hard work and self-reliance our virtues. We shall have no landlords to rack us with high rents or extort the fruit of our labour. No man shall stand above any other, but all live under the same law.” Likewise, Captain Newport clearly identifies this ideal for a new society as distinct from the originating culture as he tells the new settlers, “We have escaped the Old World and its bondage. Let us make a new beginning and create a fresh example for humanity.”
However, these idealistic hopes for a new kind of social order are quickly forgotten. While the first intertitle of the film hopefully declares “A New Start,” it cuts immediately to a shot of a hangman’s knot, with Smith awaiting his death sentence for mutiny. Although Newport orders Smith to be let go, Newport warns him his crimes have not been forgiven: “Now remember, Smith, you’ve come to these shores in chains. You’re under a cloud which will darken considerably if I hear any more of your mutinous remarks.” Later, as Newport explains the settlement’s desperate need for food, he suggests one of them approach the Powhatan to attempt to begin trading but warns “it will be a hazardous mission.” When someone offers “Captain Smith is the only professional soldier among us,” Wingfield, clearly an upper class gentleman, objects to Smith’s “qualifications” for the mission based on his past: “Smith, sir? … What is to prevent this friend of the hangman from making league with the naturals and turning upon us … or indeed instructing them in the conduct of war and English strategies, if I may make so bold? His right to captaincy is dubious at best. The low born son of a farmer cannot be expected to behave with a gentleman’s sense of propriety.” Newport then offers the mission to Smith as a kind of atonement: “You have an opportunity to repair your reputation. I expect you to welcome it.”
This tendency to worship the past isn’t only directed at Smith. During Smith’s confrontation with Wingfield, another settler offers a kind of explanation for Wingfield’s disloyal behaviour: “His name is not even Wingfield. It’s Woodson. Woodson is the name. Left England under a cloud of disgrace.” And after Wingfield’s death, one settler, standing over his body, suggests he wouldn’t have allowed his servant in England to hang around someone of Wingfield’s “type,” but is quickly corrected by another man who reminds him, “You never had a servant. You were a servant.” While the English clearly desire a “new start,” they obsessively bring up the past as if it’s inescapable. There is a clear belief in the absolute reality of linear time: as President, Smith is even approached to settle an argument between two men who are fighting about what day of the year it is.
By contrast, the Powhatan do not appear to measure time. As Pocahontas begins to learn to read and write, Rolfe visits her with books and teaches her the calendar, reciting the months in order. Pocahontas then asks him “What is an hour?” The Powhatan seem more in tune with the concept of time reflected in nature: cyclicity and presence. Emerson wrote extensively about the reality of time in nature, which he saw clearly as free of the arbitrary linearity modern societies seem obsessed with: “Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. … There is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.” While the English, who are divorced from any meaningful relationship with nature are preoccupied with linear time, Emerson is clear that nature is completely free of this concept: “These roses under my window make no reference to former roses or to better ones; they are for what they are; they exist with God to-day. There is no time to them. There is simply the rose; it is perfect in every moment of its existence. … Its nature is satisfied, and it satisfies nature, in all moments alike. There is no time to it. But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.”
The different concepts of time in the film sheds light on Malick’s unconventional editing technique, as it clearly mirrors the cyclical time of nature. The film constantly cuts between the human drama and Malick’s trademark “landscape” shots. The same types of images repeat: trees, running water, still water, passing clouds, grass, flowers, insects, flying birds. An image of a harsh winter cuts to spring. The camera repeatedly glides over bodies of water, rivers, streams, and lakes. In the soundtrack, Wagner’s operatic Das Rheingold and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 appear and reappear, and as Matt Zoller Seitz points out, there is a recurrent use of the sound of wind throughout the film. Outside of landscape shots, other visual compositions are repeated: shots of Pocahontas walking towards the camera being followed by Smith, and at other times Rolfe, recurs several times. Low angled shots of light streaming through a high window also repeat: at first through the Powhatan tent, and again through a sunroof in Pocahontas’s Jamestown home. As the camera moves freely in the “wild” nature of Virginia, it is mirrored by rigid tracking in the manicured, ordered nature in the English gardens. Another strong visual motif, perhaps one of the most thematically relevant in the film, is the recurrence of Pocahontas with her arms outstretched in prayer.
Not only does the editing structure of the film anchor itself in repeating images, particularly of nature, but the pace of the film is heavily influenced by the comparison between the “time of towns” and the “time of nature.” For Malick this is also the difference between the bios time of humans and the zoe time of God, that from a divine perspective time is not linear but in constant renewal. The eternal quality of nature’s cyclical time underlines the importance of presence. Rather than the quality of linear time in which one experiences a perpetual sense of loss, eternity has the quality of stillness. The film’s editing deliberately imitates this which is in direct contrast to classical continuity which most often replicates linear time, and even when it does not, the order of events is never in question. While many viewers find Malick’s films “slow,” anxious as they are to keep the plot moving and to stay engaged with the drama engulfing the film’s characters, Malick’s notoriously long shot lengths, of which the majority are of nature, create stillness, and encourage an awareness of the eternal presence of nature, and soften the continued sense of loss which comes with linear time. While many reviewers felt the film abandoned its own meaning by leaving character motivations unexplained and offering no comment on the consequences of each passing event, Malick seems more interested in taking characters who are facing overwhelmingly difficult, chaotic, and painful experiences (be it World War II, colonization, or the simple but profound tension of family) and grounding his films in the stillness and eternal presence of the divine. The aim of which does not seem to be to minimize the struggles of individuals as meaningless or unimportant, but rather to remind us of the indestructible peace upon which life is based. Malick’s films can be profoundly reassuring if you, as he himself suggests, “just get into it; let it roll over you.”
The distinction between concepts of time in each culture is crucial because it goes a long way to explain Smith’s deep sense of freedom and indeed genuine salvation while living with the Powhatan. After being relentlessly chained to his “dubious” past and lineage, he expresses utter amazement at the irrelevance of his past within the camp. The Powhatan do not judge Smith based on a past they did not experience, but rather on who he is in their presence. That Smith feels redemption in a culture with a different experience of time is telling, because although the English desire for salvation is made impossible by their belief in linear time, the very concept of linear time derives from the Christian tradition. In the Christian faith, that Jesus died and was resurrected is taken as absolute truth, as is the promise of his second coming, and the calendar year itself is based on these beliefs. The Gregorian calendar, the one most widely used today, is often referred to as the “Christian calendar,” and the designations of B.C. and A.D. refer to “Before Christ” and “Anno Domini” which translates to “In the year of the Lord.” Literally, when we refer to what year it is, it is a kind of reference to how long it has been since Christ is said to have died. It is therefore not a mistake that Pocahontas’s “adoption” into the English culture begins with learning the English concept of time and is promptly followed by being baptized into their faith.
An individual’s concept of time has a clear relationship with whether that individual feels at peace, or in the religious terms of the English settlers, saved. The Jamestown camp is filled with death, nothing grows in the camp, and inside its walls the ground is nothing but mud. When Smith returns after spending time with the Powhatan, the children who greet him describe the state of ‘life’ in the camp since Smith has been gone as “Just dying and sickness and all that.” Later, a settler, fearful one of the sick men in the camp may contaminate all the others, suggests killing him before he infects anyone, and underlining the sense of doom hanging over Jamestown he pleads, “Have we got to wait until all is dead?” During winter, as the settlers are reduced to eating the leather of their own belts, someone tells Smith that not only is Ackley dead, but “Somebody ate his hands.” This strikes a particular wound to Smith, whose early hopes of “a true commonwealth” where “Men shall not make each other their spoil” is an ideal which dies in this moment as the English are reduced to literally eating each other. It is the death of the salvation Smith dreamed of when first arriving in the New World.
In fact, the film suggests the camp is filled with death because the English are disconnected from God and therefore have no immediate experience of salvation. As the linear concept of time is closely associated with the Christian faith, it is important to note that death is closely related to the idea of sin. The book of Genesis in the Bible explains that death only becomes possible after Eve sins by eating from the forbidden tree, gaining the knowledge of good and evil which makes sin possible. Before this, the garden of Eden is a place of everlasting life. In addition, sin and guilt are past oriented, as you are held accountable for past behaviour until you atone in some way. Salvation, framed in Christianity as the forgiveness for sin, is a release from one’s past. By contrast, upon arriving in Virginia, Smith is immediately warned he’s “under a cloud” of suspicion, and the “fresh beginning” in the New World is actually an opportunity to “repair [his] reputation.” This cultural addiction to punish each other for perceived sins is also seen when Newport metes out consequences early on for crimes like stealing: “Brand him. Cut off his ears.” These punishments are mutations which will last the person’s lifetime, literally branding someone as a sinner forever. And so, the heavy religiosity in Jamestown is used by Malick with irony: in the Christian faith the “good news” of Christ is that of salvation, that Christ’s sacrifice has absolved all sins and restored the promise of everlasting life, yet the English seem unable, or at least unwilling, to look on each other as brothers, and their insistence on the reality of linear time (even though symbolically it carries the promise of eternal life) and the relevance of the past makes salvation impossible and reeks of death.
Of course this only further compounds the spiritual emptiness of the English as compared to the Powhatan which Hunter suggests is too easy a conclusion for Malick to draw convincingly as Malick clearly “favours nature over man.” However, Malick seems careful to draw out the irony of a culture who bases their faith on the concept of salvation, to the extent where they travel half-way around the globe to find a New World on which to build a society based on that principle, and then are seemingly unable to forgive each other. Moreover, the Powhatan are not set-up to be polar opposites of the English. Rather, Malick is more interested in how the cultures are alike, and how those apparent boundaries are only illusions. While the Powhatan do not frame their beliefs in the formally religious way the English do, they base their culture on the assumption that life is eternal, rather than something that must be “earned,” because this never-ending renewal is something they can touch and see in nature. Emerson also points out the difference between the death implicit in linear time and the sense of eternity in cyclical time which is powerfully represented in nature: “the time in towns is tolled from the world by funeral chimes, but in nature the universal hours are counted by succeeding tribes of animals and plants, and by growth of joy on joy.” As the English town seems riddled with death, the Powhatan camp is teeming with life. At the point in the film when Jamestown is most closely associated with death, when the settlers have resorted to cannibalism so as not to starve, Pocahontas and her tribe literally bring life to Jamestown as they arrive during winter with warm clothing, and food. She also gives them viable seed for crops which are the first successful growth in the settlement.
But it is not such a clear cut distinction. Pocahontas herself experiences both cultural concepts of time. Obviously, having been raised in the Powhatan culture, Pocahontas has a strong relationship to the cyclical life of nature. After being told of Smith’s “death” by drowning, over images of her former home being attacked and destroyed by the English, she clearly experiences the “reality” of linear time and its close association with death: “On the bed of fate we lie. Make an end of you … I mourn. I grieve.” Likewise, when Rolfe arrives in Jamestown and first encounters Pocahontas, who is still wracked by grief, he identifies her as being trapped by linearity: “When I first saw her, she was regarded as someone finished, broken, lost.” Pocahontas feels finished, in voice-over she pleads “Come, death. Take me.” And not unlike the English, whose separation from God is both symptomatic of and made worse by being trapped in linear time, in Pocahontas’s grief over Smith’s supposed death she experiences a deep disconnection from the divine: “You have gone away with my life. Killed the god in me.” Pocahontas returns, however, to her joy only after she reconnects with the eternity of nature. Immediately after beckoning death, she prays, “Let me be what I was” and stopping at the foot of a tree rediscovers her sense of awe at nature: she reaches out to the tree, returns to the river, washes her face and prays. When she returns to Jamestown, Mary, again resisting the “easy” comparison between the English and the Powhatan, encapsulates the lesson of nature: “All this sorrow will give you strength and point you on a higher way. Think of a tree, how it grows around its wounds. If a branch breaks off if don’t stop but keep reaching towards the light.” This wisdom also correlates with the transcendentalist writings of Emerson, who explains Pocahontas’s recovery this way: “In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man, in spite of real sorrows” and that “nature is medicinal.” And as Mary suggests of the tree which keeps “reaching towards the light,” of Pocahontas’s rediscovery of the divine in the forest which soothes her grief, Emerson adds, “The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship“ – or in this case a she – for it is to be reconnected to the eternity of God, “above time,” and free from death.
This brings us back to Malick’s unconventional editing style. The film is structured rather like an extended montage, where images collide with each other, interweave with each other, but do not necessarily follow each other. The concept of “montage” used in The New World, however, is not in the conventional spirit which usually comes to mind. Malick seems to be using the theory of montage first pioneered by Soviet filmmakers in the 1920s when montage was not simply a technique for representing a long span of time in a short sequence, but a theory about how the collision and juxtaposition of different images created meaning. In the footsteps of Vsevolod Pudovkin, Malick uses shots of landscapes to embed a larger theme in the drama of his individual characters. For Malick, placing the bios centred drama of individual lives within the scope of eternal, and even divine nature, zoe, motivates his rejection of conventional continuity: his juxtaposition of bios and zoe creates a sense of ultimate continuity, of that between the self and others, and between individuals and the universe itself. Within this context, individual deaths occur, but death is no longer an end, simply part of a larger cycle. Here, death is seen within the context of eternity. This is exactly the concept of time which is accepted in the Powhatan culture, and by the film itself. As reviewer Scott Tobias points out, the film makes no attempt to underline any sense of tragedy in Pocahontas’s death at the end of the film. Matt Zoller Seitz agrees, stating, “The New World isn’t meant to be interpreted as self-contained and linear – locked-off from the rest of time and space – but as a microcosm of a larger cycle, a lone rotation of a clock’s second hand.” Seitz also identifies that while the film itself is a linear construct, that is, in order to watch the film you are required to experience it in a linear way watching it from beginning to end, the film’s ending “plays as much as a beginning,” and that the film’s “official ‘opening’ seems less a starting point than a marker in an unbroken loop.”
The clearest example of this comes in the final sequence of the film when we learn of Pocahontas’s death. The sequence features the quickest editing pace of the film and purposefully breaks classical continuity. We see Thomas chasing sheep, and playing hide-and-seek with Pocahontas in the estate gardens. Over images of Thomas searching for Pocahontas, Rolfe drafts a letter to Thomas in voice-over explaining that Pocahontas, Rebecca, fell ill in their “outward passage” to Virginia. The film cuts to Rolfe kneeling at Pocahontas’s bedside as she dies, and then returns to Thomas wandering the gardens calling for her. We are then shown an empty bed, and opposite the bed in a chair is a Powhatan, painted in nearly all black, who stares at the bed for a moment and then sprints suddenly out of the room. The film then returns to Pocahontas playing in the garden, appreciating the trees and praying in the small pond. Rolfe and Thomas then leave on a ship returning to Virginia (at least that is the assumption). The final series of shots shows the ship leaving port, a glimpse of a graveyard, back to the ship (or a ship), and more of Malick’s landscape shots including a sunset, water running over rocks and a river before ending of the final image of the film: a low angle shot of trees. The editing here deliberately rearranges time: before her game with Thomas ends – in fact it is never resolved – Pocahontas dies, only to return again, seen playing in the garden by the water’s edge. And the strange Powhatan in black is never explained and appears and disappears completely without context.
Matt Zoller Seitz describes this final sequence as a collision of many beginnings and endings. In particular, following the shots of Rolfe and Thomas boarding the ship home, the film cuts to the ship leaving, then to a graveyard, and then offers another shot of the ship, for Seitz this shot is significant because it so clearly breaks classical continuity: “a lifetime of exposure to traditional film grammar primes us for a shot of the ship headed away from us, its outward direction implying an end. Yet it’s coming towards us” indicating a kind of beginning, or arrival. Again, suggesting time is not linear but cyclic, in Seitz’s words, “an unending loop.” Pocahontas’s death is therefore not framed as an ending, even though it arrives at the close of the film. There is a clear rebellion against the interpretation of her death as final. The editing itself suggests as much, following shots of her on her deathbed, she is seen playing in the garden very much alive. Reiterating the concept of cyclicity, this short sequence recalls earlier shots of the film as well, Pocahontas is again seen caressing a tree, and standing in the water praying. As if enacting the essence of the film’s “unending loop,” Pocahontas here turns a cartwheel and spins playfully.
Ironically, this open ended finale brings the resolution of Pocahontas’s spiritual quest throughout the film to find the presence of the divine in her life. Immediately after the opening credit sequence, Pocahontas prays “Dear Mother, how shall I seek you? Show me your face.” Later, she prays “Mother. Where do you live? In the sky? The clouds? The sea?” Pocahontas also prays for Mother to “Show me your way. Teach my your path.” As Wagner’s Das Rheingold swells again, as it did at the film’s opening, Pocahontas and Thomas play in the gardens and she takes a moment to breathe, peacefully stating, “Mother, now I know where you live.” Hiding from Thomas, she then darts off screen. While her finding Mother seems like a resolution, it is ultimately Pocahontas’s realization of eternity: immediately following Pocahontas’s revelation, Rolfe begins to draft the letter to his son about her death, and explains that on her deathbed “She gently reminded me that all must die. ‘Tis enough,’ she said, ‘that you, our child, should live.’” Pocahontas here recognizes her life is only a small piece of the immortal world, and that life continuing, here in the guise of her son, is the ultimate truth. She seems only to find God once she recognizes the reality of cyclic time, or as Emerson puts it, “succeeding tribes of animals and plants, and by growth of joy on joy.” It is also important to note that Pocahontas reappears after her “death”, dancing and praying. The quick succession of nature shots which end the film also suggest the continuation of life, resisting the urge to traumatize her death, as it is placed in the context of life continuing through her son and within the context of the continuing life of the universe: Individual lives and deaths are but the inhaling and exhaling of the world. Rolfe tells Thomas that Pocahontas fell ill “at Gravesend,” a small town in Kent where she was buried, but as Matt Zoller Seitz astutely points out, “Not Gravesend: grave’s end.” Unlike the death which hangs over Jamestown, Pocahontas’s death is not a loss, it is a reconnection with the divine, it is the ultimate incarnation of “everlasting life”, or as Seitz eloquently puts it: “Our remains seep into the water and soil and feed the trees.”
For more on how all of this fits together and the role of culture in salvation and love, visit Part 2 here.