The Explorer and the Tree

I watched Terrence Malick’s “The New World” last night. This was my second viewing. The first time, I thought it was supposed to be some kind of historical epic action story, and while there were some cool moments, I mostly thought it was slow and kind of boring. But after reading the chapter on it in Jeffrey Overstreet’s “Through a Screen Darkly,” I decided I must have missed something the first time and needed to give it another chance. This time I watched it as a love story. (Keep that contrast in mind. It’s important.)

The movie basically tells the story of the English colonists’ first arrival in the new world, and especially of Pocahontas’s relationship with the men she meets. I don’t know how accurate the movie is historically, and I honestly don’t care. So now that that’s out of the way…

The first man Pocahontas meets is John Smith (played by Colin Farrell). He has been locked up in the ship’s brig for insubordination, but instead of executing him once they reach land, the captain spares his life. He is freed to wander through the pure wilderness and experience all the wild joy he finds there. Chief among the delights he discovers is Pocahontas (the amazing, gorgeous Q’orianka Kilcher, in her first acting role).

Their first meetings are natural and electric. Though they can’t talk to one another yet, they communicate on much deeper levels, seemingly without having to try.

To recap: Smith is the uncontrollable good-looking bad boy, whose shirt is never more than halfway buttoned and who is more at home in nature than in society. He is what John Eldredge thinks every man should be, and Pocahontas falls in love with him instantly. She thinks they will be together forever.

But Smith is an explorer. Seeking out and discovering new things is what drives him. And though he is extremely happy with Pocahontas and does love her, when he is offered a chance to leave her and search for a new path to the Indies, he takes it. The call of an adventure is too strong on him: He has to go.

He is not the man Pocahontas thought he was. She is devastated. She has been told the man she loves, the man she left her family to be with, has died at sea. She wanders through the village like a dazed ghost.

Enter John Rolfe (Christian Bale). He too knows the pain of broken relationships: His wife and child have died. He is a quiet, contemplative, kind man. He does not stand out, doesn’t do anything wild and dangerous, and his shirt is always buttoned to the top. He is called a tree: steady, dependable, and providing shelter and shade.

He sees something beautiful in Pocahontas, something worth resurrecting and saving, but she is not interested. She does not want to be hurt again, and anyway, Rolfe’s demeanor does not enthrall her the way Smith did. But he persists, gently following her and loving her, even though the love is not intially requited.

Eventually they marry, but Rolfe knows there are parts of her heart his wife will never share with him; they are still with Smith, whom Pocahontas has learned is still alive.

John Smith is nothing like me. I’m not bold or exciting or wild, I don’t make first impressions, and I keep myself buttoned up. I have much more in common with John Rolfe, Pocahontas’s quietly curious, tentative second lover, and the one who waits months and years for her to decide if she really loves him.

Pocahontas and John Smith meet again near the end of the movie. The temptation (and opportunity) is there for her to go off with the daring explorer, her first love, and leave the shelter and nurture of the tree.

But she doesn’t.

She returns to Rolfe and tells him, “You are the man I thought you were, and more.”

In Malick’s movie, the staid tree gets the beautiful princess. And I get to believe.

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