Terrence Malick’s The New World is an anxious object, a $30 million art movie about the much disputed and misappropriated tale of John Smith and Pocahontas, and as such it’s appropriately rife with conflict: man versus the elements, hometown Indians versus English interlopers, nature-trance contemplation versus smokin’ action sequences. Perhaps the most palpable tension for the filmmakers derived from the nature of the relationship between Jamestown settler Smith and Pocahontas, his Algonquian Indian ally and supposed lover. Reportedly, studio lawyers insisted that love scenes between Colin Farrell and then 14-year-old Q’orianka Kilcher be reshot to ensure compliance with child pornography laws.
According to Smith’s fanciful account, Pocahontas convinced her tribal-bigwig father not to kill Smith in a ritual ceremony which took place when she was about 12—the same age as a certain literary nymphet immortalized by another unreliable narrator. In Nabokov’s Lolita, Humbert Humbert exults as the girl catapults herself into his arms, “her innocent mouth melting under the ferocious pressure of dark male jaws, my palpitating darling!” In Kubrick’s 1962 adaptation, this scene becomes a polite family-picnic embrace; Adrian Lyne’s 1997 stab adheres to community standards with the help of pillows, body doubles, and general gauziness. In The New World, Smith and Pocahontas’s mythic affair (most historians believe that the pair were never romantically involved) becomes a puppies-in-the-laundry-basket montage of hugging, petting, and nuzzling, while Quilty arrives in the form of kindly tobacco planter Christian Bale. All this euphemistic cuddling brings to mind Farrell’s Alexander the Great and his own taboo love for Hephaistion (Jared Leto) in last year’s Oliver Stone flop, wherein undying passion likewise expressed itself in hugs and gazes and more hugs. Gay cutie Heph might as well have been played by eighth-grade cutie Q’Orianka Kilcher. Come to think of it, here’s a post-Brokeback high concept: a gay Lewis and Clark, with Jared Leto as Sacagawea?