Maybe it should happen more often—a willful auteur, after his/her mega-epic has been released to mixed critical reaction and audience indifference, is forced/encouraged to trim his monster’s fat and release it again. Shouldn’t Terrence Malick be thankful for the chance? It’s difficult not to argue that most Hollywood films should in fact be shorter, and this project in humility could be seen as the counteragent to the bloated “director’s cut”—which is by now a beloved factor in our moviegoing lives. The track record isn’t good, however: The recut rereleases of Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America were notorious insults that dominate a narrow field (otherwise taken up by reissues such as Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, from which the director lopped off scenes he’d hated for 20 years). Malick’s The Thin Red Line—still rumored in its heart-stopping present form to be an editing experiment necessitated by the studios’ conniption over the director’s original and more orthodox six-hour cut—is its own whacked paradigm, destined to become more coherent and less “personal” with any future rejiggering.
The “new” New World, however, has only 16 or so minutes shorn from its original 150, the cuts winnowing away at the most easily mocked ingredients: the repetitive forest idylls, and the acres of poesy narration. But the trims are targeted only at the restless: Malick’s movie is essentially intact, and though run through with misjudgments (the voiceover ellipses from The Thin Red Line are still overused and mawkish) it remains a beatific, fabulously Rousseauian experience. It’s as easy to get caught up in Malick’s rapturous wilderness ballet as it is to deride it later, but it’s a different sort of historical film: one whose heart breaks for the onslaught of civilization. But lest we think we’re dealing with a post-Disney snow job, it should be noted that Malick faults the anxious Powhatans for first attacking the Jamestown settlers—when in fact they waited 12 years after the Brits slaughtered an outlying tribe, and, anyway, the bitterness began, with the village-burning Grenville expedition of 1585, 22 years before John Smith even landed.