Saturday, 17 November 2012

Pocahontas (1995)

Dir. Mike Gabriel, Eric Goldberg
Starring: Irene Bedard, Mel Gibson, David Ogden Stiers, Christian Bale 

In the words of Peggy Lee (seen in Coal Miner’s Daughter):

“Captain Smith and Pocahontas
 Had a very mad affair;
 When her daddy tried to kill him
 She said ‘Daddy, oh don’t you dare –
 He gives me fever…”

The film Pocahontas is the tale of that fever. As seen by the Disney Corporation. 

Captain John Smith (voiced by Mel Gibson) is an Indian-killer, aboard a ship bound for the New World. Commanding the expedition of the Virginia Company is the villainous Governor Ratcliffe (David Ogden Stiers, the genial mayor from Doc Hollywood). He believes that the new territories hide a fortune in gold with which he can truly break into court society. Smith, however, is more impressed by the wonders of the New World. 

One of those wonders is Pocahontas (voiced by Irene Bedard but sung by Judy Kuhn). She is the free-spirited daughter of Chief Powhatan (Russell Means, who died last month / Jim Cummings). She consistently wants to see what is happening ‘Just Around the River Bend’… and just around the bend she finds the English staking claim to the continent. Fortunately the first of their kind she meets is the adventurous Smith. Despite coming from two very different cultures they fall in love. Meanwhile both the Natives and the English declare war to wipe out those whom they consider to be “Savages, savages, barely even human” 

So actually, the plot is not unlike that of Romeo and Juliet – a forbidden love in a time of conflict. When Kokoum (James Apaumut Fall) if killed beneath Pocahontas’s arm I was irresistibly reminded of the death of Mercutio in R&J. Thankfully there are no other deaths however. The two sides manage to make their peace following intervention from Pocahontas. 

WWE wrestling dates back to the earliest
years of the American colonies
Pocahontas is not as amusing as other Disney movies of that era such as Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast. There is some humour provided by Pocahontas’s animal companions Flit the hummingbird and Meeko the raccoon (and Meeko’s provocation of Ratcliffe’s pet pug, Percy). But generally the humour feels geared towards the very young. It is visual humour as the animals don’t speak – a decision made in pre-production. It was felt that humour did not land itself greatly to the themes of the storyline. Because Pocahontas has a Serious Message. It is a warning against prejudice and hate. “They’re different from us, which means they can’t be trusted” sing the natives about the English.  “They’re not like you and me, which means they must be evil” the English sing back. Even the accepting Smith causes offence by referring to Pocahontas’s people as savages: “’Savage’ is just a word, you know. A term for people who are uncivilised.” “What you mean”, Pocahontas fires back, “is ‘not like you’.”  

The two sides have different views of the world. To the English ‘civilisation’ is the mighty city of London. No sooner do they arrive then they start tearing down trees and digging up the ground in search of gold. To the natives civilisation is living in harmony with the natural world. In the Oscar-winning ‘Colours of the Wind’ Pocahontas says

“You think you own whatever land you land on,
 The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim;
 But I know every rock and tree and creature
 Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”
She invites Smith to “Roll in all the riches all around you / And for once never wonder what they’re worth.”
Tolerance means accepting the other’s point of view as valid – accepting that the person holding that view is valid too. Demonising anyone different is the path to hate and war. 

This is of course a worthy philosophy and so I feel mean for saying anything critical about the film. Personally, I found its worthiness a bit tedious. I would have liked more laughs. And, compared to, say, Toy Story which was released in the same year the animation looks flat and matte. The story has been acclaimed for telling a story in which the Injuns were not the bad guys… but the tale is not the great let’s-all-live-alongside-each-other fable it is hailed as. In the end Pocahontas and Smith do not live happily every after – neither can bear to be away from their homeland. Chief Powhatan tells Smith that he is welcome back any time. And come back the English did. And where are the Native Americans in Virginia now? Their holdings in the state have been reduced to around 8km2. The film won praise by casting Native American actors such as Irene Bedard, Russell Means and Gordon Tootoosis in Native American roles. This takes a very broad-brush interpretation that says that all Indians are the same: Bedard is Alaskan of Inupiat and Inuit descent, Means was Oglala Sioux from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota seen in Thunderheart, and Tootoosis (who played One Stab in Legends of the Fall) was a Cree from Saskatchewan in Canada. Mind you, the ‘English’ are just as loosely drawn: their number includes the Australian Mel Gibson, the American David Ogden Stiers, the Welsh Christian Bale and the Scottish Billy Connolly. Considering that the flag they sail under seems to date (depending on the scene) either from after the 1707 Act of Union with Scotland or the 1801 Act of Union with Ireland I can understand the confusion. 

All-in-all, a worthy film, but one that doesn’t have the pizzazz I was looking for from a Disney film. 

What have I learnt about Virginia?
The learnings from the film are really about how to live one’s life. But it gives an interpretation of the English arrival in Virginia. The Virginia Company was on the search for gold and came into conflict with the Powhatan tribe who lived in the area in harmony with their surroundings. The Powhatan grew corn, gathered squashes and fished in the rivers. Native wildlife included wolf, bear, moose, raccoon, eagle, hummingbird, tortoise, otter and heron. 

Can we go there?
Trying to visit the actual location of the film is difficult because it is, after all, a cartoon. However, the general area of the story was around the Jamestown settlement. The remains of the settlement (Historic Jamestowne) can be found up the James River, south of Williamsburg. The Queen visited in 2007 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of its foundation. There is also a living history park called Jamestown Settlement nearby. 

Pocahontas later married another Englishman, John Rolfe, and travelled to England with him. She died in 1617, some ten years after the events depicted in the film, aged 22(!), and is buried in the vicinity of St. George’s Church in Gravesend, Kent. There is a statue there to commemorate her passing. 

Finding any of the dramatic scenery of Pocahontas’s world, like the soaring cliffs and plunging waterfalls will be difficult however – the area around Jamestown is flat and low-lying. 

Overall Rating: 2/5

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