An expanded version of my Indian Comics Irregular essay Pocahontas II: Flawed Again:
Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World is Disney's direct-to-video sequel to Pocahontas. Since more people are likely to see this than other Native-themed products such as PEACE PARTY, let's examine the message it conveys.
The curtain opens with John Smith's presumed death in England. In America Pocahontas grieves for her love and wonders what's next. In reality Pocahontas may have grieved because she didn't know Smith's fate after he returned to England. From there the movie and reality diverge.
The movie: Jamestown and Powhatan Indians thrive independently. Newcomer John Rolfe conveys Pocahontas to England to ensure peace. Pocahontas must act "civilized" to persuade King James not to send armada. Pocahontas stops cruel bear-baiting, is thrown in dungeon. Rolfe and resurrected John Smith rescue her. Pocahontas bursts in on King James in "uncivilized" manner, demands peace. King James acquiesces. Smith, Rolfe, and Pocahontas stop armada before it sails. Pocahontas chooses Rolfe over rival Smith. Pocahontas and Rolfe sail off into sunset.
The reality: Powhatan Indians declare war on Jamestown. Jamestown nears collapse. English colonists capture Pocahontas, hold her hostage. Chief Powhatan agrees to peace. Widower Rolfe marries Pocahontas in captivity and she bears him a son. Rolfe takes Pocahontas to England to meet kin. Smith, whom Pocahontas calls "father," writes letter of introduction to persuade King James to see her. Pocahontas is a novelty in high society. After seven months, Pocahontas dies of pneumonia without returning home.
We can attribute many of these changes to the demands of movie-making. They aren't much worse than the flaws in any historical movie. But one change is fundamental, and fundamentally wrong:
In the movie, the English colonists are competent and benign. The conflict arises from the evil Ratliffe's insane desire for gold. In reality, the English were neither competent nor benign. The colonists would've died without Powhatan's help, yet they continued to covet the Natives' land.
Much in the movie serves to redeem the Europeans. Not only are their colonists and colony healthy, but everything about them is rosy. The ships aren't cramped stinkholes, but broad-beamed sea-chariots. London isn't dirty, smelly, and diseased, but a fairyland (Disney-land?) of sights and experiences. Except for the bear-baiting and the frippery of the ball, England is a model of civilization.
A paved-over, poverty-stricken city couldn't have seemed natural to Native visitors like Pocahontas. One suspects they were appalled by the squalor and deprivation of 16th-century England. If they weren't, a modern observer undoubtedly would've been—if Disney had shown it like it was.
But Pocahontas II portrays the English as essentially noble. This despite the fact that the country was a tyranny of king and church, not the democracy we know today. What the movie ignores is the English belief in divine right—the right to remake the world in their image.
Far from being an aberration in a few bad men, this belief was pervasive. As far as the English were concerned, America was empty land, theirs for the taking. They were willing to kill "interfering" Natives, or hold an innocent girl hostage, to achieve their aims.
Regardless of its quality, a movie that denies this is a historical cheat.
Artistically speaking, the film has the usual Disney sheen. It's almost as cute as the original. Pocahontas is a babe, Rolfe and Smith are hunks, and the animals are a barrel of monkeys.
Most important, the notion of respecting other cultures remains intact. That's always valid and noteworthy. So enjoy the characters' antics, but don't overlook the subliminal message: that "civilization" and conquest are ennobling enterprises.
Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.
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Comments on Disney's Pocahontas
The Powhatan Indians' view of the Disney movies
More on Disney's portrayal of women
More on Native American stereotypes
Democracy rocks—with Indian help
Gingrich flunks "American Culture"
Ten little Pilgrims and Indians
. . .
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Original text and pictures © copyright 2007 by Robert Schmidt.
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