When Hollywood Looks at Jamestown

Let’s be blunt and admit it: historical films trouble and disturb professional historians.

Robert Rosenstone, Visions of the Past, 1995

"Captain John Smith and Pocahontas" movie title card (1953)

The quote above represents one of the dilemmas of history education: Can you teach accurately through film? Hollywood represents a very public intersection of fiction and fact. Jamestown is a case study in how deeply embedded some cultural beliefs are.  They include what Terrence Malick in an interview called the “emotional truth” portrayed in his 2008 film on the founding of England’s first permanent colony in America, centering on Pocahontas and John Smith.  In older history textbooks and popular culture, generations of students learned that Pocahontas singlehandedly saved John Smith and the colony of Jamestown. Taking that belief further led to stereotypes of the “good Indian/bad Indian,” and to the presumed inevitability (rightness?) of European colonization. Today, these are considered dominant majority presumptions; challenged from a social justice perspective they still persist in our culture, often due to Hollywood’s influence.

The relationship of Pocahontas and John Smith and her role in saving Jamestown were enhanced in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Americans had continued to grapple with displacing Native peoples and would promote, even force, the assimilation of indigenous and immigrant populations. Therefore, this mythic narrative of Jamestown’s most famous figures became an important element in creating a nationalist identity, embedded in textbooks for generations of students. In film, the inherent symbolism of Pocahontas as peacekeeper, princess, and ancestor to the First Families of Virginia persisted to some degree with each cinematic retelling of the Jamestown story. The colonialist perception of paramount chief Powhatan’s daughter blurred a more authentic view of Virginia Indian society and its leaders in the 17th century.

Between 10 and 11 when she first encountered the adult Captain Smith, young Pocahontas was not a power figure or a woman by her culture’s standards; according to one account, she later referred to him as a father figure. Depictions of romance between them are among the misperceptions I’ve pondered in preparing a course this spring called “Jamestown Goes to the Movies!” for William and Mary’s Christopher Wren Association for Lifelong Learning.

For modern historians, glaring historical inaccuracies or biases in films can dominate any discussion of them, overshadowing other considerations. Yet films about Jamestown from the 20th and 21st centuries deserve objective study for portraying deeply embedded aspects of Virginia’s — and America’s — colonial legacy (and cultural assumptions) in a visual way. When we ask, Who is the director? What is he/she trying to say? How effective is the dramatic message?, we are examining the nuts and bolts of the film on technical and artistic levels.

A historically based film also relays less visible messages as an artifact representing society at a specific time. As with other cultural products, there is as meaning in what is left out, what is included, and certainly, in what is emphasized in the film’s multiple aspects (i.e., dialogue, action, sets, costumes, camera work).

“Women! What’s bothering the queer little creature now?”

John Smith, talking to John Rolfe about Pocahontas (Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, 1953 film)

Movies like Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, Disney’s animated feature Pocahontas (1995), and The New World (2008) are interpretations of popular culture as much or more than academic history. Details on each of these productions can be found at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Critical analyses on Disney’s Pocahontas, its sequence, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World (1998), and The New World are more accessible via Google and Google Scholar searches than the 1953 Captain John Smith and Pocahontas, which predates the Internet era’s information flow.

John Rolfe: “It’s sacrilege for John Smith to do this thing!”

Fleming: “May hap, my friend, but it’ll be most pleasant on a cold night.”

John Rolfe, referring to Smith’s marriage to Pocahontas (Captain John Smith and Pocahontas)

"Captain John Smith and Pocahontas" movie title card (1953)

The dialogue above (and the plot generating it) came before the 350th commemoration of Jamestown’s founding and significant race- and gender-based changes in American society in 1957.  Following the Disney animated features of the 1990s, director Terrence Malick’s The New World premiered close to Jamestown’s Quadracentennial. I don’t need to discuss talking trees, cute animal characters, or the rightness of how indigenous peoples and English are portrayed: These films have been critiqued extensively by historians, film critics, and American Indian commentators concerning their historical accuracy and cinematic artistry. Along with the earlier Captain John Smith and Pocahontas movie, they are compelling subjects for debate.

However, to focus completely on accuracy and/or artistry is to miss a more intriguing possibility of self-examination: that these iconic films are catalysts for confronting our beliefs about race, gender, and American history in the year 2012. To Have and to Hold, a film now in production, is based on a 1900 romantic adventure by Virginia author Mary Johnston (1870-1936), set in Jamestown. Already adapted for silent films in 1916 and 1922, To Have and to Hold will be the next cinematic definition of Virginia’s colonial history. Ultimately, we need to take another look, going beyond critiques of historical accuracy or inaccuracy to seeing historically based films first as an artifact of the culture producing them and second, as a catalyst for self-reflection.  Then we can appreciate them as a litmus test of our own — and society’s — 21st-century beliefs.

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3 responses to “When Hollywood Looks at Jamestown

  1. Oh gosh, I had never heard of that early Hollywood version of Jamestown. I will have to see it for myself. Jamestown is one of my favorite places in Virginia, so I was awfully pleased to see at least accurate scenery in The New World.

    Your last paragraph is so right. Just like aspect of the colonial revival, film representations of colonial history say a lot about the era that produced them.

  2. bellegroveatportconway

    I agree with you to a point. I have to say I don’t favor the retelling of history with changes to make it more exciting or enjoyable for the viewer. I understand your view of looking past, but then you run the risk of generating a retold part of history as fact. If you ask any child who grew up watching Disney’s Pocahontas, they will tell you that it was fact for the most part. I have been running into something like this with the telling and retelling stories through families.

    My husband and I are opening a bed and breakfast in Virginia in a very historic home (1791) in Port Conway. It was the property that was owned by the Conway family and is the birthplace of James Madison. Not only did the Conway family own it, but several other families as well. As I try and piece together the history, I have run across stories retold by these family. Many of the I have found to be completely wrong. So while I understand your point, I think that it could in part be a danger in rewritting history wrong.

  3. Thanks for seeking clarification. As a K-Adult museum educator, I’ve used various teaching strategies to address films that perpetuate myth as fact. I find that introducing people to these films as cultural products of their times succeeds on three levels: First, they “get it” that there are inaccuracies, because I point them out; second, they understand why the inaccuracies appear from a film studies point of view, and third (and maybe most importantly), they learn how to critically view films that purport to be history.

    Your situation is challenging and so important: It enables you to be a steward of the home’s past and to identify both fact and myth. I hope you will record these stories and figure out how they came to be, for that can be a compelling perspective on the house’s history (and the histories of families who lived there).

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