Category Archives: Jamestown

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.

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