There’s a moment in Braveheart where some horsemen flee the English down a small hill, who pursue with a full attack across the wide, green open fields. When they get over the hill, they are greeted by an army of angry Scots fighting for their freedom and baring giant spears lined up against a ridge. Chaotic, thrilling, bloody battle ensues. This is the Battle of Stirling Bridge… hang on a second, where’s the bridge? This most egregious error is just one of the many issues that Braveheart has with historical veracity; people are alive far too early or far too late; Queens are impregnated by people they shouldn’t be; William Wallace probably wasn’t Australian. The problems with inattention to detail, however, are just that – it’s more a case of stuff not happening than a total rewrite of history to fit a particular agenda. The crucial events of the story are largely there (William Wallace fought the English, died for it), even if it is romanticised outrageously. Mel Gibson is clearly a fan of historical films rife with inaccuracies, yet Pocahontas, Disney’s spirited retelling of the settling of Jamestown, so drastically departs from history that it pretty much ruins a film that otherwise has quite a lot going for it. It’s an offensive, agenda-driven retelling of one of the most shameful moments in colonial history.
The final ten minutes of the film are where the majority of the terrible revisionism happens. Everything that leads up to that veers between twee and gorgeous, showcasing some stunning storytelling from Disney and one or two moments that feel uncomfortable with vaguely defined spirituality and bad animal slapstick. The short story is that Pocahontas, for the vast majority of its running time, is actually a good film, only with reservations. The animation is incredible, Pocahontas is a superb heroine and the score is among Disney’s best. Everything that is good and bad about the film can actually be encapsulated in the song ‘Colours of the Wind.’ This key point in the film sees Pocahontas teach John Smith the ways of nature and resists the claim that she is a savage. There’s a lot to love about the song, and a lot to dislike, and each element of the song reflects the film as a whole.
For starts, the animation in ‘Colours of the Wind’ is fantastic. The most impressive aspect of Pocahontas is the look of it, something which can be understood even if you only look at the mist. Presumably done on computers as opposed to hand drawn (although I don’t know this for sure) it drifts across the frame seamlessly in one crucial scene where the eponymous Native American meets the colonial soldier John Smith. He is pointing a gun at her as she stands beneath a waterfall, hair flapping regally in the wind kicked up by the crashing of the water behind her. The image is clearly iconic and mythological, and that establishes an aesthetic for the rest of the film. ‘Colours of the Wind’ revels in this kind of imagery; oddly, it shares closest visual DNA with Sleeping Beauty, its wide, clear-lined vistas recall the woods where Briar Rose met her Prince Charming. The texture of the trees and the play of light and shadows on the brightly coloured grass are clearly inspired by that slightly dull but beautifully animated romance. However, the crucial difference here is the relocation of mythology from Europe to something distinctly American. The landscapes are somehow bigger and wider than anything they’ve tried before, while the leaping dear and soaring eagles occasionally veer into jingoism. Disney are always at their most breathtakingly beautiful when they are consciously creating iconic images, and Pocahontas achieves that with flying colours (of the wind).
‘Colours of the Wind’ also displays the emergence of the film’s heroine as the figure with the most agency in the film. Part of the historical revisionism at play in Pocahontas is to recast the title character from being a 12 year old appropriated into British culture into an older, lithe, free spirit who resists cultural imperialism AND patriarchy-enforced arranged marriage. While this obviously has historical ramifications – some historians have deduced that her act of saving John Smith’s life was, in fact, an established ritual and a way of showing peaceful intentions – it does make her one of the more interesting heroines the studio have created. Although John Smith gets a hero’s entrance at the beginning, rescuing his mate from the sea, that’s pretty much the last bit of control he gets over the story. Pocahontas is the primary agent in her own story and makes the key decisions in her relationship with Smith. The most interesting thing about her character, however, is that she doesn’t end up with her man. This is true – she married John Rolfe and her name was changed to Rebecca – but for Disney this is still a fascinating choice (especially seeing as they don’t mind editing other details). It suggests that the themes of reconciliation and unity are more important to the story than the romance, and, in my eyes at least, that immediately makes her a great heroine. ‘Colours of the Wind’ is not a love song, and they don’t get one; instead she is instructing Smith in how the land works, a favour which he doesn’t return. The recasting of her into this great heroine once again contributes to the creation of a Disney myth that is distinctly American.
The score, meanwhile, also creates the crucial sense that Disney are attempting to create a legend. The soaring chorus of the Oscar-winning song at the centre of the film is repeated as a motif throughout the film. Ignoring the slightly nonsensical nature of the lyrics – wind is colourless, how can you paint with it? Am I missing something or is this just a lazy attempt at imagery that sounds nice? – the tune is undeniably aiming for an epic and, at times, it works. ‘Colours of the Wind’ is actually a great song, notable for actually having something to say whilst still being a song that you can belt out with friends when you are having a Disney night (a student staple here in the UK, or in my friendship groups at least). It has that awkward balance between the genuinely spellbinding and the awkwardly twee.
There’s a lot that doesn’t work about Pocahontas, most of which is present and correct in the big musical number. The comedy – largely involving a raccoon, a hummingbird and a pug – suffers from sidekick overload and just isn’t funny at all. John Smith is as unbearably bland as some of the songs are, and his angular character design is unappealing and just kind of ugly. Mel Gibson is terribly miscast – as he is in, well, most things starring Mel Gibson. Governor Radcliffe similarly barely registers, a weak villain with a weaker villain’s song; his obsession with gold feels forced and trite, and doesn’t really make much sense in history. His exit from the film is underwhelming. A lot of it just feels really, really twee, much of it is boring – catch the bit in ‘Colours of the Wind’ where they befriend a baby bear and try not to vomit. I could forgive all of this, however, because it’s amazing how much some good animation can help me overlook such flaws in storytelling. Then, ten minutes from the end, it all goes horribly wrong and suddenly it just becomes offensive.
The problem arises when both the English settlers and Native Americans are marching to battle to fight each other, with John Smith a prisoner and shortly to be executed. The set up is there for a big fight, then just as Powhatan raises his war club to strike the head of Smith, Pocahontas runs in front of her father’s weapon and throws herself over Smith’s prostrate form. So far, so according to Smith’s diaries. THEN the leaves float in on the wind. These leaves have been seen before, there to conveniently skip plot details with a dose of floaty magic that makes everything easier. Pocahontas needs to learn her destiny? Waft them leaves. Two people need to overcome language barriers? Gust that foliage. Want to rewrite history so that things ended amicably between power hungry, disease carrying colonists and the people whose land they were taking? Just blow some petals over the two armies and suddenly fighting will be forgotten. So thanks to some powerful flying plant-life, Governor Radcliffe is bundled back to England and the Native Americans vow not to fight the settlers, who are now their friends. Just like history.
Only anyone with a cursory knowledge of colonial history – or anyone who has basic deductive powers – can figure out that this isn’t actually what happened. Disease decimated the population of Native Americans, who were forced out of their lands by gun-firing colonists claiming it for King and Country. When disease didn’t kill the Native Americans, the settlers did. ‘Colours of the Wind’ is an attempt to convince John Smith that Pocahontas’ people are actually immensely civilised and wise – an admirable message, only around 300 years too late. Any resistance the Brits faced, they returned with even greater force. The settlers didn’t leave, they increased and spread out, often violently. Now Pocahontas doesn’t tell any of this story, nor is it obliged to as it is primarily about the relationship between the central pair; however, a film about the Jamestown settlers in which only one Native American is killed and that ends amicably between the two groups of people feels particularly galling given the true events of what followed. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was changed from its source material beyond recognition but this is much less of an issue because it is based on fiction; John Smith and Pocahontas were both real people. She ended up marrying John Rolfe, was taken to England to be shown off there and died before the voyage back home, only in her early twenties. This revisionism by omission feels like a piece of agenda-driven wish-fulfilment, as if the film makers are attempting some kind of catharsis for European guilt by re-writing the story of their country so it becomes more palatable.
Then there is the issue of the ‘Noble Savage,’ a Victorian trope where the indigenous populations of any outpost of the Empire were lionised by armchair travellers who wrote about these distant lands where the natives were described with a kind of hesitant admiration. These people are exotic others, different and fascinating but they are still, crucially, savages. Pocahontas, while admirably trying to cast the Native Americans as heroes, still resort to the classic, archaic image of a spiritually connected, wisdom-of-the-land type people who talk to trees and name rocks. The heroine sings at one point, ‘you think the only people who are people are the people who look and think like you.’ An admirable sentiment, but undermined by a simplistic vision of Native Americans as Noble Savages. Admittedly, I am not au fait with Powhatan culture myself, but the sentiments behind ‘Colours of the Wind’ feel patronising and facile.
The big question surrounding this all is this: does it matter? Mel Gibson once claimed that as it was a film with a comedy raccoon, you weren’t supposed to take it too seriously and shouldn’t be looked to for a history lesson. Films about real people can take artistic license with history and still be good – Ip Man is a fantastic martial arts film, though I doubt the man single handedly took on the Japanese army – and this is just a film for kids, so the aversion to fact should be taken with a pinch of salt. After all, the film ends before the violence would have really kicked off anyway. However, it’s the blasé nature with which Disney dismisses decades of violence and anguish that is particularly grating. If you can’t tell the story of the early settlers without totally changing the narrative of history then perhaps you should be looking to other sources for your films. Disney has immense power to make things enter pop culture – just look at the way that the idea of a fairy tale has been changed by the studio ‘Disnefying’ a lot of rather grim stories. So to take real events and turn them into a trite romance that ends with peace feels irresponsible. The magic leaves that waft in and out of the film showcase storytelling at its laziest and history at its shoddiest. So those final ten minutes undo an awful lot of good work set up in the first two acts, and stop me from ever really loving this film.
So that’s Pocahontas. For anyone interested in the story and who likes quality cinema, perhaps watch The New World. Terrence Malick’s mesmerising, poetic interpretation of events is actually reasonably accurate but is also an absolute masterpiece. It’s beautifully shot, features some stunning performances (including Christian Bale, who plays Thomas in this), and is charged with emotion. It’s my favourite film, so I couldn’t get through an article about Pocahontas without mentioning it.