Terrence Malick is known to be a reclusive filmmaker, he makes no real public appearances and chooses to not do interviews or press junkets for his films. Instead letting his films do the speaking for themselves, influencing filmmakers from Alejandro González Iñárritu to Paul Thomas Anderson. To best sum up a Terrence Malick film is to say that they divide opinions. Of course there are non fans, who have described his films to be dull, dreary, uninteresting, dry, irksome and weary. But Terrence Malick’s films always manage to be rhapsodically and poetically beautiful visionary works of art. Across his career, his movies have also become notable for their ambiguous drifting voiceovers that are used less to move the plot and more to pose existential and reflective questions on life itself.
Terrence Malick’s 47 year career comes in three sections. The 70s, when Malick became a part of New Hollywood, along with filmmakers Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, Francis Ford Coppola and Michael Cimino (“The Deer Hunter”). He saw his phase in “Americana” cinema and made his first film, which is his most accessible film and one of his finer works; “Badlands” from 1973, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and followed by 1978’s “Days of Heaven”, starring Richard Gere.
The late 90s and 2000s. Malick brought us his studio “blockbuster” era, after taking a long two decade hiatus and not returning to filmmaking, until the highly praised war epic “The Thin Red Line” (1998). Unfortunately even with one of the best ensemble casts, including Sean Penn, John Travolta, John Cusack, Nick Nolte and George Clooney. “The Thin Red Line” was over looked by another high profile war film that same year from Steven Spielberg and his Oscar winning “Saving Private Ryan”.
Continuing his blockbuster phase, in 2005 Malick released “The New World”, his unique spin on the 17th-century tale of Captain John Smith and Pocahontas. More recently, Malick has given us his third filmmaking personality in a spiritual and more experimental quadrilogy of films that he made between 2011 and 2017, including the spiritual drama “The Tree of Life” (2011), “To The Wonder” (2012) and his most recent “A Hidden Life” (2020), that keeps to that trademark Terrence Malick style.
But the one film we are here to celebrate is Malick’s unsung masterpiece, my favorite of his films and one of a few films I regret not seeing in a theater. Every time I watch “The New World”, I try to imagine just how majestic Malick’s images would have felt being twenty or thirty feet high, washing over me in a wave of sounds and images.
It’s his grandiose opus “The New World” from 2005, which celebrates its 15th anniversary. Keeping in tone with his style of filmmaking “The New World” is breathtaking, poetic, lyrical, stirring, has a visual beauty, with an emotional use of music and plays in a dreamlike quality. Not to mention like his past and future films, “The New World” is a meditative, philosophical examination of nature and man’s place within the enormity and majesty of the universe.
After learning of Malick’s work on an article about Che Guevara during the 1960s, director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic”, “Oceans Eleven”) offered Malick the chance to write and direct a film about Guevara that he had been developing with actor Benicio del Toro. Malick accepted and produced a screenplay focused on Guevara’s failed revolution in Bolivia. But after a year and a half, the financing had not come together and Malick was given the opportunity to direct “The New World”, a script he had begun developing in the 70s.
Malick left the Guevara project in March 2004 and Soderbergh took over as the director, leading to his film “Che” in 2008. “The New World”, was his take on the well-known classic story of Pocahontas and the English pilgrim’s discovery of America. A story that nobody thought of touching after Disney’s 1995 animated version. But Malick felt he had something new to say. “The New World”, centers on Pocahontas and the well charted historical events that unfolded after the British reached the American shores and established the colony of Jamestown in 1607. Malick depicts first contact as an important and significant event that had changed the land and its people forever.
“The New World” was the first collaboration between Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (three-time Academy Award winner for “Gravity”, “Birdman” and “The Revenant”). Malick wanted the film to feel as authentic as possible, with much preparation and attention to detail went into the film that Malick had demanded daily on set. Casting was logically a big part of this process.
As a fan of Disney’s “Pocahontas”, Malick decided to hire Christian Bale and Irene Bedard (both of whom had done voice work in the animated feature). Choosing for the role of Pocahontas was a far more complicated matter, as producers had to look at over two thousand actors. The German born, but raised in Hawaii actress, singer and dancer Q’orianka Kilcher (“Princess Kaiulani”) was selected and proved to be a perfect choice. Kilcher was only 14 at the time of the filming, bringing her as close to Pocahontas real age of 10-12 as possible. Hiring a lot of Native American actors and actresses wasn’t enough, Malick hired people to teach the actors the rarely spoken Algonquin language.
Blair Rudes, a professor of linguistics at UNC-Charlotte, was brought in to reconstruct a form of the extinct Powhatan language specifically for the needs of the story. Some reports suggest Malick didn’t allow Kilcher and Colin Farrell to interact in any way before their first scene together so as to capture the most authentic reaction possible from both of them. Naturally, the choice of filming locations and the meticulous design of costumes and props were also heavily influenced by the filmmaker’s desire to present as accurate a depiction of the period and circumstances as possible. The film was also notable for its emphasis on authenticity in it’s location settings and costumes to the use of Native American actors and extras.
“The New World” is at once beautifully sweeping and raw, painting broad themes and grasping intimate moments into a sensory experience that transports viewers to 1607 Jamestown, as worlds and cultures collide. The films star Colin Farrell (Another reason I’m a fan of “The New World”) read all seven of John Smith’s books he published back in England on his accounts of The New World, in preparation for the role. Farrell recounts working with the legendary director and how his styles came to pass. “For Terry, there is this contradiction between how prepared he was and how much I believe the vision of the film lived within him and how he can see it clearly and yet also how he was moved by nature and how he’d be moved by what he saw”.
On this note, he tells a wonderful anecdote of how Malick would film an actor delivering lines and then hear a bird and pan over to it mid-dialogue to capture the moment. This is quintessential and exemplary of the perfectionist’s free-flow style and openness to the moment of nature, combining his obsessive, careful planning with spur of the moment beauty. “It’s a perfection he’ll never achieve, thank God”, Farrell states, “because life just changes too fast”.
Christopher Plummer, who plays Captain Newport was infuriated after watching the final cut of the movie and discovering that key scenes had been cut and one of his important speeches had been reduced to background noise. He had vowed never to work with Terrence Malick again.
Before the start of the shoot, director Terrence Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki devised a series of photography rules that were to be used during filming. They were: 1) No artificial lights. Everything is shot in natural light. 2) No crane or dolly shots, just handheld or Steadicam shots. 3) Everything is shot in the subjective view. 4) All shots must be deep-focus, that is, everything (foreground and background) is visible and focused. 5) You (the camera crew) are encouraged to go and shoot unexpected things that might happen in accident or if your instinct tells you so. 6) Selective shots: any shot that does not have visual strength is not used. According to Lubezki, many of these rules ended up being broken. Artificial light was used (see above), as were shallow-focus shots.
Malick didn’t cut the film and then add the music, since he already had a completed score by James Horner before he even started editing the picture. This meant a lot of Horner’s music ended up discarded, which caused a rift between the two artists. Horner wasn’t all that thrilled that only a couple of his fragments made it to the final cut, calling his collaboration with Malick “the most disappointing experience he’s ever had with a man” and saying he “never felt so let down by a filmmaker in his life”.
Malick had matched Francis Ford Coppola and “Apocalypse Now”, by shooting over one million feet of film. It left Malick with three different cuts of varying lengths to be released. “The New World” was originally set to be released in November 2005, but had to be postponed as Malick was still editing the footage he had shot (He is well known for editing his films up until the last minute and often trimming his films and leaving entire characters out of the final print). In early December 2005, a 150 minute version was shown to critics for awards season consideration. It was released for a week from Christmas to New Year’s Day in two theaters each in Los Angeles and New York to qualify for the Academy Awards.
For the film’s wide release, which began on January 20th 2006, Malick re-edited the film and cut it to 135 minutes, but also added footage not seen in the first release. He altered some of the film’s extensive voiceovers to clarify the plot, as substantial changes were made to the first half-hour of the picture to speed the plot along.
A third, 172 minute version, dubbed “The Extended Cut”, was issued by New Line on DVD. It contained new scenes and expansions to other scenes. The 135 minute and 172 minute cuts are widely available on DVD worldwide, with the 172 minute cut also released on Blu Ray. The 150 minute version was released commercially only twice, as a Digital Download briefly available to buyers of the US “Extended Cut” DVD in 2008 and on DVD in Italy as part of Italian distributor Eagle Pictures’s 2-disc set, containing both the 150 minute and 135 minute versions of the film.
On July 26, 2016, all three cuts were released on Blu-ray and DVD in the United States by the prestigious home video company, The Criterion Collection in a three disc set. Featuring the 172 minute extended cut from a new 4K digital restoration that was supervised by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki and director Terrence Malick. In the tradition of The Criterion Collection, the release is stacked full of bonus material. It’s the most definitive edition of Malick’s masterpiece that there is.
Further compelled by New Line Cinema’s mandate to cut the runtime down by at least fifteen minutes, Malick and his team delivered “The New World” to theaters in The Theatrical Cut version, keeping the same free-breathing pace of the first cut’s 150 minute version, while condensing the length down to 135 minutes. But unfortunately it seemed that Malick’s sprawling, atmospheric vision did not benefit from quickening its pace; while many critical reviews were mostly positive.
General audiences had expressed an opinion that the narrative was too meandering and too unfocused. In the eyes of the industry and its lofty financial expectations, “The New World” had grossed a $30 million take on it’s opening weekend and becoming a major disappointment…despite being just barely enough to recoup the films production cost.
Malick’s film just needed time, as its stature would grow steadily in the years that followed. The movie as a whole, even when compared against its multiple variations, has endured over the past 15 years and enshrining itself in our collective cultural memory as a new classic of American historical cinema. It’s a film that brings renewed vigor, immediacy and humanity to a turbulent period. Malick’s films have explored themes such as transcendence, nature and the conflicts between reason and instinct.
They are typically marked by broad philosophical and spiritual overtones, as well as the use of meditative voice-overs from individual characters, the placid images of nature, the stunning cinematography, often achieved with natural light and the striking use of music. The stylistic elements of the director’s work have inspired divided opinions among film scholars and audiences; some praised his films for their cinematography and aesthetics, while others found them lacking in plot and character development.
“The New World” is a work of astounding elemental beauty, a poetic meditation on nature, violence, love and civilization. Brought to life by Q’orianka Kilcher, Colin Farrell, Christian Bale, Ben Mendelsohn and Christopher Plummer who all deliver great performances. This is a beautiful, carefully staged, thoughtful rendering of the first collision of cultures we all know ended in tragedy. A depiction of a specific sensitive period of American history that was at the same time painful and unfair just as it was necessary and stimulating. Malick knows what the United States were built on and he doesn’t shy away from dealing with it.
“The New World” is a film of uncommon power and technical splendor, that shows Terrence Malick at the height of his visual and philosophical powers. It is his best film, my favorite of his, his unsung masterpiece and one of the most impressive films of the 21st century.