Terrence Malick would seem to be precisely the kind of filmmaker who might butt heads with studio financiers. His methodology and style are almost comically divergent from the pragmatic, market-based desires of the typical producer. His talent has somehow kept him above that fray throughout his career; though his credits are still sparse (the current decade notwithstanding), he has maintained control over every project. One tiny asterisk on that record is The New World, his rapturous take on the story of Pocahontas and John Smith. First released in New York and L.A. at the last minute in December 2005 (with an eye toward Academy Awards eligibility), The New World initially clocked in at 150 minutes. Malick had a yen for a longer cut, while New Line Cinema wanted the movie to be streamlined for its initial wide release. The director’s publicity-shy nature makes the specifics of this negotiation difficult to determine, but both sides got what they wanted. The New World got trimmed by fifteen minutes for its January rollout, and Malick was able to put out his nearly three-hour preferred cut on DVD two years later. In keeping with the rules I laid out for this blog series, I will only discuss the two cuts of the film released to theaters, henceforth referred to as the December cut and the January cut. The third and final version is generally considered definitive — that’s how the Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray edition treats it — but rules are rules.
The miracle of the January cut is that it in no way feels hacked-up or bowdlerized. New Line was aiming for a number, not the removal of any particular offending passages, and the active involvement of Malick and his team ensures that the movie remains ineffably his regardless. There’s a kind of viewer who would look at any Malick movie since The Thin Red Line and say, “This story could have been told in 90 minutes.” That viewer cannot be helped. Still, the January cut serves as a kind of inflection point in Malick’s career. His move away from narrative and toward impressionism and improvisation had already begun, but he was still working from a historical blueprint. Even with all the reveries, there is a clear progression of events to this story. The shorter version simply highlights that forward progress. At the same time, Malick developed and refined ideas he had already put into the December cut. His editors — Richard Chew, Hank Corwin, Saar Klein and Mark Yoshikawa — weren’t merely cutting off the flab. As anyone who’s seen the movie can attest, the sound is every bit as important as the images, and there are some subtle aural distinctions.
The first audible changes one might notice are of an expository nature and thus part of the streamlining attempt. For anyone versed in American history, the Pocahontas story is bone-deep and needs little explanation, but giving more lines to Christopher Plummer is always a good idea. His Captain Newport explains the purpose and strategy behind the Virginia colony, making a reference to “the Naturals” that balances with another reference a few minutes later (present in both versions), when things start going poorly. Some of the footage during this brief speech is different from the December cut, befitting the wealth of raw material Malick and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki produced. In terms of changes made to give the audience a foothold, that’s about it. Some new voice-over narration is added, but it’s all Malick’s trademark interior philosophizing. John Smith (Colin Farrell) utters this oft-cited thought in the January cut: “What voice is this that speaks within me — guides me towards the best?” The main characters parry some of the spiritual undertones of the story in this way, their private words dominating the soundtrack. Malick’s experiments with sound mixing come to the fore in the January cut, with some lines of spoken dialogue receding into the background — scattered, mundane moments up in smoke.
Naturally, some of the footage unique to the December cut bolsters the narrative and characterizations. In addition to giving Smith and Pocahontas (Q’orianka Kilcher) more time to enjoy each other’s company in the fields, the longer version affords Smith the chance to consider the idea of taking her back to England with him. He quickly dismisses this proposal himself, but then both versions include a voice-over alternative: he might abandon his old life and start a new one with her here. But his association with her, despite providing Jamestown’s salvation during a harsh winter, also leads to all kinds of conflict. Pocahontas, a princess in her tribe, is banished for providing aid to the colonists. While living in another tribe, she is “sold” to the colonists, now led by Captain Argall (Yorick van Wageningen), to be a bargaining chip. The transaction/kidnapping is shown in contentious detail in the December cut and quickly sketched out in the January cut.
Beyond these concrete changes, the distinctions between the two versions have to do with rhythm and mood. As one might expect, the additional fifteen minutes in the December cut allow Malick to linger a little bit here and a little bit there. The first version features more cuts to black, creating an odd rhythm, a series of ellipses. The most notable instance happens near the end, as Pocahontas and her new husband, John Rolfe (Christian Bale), sail for England. The black frames mark the entirety of the voyage across the Atlantic, with the next image showing Pocahontas and Rolfe disembarking. In the January cut, the transition is a simple shot of the ocean, with the camera presumably looking down from the ship. This second choice is bolder; I found it (dare I say it) funny. Malick may have a reputation for ponderousness, but in addition to the languor, there are surprising moments of quicksilver action. A battle scene in the middle of the movie is hectic and frightening, and practically identical in each version.
In sum, it’s difficult to prefer one version over the other. Even the notion of an “original” version is suspect in this case. I had never seen the December cut until this week. Many of the critics who championed the film from the start were familiar with the early version, but there wasn’t any kind of movement in favor of it. I watched The New World upwards of four times before it finally clicked for me. The epiphany happened when I saw the 172-minute extended edition. Generally speaking, for fans of Malick, the longest version is going to be the one to pick. But if one is relatively pressed for time, rest assured that 135 minutes is also an excellent choice. There’s no hiding the fact that this is one of the most beautiful movies created in at least the last few decades. The opening seven minutes and the closing five minutes, in particular, set to the tune of Wagner’s Das Rheingold prelude, are as perfect as anything ever filmed. And, with the exception of a few extra seconds (in the former) showing Smith in the brig, they are completely identical from one version to the next. The New World lives up to its title, showing us a world opening and closing, creation and death. It’s sublime.