Thursday, October 15, 2009

Toxic History at Blockbuster

One of my favorite parts of teaching is examining the strange relationship of history and popular culture. History, myth, and historical references pop up in the most unusual places. Usually these episodes make me laugh or smile, sometimes it makes me cringe.

Like today at Blockbuster.

I'm showing Terrence Malick's The New World to my classes to discuss the ways in which the myth of Pocahontas has become deeply engrained in American society - to the point where the New World claims to be historically accurate yet still portrays a romance between Pocahontas and John Smith. No, it didn't happen (if you'd like to know more - go here). But the myth has such strength that most people cling it fiercely.

Even the guy at Blockbuster.

Me: I'm looking for Terrence Malick's The New World

Blockbuster Guy: Is that the one about Pocahontas? With Colin Ferrell? That has almost no talking?

Me: *Grits teeth* Uh-huh.

BG: *punches title into computer* No offense but that movie is creepy as hell. I mean, she was like, fifteen.

Me: *trying not to groan* Yep, and that's not all. She wasn't fifteen, she was eleven and there was no relationship.

BG: *taking me to find movie* What do you mean?

Me: *really not wanting to launch into history lecture in middle of video store* Well, John Smith wrote a story to get lots of attention back in England, but the love story is made up.

BG: Are you sure? Cause I read something that said they had sex.

Me: *chokes a little* ??????

BG: Yeah, I read that. Creepy. I mean, fifteen. Creepy, man.

Me: No. They didn't have sex. It was made up. She was eleven. And yeah, that part of the movie is creepy.

BG: If it's so creepy why are you watching it?

Me: I'm teaching it. I'm teaching the way stories are made up and talked about like they're true history. Most people don't know the real story.

BG: What do you mean the real story?

Me: I mean that John Smith made up his romance with Pocahontas to get attention. She went to England and married another guy, later, when she wasn't eleven.

BG: *looks skeptical* Oh.

Me: *Sighs, leaves Blockbuster feeling rather defeated*

I'd like to say that I actually think there is a lot of worthwhile footage (historically) in The New World. It shows how awful life in Jamestown was, Malick consulted Powhatans about their cultural heritage. I like a lot of the film.

But the romance kills me. A part of me understands why popular culture clings so fiercely to Pocahontas/John Smith love story *shakes fist at Disney,* but the real story is compelling too.

So I'll do mini lectures at Blockbuster if I have to, and I'll keep trying to change the story. One video store at a time.


  1. I love that movie for the way tribal life is portrayed but I do have serious issues with Hollywood when filmmakers greatly alter history. I guess in this case, the argument is that John Smith did the altering. And as we know, love stories play big. Sigh. You've got an awful lot of video stores ahead of you...

  2. Haven't seen this, but I also shake my fist at Disney for confusing fifth-grade history students. Boo to inaccuracies!

  3. When I was little, I had a book about Pocahontas....maybe it was even a little golden book. In it, Pocahontas was a girl and, although she asked her father not to kill John Smith, there was no relationship between them. I even remember the book showing her in England with her husband (I thought she looked much better in her regular buckskin clothes.)

    Anyway, I was shocked when I saw the Disney movie.....WHAT??? Ewwwwwwww. Just not right.

    It's kind of sad that even back in the days of zero political correctness, they were closer to the truth than the way our society currently needs to sensationalize everything. Sigh....