Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"True Stories"

I thought about this "genre", and the following blog post while I was watching Disney's Pocahontas the other day. I was just a wee squirt when the film was released (and even saw it in theatres), but I'm sure much of the promotion was in regard to how it was based on an "amazing" true story. I've long known that Disney took several liberties with her story, and that in fact, Terrence Malick's film The New World is quite a bit more accurate, though it still does take some liberties. Knowing what I do now, is my enjoyment of the film affected?

I was watching the movie on my computer, and because I can't NOT be on the internet when on my computer, I kept pausing the film to look up things about the characters on Wikipedia. Pocahontas was very young when she first encountered John Smith and there was never a romance between the two of them. Smith, it seems, was a troublemaker as well. I read snippets from a fascinating book (only some of it was online) on Sunday, and I wish I could find the link again. In it, the writer speculates that Smith actually raped Pocahontas. Rape was a very serious crime to the Native American was seen as worse than kidnapping. The women were actually taught how to deal with being kidnapped by other tribes, because it was a common thing to do at the time apparently, to spread out family lines. Pocahontas ended up marrying John Rolfe and she had a child named Thomas with him before she died in England in 1617. This link says what the book speculated on about the parentage of Thomas. It's thought that a man named Thomas Dale raped her and fathered her son, especially since her son is not named after his "Father", John Rolfe. Some believe her marriage to Rolfe was simply to keep up appearances, which is sadly like some modern marriages.

Quite different from the Disney version where trees sing, leaves fly, Pocahontas is a gorgeous grown woman and John Smith is a beautiful man with perfect golden locks. I quite enjoy the Disney film, despite all of the knowledge I've collected over the years about the "true story". I think it is because I take it as fiction, and it is a touching little love story. I liked The New World as well, though I would like to watch it again; I thought it was rather slow in parts when I did see it and don't remember it as well as I'd like. Besides, how can you not find "Colours of the Wind" enormously catchy? I've had it on repeat as I'm writing this!

I think you have to take "true stories" with a grain of salt. When I see movies that make that claim, usually I'll do some research after the fact if I found the film compelling enough. Sometimes it is fairly close to the truth, other times it's not even close.

I think a large concern with Pocahontas is that it is a film aimed at a young audience, who may not be able to differentiate between a true story and a very embellished "true story". Obviously the film is full of stereotypes, both about Native Americans and Europeans. Some pretty inappropriate language is used to describe the Native American people, but I figure that, that language is used primarily by the "villains", and it is the job of the parents to take the film as a "teachable moment". Discuss the language with your children, explain that the language used is inappropriate and wrong, and explain why it was used. I don't think it is necessarily the job of a film studio, even one that makes films aimed at a younger audience, to have perfectly politically correct movies. I do understand the criticisms though, because many parents would not be "on the ball" and use the film to teach children about "good words" and "bad words", and some may even share the views held by the villains in the movie.

As I said earlier, I was very young when this movie came out, probably about six years old. I actually didn't like it very much in theatres, because it was "too sad" for me. I don't recall my parents ever talking to me about the language use or the stereotypes, but I think it was because I was too young to understand the word "savage", and didn't pay attention to that sort of thing. At the time I hated it when characters broke into song, "Back to the story please!" was my thought process, so my mind checked out during the song moments. I think my parents probably answered some of my questions about the issues in the movie, because like I said, it was a bit too old for me at the time.

I do have one quibble with the end of the movie though. Obviously, there will be spoilers in this next paragraph, so if you don't want to be spoiled, please skip over:

John Smith was badly wounded by a gun shot, but the voyage from the "New World" to England would be about three months, depending on the weather. Infection from such a wound sets in VERY quickly. I would think that it would be best to treat him in the "New World", because at least then they won't be trying to treat him on a boat that's rocking on the ocean. Surely they would have brought a surgeon or someone with medical training with them. Also, how much more could have been done for him in England at that time? I would think that there wouldn't be much more that could be done for him, and he'd be long dead by the time he got back anyway, from infection. Does anyone with any medical history knowledge have any insight? I'm just kinda bitter about the ending because to me, it would probably be best to treat him on land or on an anchored ship in the "New World", rather than take him back to England. Then at least in the Disney movie, he could have been with Pocahontas and I wouldn't have ended up crying at the end like I always do. And yes, I know this is the least of my worries with the film, because as I've established, it's not historically accurate in the least. And anyways, can a film with a talking tree be historically accurate?

(end spoilers)

I do think "Based on a true story" is thrown around too much. That's why it is up to the movie-goer to do research, and maybe find that the "actual story" is more interesting than the movie version! The real story of Pocahontas is much more tragic, I think than the Disney version, but quite a bit more interesting. She was more than just a love affair.

Do your research folks! Don't just follow what Hollywood tells you.


  1. Great post, Jennifer - there are so many ways you can interpret "based on." West Side Story and even High School Musical are said to be "based on" Romeo & Juliet - but watching them won't give you too faithful an impression of the original!

  2. Thanks! I never knew that High School Musical was supposedly based on Romeo & Juliet, but then again, I don't really devote a lot of time to movies like that. It seems that any story of two individuals from different social groups that "aren't supposed" to be together is "based on" Romeo & Juliet, which is rather silly.

  3. This is a very well written and thoughtful post, Jennifer. It could be the topic of an entire blog, never mind one post!

    One of the classics is the Coen brothers, who - at the beginning of the great film, Fargo - said it's "based on a true story."

    Everyone bought it - including the Winnipeg Free Press - when, in fact, it was pure fiction. Wah, wah, wah.

    In some ways, every story is based on something true. In some ways, every story is completely false.

    In the case of Disney, it doesn't sit so well with me: they sue anyone who "breaches" their copyrights, but pillage other people's works, like Beauty and the Beast, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Pocahontas.

    When the Steamboat Willy version of Mickey Mouse was about to enter public domain, Disney lobbied for an extension on copyright and got it! Thank you, Sonny Bono Act.

    So, yeah, "based on a true story" has very little meaning indeed.

    Coming soon: Jennifer's Musings - the Motion Picture. Based on a true story!

  4. Haha, thanks Kenton! I can see myself devoting more entries to the subject, because it sometimes bothers me when things are presented as truth when there's nothing close to truth in it. I was going to bring up The Patriot, but then I realized the entry was getting a little long...and I can go on and on about that movie.

    Another great example is the Blair Witch Project--everyone thought it was real at the time, and everyone was blown away when it was just a really low budget horror movie.

    And I do agree with you about Disney. Because they're such a huge corporation, they can get away with taking the ideas/stories of other "smaller" people or companies, but if you even so much as think of "taking" their property, you're sued for everything you have. The one that bothers me most is the Kimba the White Lion/The Lion King similarities ( I'm convinced Disney got the idea from this anime. They never sued because of Disney's size, which is really unfortunate.

    I suppose I can accept the adaptations of the fairy tales and classic works because they've been adapted more faithfully for other audiences, so I know at least I can go out and read the book or get the real story somehow. And hopefully other children will do that as they grow up and realize that these stories did not originate with Disney, and Disney is not telling the "true story".

    And I'm certain that the next time any Disney property gets close to public domain again, they'll be getting the copyright laws changed once more. A company that big has too much influence and power.

  5. Disney reminds me a bit of Microsoft - we just need someone to do an "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" ad to take the firm down a few notches!

  6. I can't even think of a film studio big enough to even be comparable! Maybe if Dreamworks decided to do that against the Pixar brand, since what they offer is fairly similar.

  7. That's true, though Pixar - I think - is much better. Still, I didn't bother seeing Up. I just heard that the first 20 minutes is awesome, so maybe I should.

  8. Yes, Pixar is amazing...I don't even really consider them Disney. And see Up! The first 20 minutes really are awesome--worth seeing the whole movie for.