POCAHONTAS (1995)

Scene Analysis

Pocahontas Saves Captain John Smith

Introduction

[1]     Disney has been recently criticized for its portrayal of Native Americans in Pocahontas, its thirty-third animated classic.  They intended to produce a film whose issue related to racial tolerance and understanding; however, they have been attacked for promoting a film about a historical event, even though the film does little that is historically accurate.  One scene that is particularly important is the scene when Pocahontas saves John Smith.  This scene is important to the use of history in the movie because it is adapted from the historical legend of Pocahontas and John Smith, and it is the only scene in the movie that bears historical relevance.

[2]     I intend to discuss the meaning of the scene from the time when Pocahontas realizes that she must rescue John Smith from death to when Smith jumps in front of a bullet intended for Chief Powhatan.  First, I will focus on the importance of the Indian culture and spirituality that is expressed in the film.  Secondly, I will show Disney’s use of the mother as an absent presence in the film, and I will relate that to the maternal presence in other Disney works.  Lastly, I will question the language barrier that is suddenly dropped as the Indians and the English encounter each other.

Native American Spirituality

[3]     Pocahontas is first seen running from Grandmother Willow towards the gathering where Powhatan is about to kill John Smith (1:05.30).  As she runs towards the meeting, her shadow is transformed into an eagle about to take flight.  I believe that this is representative of the strength that eagles possess in the eyes of Native Americans.  In order to show that Pocahontas is strong and powerful, Disney has incorporated a symbol that not only shows her strength but also depicts her cultural values as well.  This connection with nature is even further reinforced when Disney stated, “We also tried to tap into [Pocahontas’] spirituality and the spirituality of the Native Americans, especially in the way they relate to nature”  (Press Kit 33).   This interaction with nature is even more developed with the leaves and the wind that are used to represent Pocahontas’ mother.

[4]     The interaction with the leaves and the wind is expressed when Pocahontas asks her father to spare John Smith’s life.  It is a moment when Native American Spirituality seems to be a driving force in the film.  She heroically jumps on top of Smith’s body and refuses to allow her father to kill Smith.  Powhatan suddenly changes his mind when the wind blows past his face.  Disney cleverly uses the symbol of leaves to illustrate that the wind is blowing.  Every time the wind blows, the spirit of Pocahontas’ mother is present.  The voice of the mother becomes the voice of reason.  The absent presence of the mother signifies the importance of spirits to Native Americans, and she controls much of what Pocahontas and Powhatan do in the film.  They believe that their beloved’s spirits are always watching over them and aiding them in making the right decisions.  (For further information involving symbolism in Pocahontas, refer to the scene analysis by Lynn Dukette and Dani Frisbie.)

Mother’s Voice - Absent Presence

[5]     The mother not only represents an absent presence in the movie, but it would appear that Disney is moving towards the female perspective on heroic roles that were once dominated by men.  After all, not many recent Disney movies portray a mother / daughter relationship at all.  The Lion King, The Little Mermaid, Alladin, and Beauty and the Beast all revolve around a father / daughter relationship with no mention of a mother or even the absent presence of a mother as seen in Pocahontas.

[6]     But don’t start to think that Disney is going to let the strong woman take the entire spotlight.  Just when Pocahontas has “saved the day,” Smith comes along and risks his own life to save the Chief.  He jumps in front of a bullet intended for Powhatan and gets a near-fatal wound.  I do not go as far as to say that Disney is devaluing the rescue that Pocahontas made, but I do contend that Disney is not willing to allow the heroine to be the only protagonist.  Historically, there are numerous mentions, even from Smith himself, about the legendary rescue by Pocahontas.  There is, however, no historical backing that suggests that Smith ever rescued Chief Powhatan.  It is clearly something that Disney inserted to involve the male protagonist in the central theme of risking one’s own life to save another.

Language Barrier

[7]     Just before Smith saves Powhatan, he makes a speech about courage and understanding, and the British all put down their weapons.  The two opposing sides who were, only moments ago, singing “Savages” now want peace.  They are moved when Chief Powhatan says, “My daughter speaks with wisdom beyond her years.  We have come here with anger in our hearts, but she comes with courage and understanding.  From this day forward, if there is to be more killing it will not start with me”  (1:07.30).  The British and Indian troops seem mesmerized by the words and the actions of Chief Powhatan, and they seem to instantly understand him regardless of the fact that they are supposed to speak different languages.

[8]     Earlier in the movie during all of the Native American scenes, Disney throws in a few Indian words, but generally all the characters speak in perfect English.  This is obviously done for the sake of the American English-speaking audience.  After all, the characters do not speak French in the Hunchback of Notre Dame. When Pocahontas and Smith first meet, it is only a matter of minutes before they understand one another.  It is made clear that Pocahontas now understands the English language.  However, when Powhatan makes his speech to the British and the Native American armies, it is not clear if he is speaking English or his own native tongue.  It is clear that the British magically understand him, for they put down their guns and no longer want to fight, but it is not clear how they understand him.

[9]     My question is, do they understand him because he is speaking in English, or do they understand him because he is speaking a deeper language, one that cannot be explained by words?  It is apparent that Disney wanted the story to promote people living together in harmony.  This is most evident when Disney stated, “Pocahontas is a story that appealed to us because it was basically a story about people getting along together … which is particularly applicable to lots of places in the world today”  (Press Kit 33).  Based on that comment by Disney, I believe that they are trying to express that the different groups understand each other regardless of the language barrier and cultural barrier that exists between them.

[10]     This understanding is further expressed when looking more closely at the interaction between the Native Americans and the British.  The British and the Indian warriors instantaneously understand each other, similar to the first encounter with Pocahontas and Smith, but, as I have already stated, I do not feel that the same understanding has occurred.  It is clear that Pocahontas is learning English, but I feel that the latter scene expresses a mutual understanding that Disney is trying to get across.  It has been previously noted that Disney intended to depict a movie that promoted racial tolerance (Press Kit 35), and I believe that Disney is expressing a further understanding between two different cultural groups.  They have removed language barriers and have shown that actions may speak louder than words.

Conclusion

[11]     Regardless of the historical inaccuracies of the rest of the movie, it is important to note that the rescue scene is the only scene in the movie that has an historical foundation.  It is for that reason that I chose to closely analyze it.  I believe that Disney tries to promote racial tolerance more than they try to accurately depict the legend of John Smith and Pocahontas, and if they never intended to show history, as they have before stated, then the scene does exactly what it is supposed to do.  It promotes tolerance between two different groups.  I intended to focus on the importance of the Indian culture and spirituality that is expressed in the film, the use of the mother as an absent presence, and the language barrier that is suddenly dropped as the Indians and the English encounter each other.

Works Cited

 “Pocahontas:  Press Kit.”  Burbank: Walt Disney Pictures, 1995.
 
 

Copyright (c) 1999 by Jennifer Lori Lackner, Undergraduate at Lehigh University.

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