The Common Good
September-October 1995

Inspired by Legend

by Bob Hulteen | September-October 1995

History you won't find in Pocahontas.

When I first learned about Disney's planned Pocahontas' project, I had mixed emotions. Having restricted my daughters' viewing of Peter Pan, mostly because of its portrayal of American Indians, I believed Walt Disney had a great deal to atone for. I suspected the studio wouldn't get the history quite right with Pocahontas either. On the other hand, the movie might make more visible a strong, American Indian, female character.

Now I have seen the movie. And I am still of a split mind.

Pocahontas is 33rd in a long line of animated and live-action features from Disney. Such legendary fictional characters as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Pinocchio have been immortalized on the screen, while others, such as Mufasa (The Lion King) and Bambi, were created by the Disney studios.

But Pocahontas is not about a fairy-tale hero or a storybook legend. It's about a fairly well-known, historical person, an early native to this country-one of the few American Indians regularly recognized in Western history books. In many ways, Pocahontas, therefore, bears a great deal of historical weight and importance.

Pocahontas, the movie, clearly draws on the legend. But it is merely reminiscent of the woman. True, many of the details are not known; the recorders of history determined that a native person need not receive close attention. Her history must be pieced together.

In 1608, Captain John Smith and his English sailing ship entered the Powhatan Nation. Powhatan was the leader of a confederation of 34 tribes, stretching from present-day North Carolina to Maryland, as well as the father of 11-year-old Pocahontas.

In 1612, Pocahontas was imprisoned in the new settlement, Jamestown. She learned to speak English, was baptized, and married a settler named John Rolfe. With profits earned from raising tobacco, Rolfe and Pocahontas returned to England to encourage further investment in the colonies. (Pocahontas was presented to increase investor confidence.) The royal princess died of tuberculosis at the age of 22 before returning to her homeland.

The movie alters many facts about the princess' life, making Pocahontas (Irene Bedard) a potential love interest for John Smith (Mel Gibson). Peter Schneider, president of Walt Disney studios' animated division, defended these changes in The Washington Post, saying, "We set out to do something inspired by the legend. We simply set out to make a beautiful movie about the Native American experience."

The expert Disney used for the movie, Little Dove Custolow, herself a Powhatan and daughter of a chief, had a different opinion. Custolow, paid $500 for her experience and flown out to Hollywood for a premiere, told The Post, "I wish they would take the name Pocahontas off the movie." She believes that the historical woman offers much to people, and that the story didn't need to be embellished. I would add that the movie marketing schemes are even more insidious, as now we must endure Pocahontas panties for kids.

AND WHAT ABOUT the movie? It certainly is unlike recent Disney animated releases. This film, with its apocryphal romantic plot line, is more for late elementary children than the kindergarten club. Although my 3-year-old's interest was piqued, and she actually caught much of the plot, she would much rather watch The Lion King.

The animation is very good, though not quite up to the quality of Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. The reflection scenes in the water are quite impressive, no matter what your age. And the fall color pastels of much of the movie are quite beautiful, though some have found them uninspiring.

"Color of the Wind" is one of the most beautiful movie songs in memory. Telling the ultimate story of the film-Western humanity's overlooking of the Earth's great value in pursuit of riches-"Wind" paints a beautiful picture of the circle of humanity and nature. In fact, we are invited to "paint the color of the wind."

The rest of the Alan Menken-Stephen Schwartz soundtrack does not offer the same level of enjoyment. Granted, some of the tunes are meant to convey sinister intentions and thus are dark, but the words and harmonies never quite match those of "Color of the Wind," or other recent Disney song hits, for that matter.

Regarding the fact that the movie ends with Pocahontas choosing to remain with her people rather than accompany John Smith back to England, Susan Allen wrote in The Circle, a Minneapolis-area American Indian newspaper, "The general consensus among moviegoers is that Pocahontas does not have a happy ending. I disagree. In reality, Pocahontas was kidnapped by the colonists for ransom and eventually joined in a politically expedient royal marriage. She died estranged from her people and was buried in a foreign land where her grave is still a tourist attraction." Thus the movie may offer a better fate for the hero.

I suspect that this movie will be seen by a great percentage of America's (and the world's) children. Most of them will probably only see it once, however, and that is probably just as well.

The film offers a great opportunity for parents and children to learn about a historical figure worthy of note (and the way history treats people) while wrestling with questions about media literacy. My advice is to read the generally accepted account of Pocahontas in The Double Life of Pocahantas, by Jean Fritz (Puffin Books), and talk with your kids about (or consider on your own) why her story was changed to make a film that would appeal to more people.

Think about the drama that was her life. And imagine the changes for her people, a people still strong enough to survive today despite an onslaught. If we do this, the movie will have served a greater purpose. And Disney, perhaps unwittingly, will have begun to redeem itself on this account.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)