Some Thoughts on Pocahontas

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

"You think I'm an ignorant savage and you've been so many places, I guess it must be so. But still I cannot see, if the savage one is me, how can there be so much that you don't know?"

Freeform recently featured several repeat showings of Disney's animated feature Pocahontas (1995). While I have the film on DVD, and have seen it several times since it was first released, I decided to re-watch it because not only had I not seen it in a while, but also to avoid a writing deadline where I had writer's block. Ironically, it inspired me to write this column.

Pocahontas was intended to be a major animated hit for the Disney Company and the highly favorable response to the advance preview clip of the song Colors of the Wind released in November 1994 stirred anticipation for the final film. It was predicted to be a prestigious and successful animated hit.

In fact, a smaller "B" film worked on by newer animators doing some of their first work on lead characters and a story that had some major troubles in development was rushed into release to give the top animators more time to focus on Pocahontas.

That little film was The Lion King (1994), and it became the highest grossing animated film of all time up to that point, which meant that if Pocahontas even made a significant profit, it would still be considered a disappointment—which it was.

In 1607, British settlers arrive in the "New World" of America and establish the colony of Jamestown. These men include heroic explorer Captain John Smith and the commander of the group, Governor Ratcliffe, who is obsessed with finding huge amounts of gold. He becomes incensed when none is found.

Chief Powhatan and his free-spirited young daughter Pocahontas at first try their best to avoid these intruders, but find themselves involved.

Smith, who represents progress at any cost, and Pocahontas, who advocates for respect of the Earth, develop a relationship and, with the help of Grandmother Willow, discuss bringing a peace between their two groups. This hope is shattered when Pocahontas' suitor, the warrior Kocoum, is killed by a young inexperienced British sailor named Thomas—sparking a war.

Smith is sentenced to execution and Pocahontas throws herself between her father and Smith, begging for a cessation of all hostilities. Her father relents. Smith repays this kind gesture by jumping in front of the chief and taking the bullet shot by Ratcliffe, who is arrested by the crew. Smith returns to England for medical treatment while Pocahontas remains with her tribe.

That is certainly an awkward ending because, of course, Pocahontas and Smith cannot hook up, although it seems the natural conclusion. The film supposedly is based on reality and Pocahontas and Smith never got together in real life. So it must be emphasized that Smith's wounds are so severe that Pocahontas' tribe's proven effective natural holistic remedies have to be ignored so that he can spend many months at sea bleeding on a bacteria-ridden, rat-infested ship. (In the film, Pocahontas gives the wounded Smith some willow bark to help ease the pain. Willow bark contains salicylic acid, the basis of aspirin.)

It never made logical or emotional sense, and so the ending fell flat.

It would have made more sense to stress that Smith had to return to England to testify, since his status and reputation would make him a credible witness, so that the crew wouldn't get hung for mutiny against Ratcliffe.

By the way, the real Pocahontas was not a princess, because her Powhatan tribe never had that designation like some of the Western Plains tribes. At best, her status might be comparable to being the daughter of the President of the United States, which wouldn't make her a princess.

Pocahontas doesn't marry a prince, either, but an Englishman named John Rolfe, both in real life and in the Disney animated sequel, Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World. However, in the parks, she is paired with John Smith perhaps because not even the most devoted Disney fan would recognize John Rolfe, or remember that in both real and animated life Smith abandoned Pocahontas.

Shirley "Little Dove" Custalow-McGowan was a descendent of the Powhatan Indians and consulted with the Disney Studios three times about the film, but eventually felt that the production was not adhering strictly enough to historical accuracy and disavowed any further participation.

Disney lists Pocahontas among its princesses - although critics panned the false romantic storyline.

However, Disney claims that Pocahontas is indeed a princess, because she is the daughter of a chief and that is comparable enough—especially when you need diversity in a group. Yet, rarely is she portrayed in the parks by a Native American performer, but by all sorts of other nationalities.

Yet Disney completely ignores Princess Tiger Lily from Peter Pan (1953) who is indeed a true Indian princess and is constantly identified by that honorific by everyone.

Ironically, co-director Mike Gabriel had a hand-made poster consisting of a drawing of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan surrounded by forest animals and pitched it to Disney executives as the story of a girl trapped between the love of her father's people and their enemy. It was meant to be a sort of Native American Romeo and Juliet story.

Originally, Pocahontas' animal friend was to have been a comedic talking turkey named Redfeather, who thought he was quite a ladies' man, and who would be voiced by comedian John Candy. With Candy's death in 1994, and further development on the script, it was determined that no animals should talk.

Speaking of casting, most Disney fans forget that the recently deceased actor David Odgen Stiers provided the voice for both Governor Ratcliffe as well as Ratcliffe's assistant, Wiggins. Those I talked to who were at the recording sessions were amazed by his versatility at creating such distinctively different characters. His other Disney voice credits included the clock Cogsworth in Beauty and the Beast (1991), the arch deacon in Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996), and Jumba Jookiba in Lilo and Stitch (2002).

Since the film is rarely discussed, here are two short essays I wrote to show that despite its lack of critical and financial success by Disney standards that there was a lot of underlying thought put into the production.

Pocahontas Meets John Smith

Can the love of two ignorant savages from different civilizations like ripples in a river transform the world around them into a place of better understanding?

A young, highly spiritual Native American woman named Pocahontas, who is on the verge of personal discovery just around the riverbend, meets an English rogue named John Smith, who is an adventurer at heart, and the film proposes that is exactly what can happen. As their relationship develops, the couple grows together in greater understanding of the values of each other's cultures. In the process, they model those new insights for their respective peers and help avert a terrible war.

"In 1991, I pitched to Michael Eisner, Roy E. Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg the following story idea: 'Pocahontas: A beautiful Indian princess falls in love with a European settler and is torn between her father's wishes to destroy the settlers and her own wishes to help them,'" said co-director Mike Gabriel. "It was a Romeo and Juliet story. I pitched it just like that and just that long and they loved it immediately and walking out of that meeting, they had already made the commitment to make the film."

The final Disney animated feature film version became a romanticized fantasy inspired by the folklore and legend of Pocahontas. Through the unexpected relationship between the thoughtful Pocahontas and the impulsive Smith, both the English settlers and the Native American tribe eventually discover how to look at each other not as stereotypes but as they really are and what they have to offer.

Early in the film, a curious Pocahontas spies on the bold Smith as he climbs up the side of a cliff to scout the terrain. Peering shyly through the lush foliage, she sees his kindness in offering the effusive raccoon, Meeko, some hardtack biscuits to eat.

Co-director Eric Goldberg said, "When Meeko goes out to meet John Smith, it is clear that Pocahontas is spying on him. She likes what she sees. She is interested in him."

It is not until later in the film when the adventurous Smith is exploring a cascading waterfall spilling into a river that the two strangers officially meet. The clever Smith quickly ascertains that he is being watched by some possible enemy and tricks the person into following his path on the river rocks. Leaping from a hidden outcropping with his musket lit and ready to fire, the brave Smith confronts the lovely Pocahontas and slowly lowers his gun.

"This is one of the most beautiful scenes in animation…a scene that has no dialog and is completely carried by the facial expressions of the characters which is extremely difficult to do in animation," said producer James Pentecost. "It is the Romeo and Juliet moment of our film when they first see each other. For Pocahontas, she is seeing John Smith, but it is the first time John Smith has seen a Native American woman and he likes her."

Co-director Mike Gabriel remembered: "Beautiful scoring by Alan Menken to reflect their feelings. It's just such a great moment, aiming the gun and then slowly lowering it. We were on a press junket with director John Lasseter who was promoting Toy Story (1995) and he saw this clip and said it was a wonderful 'cinema moment' which was a great compliment."

The scene was storyboarded by animator Glen Keane, who also provided the animation for the character of Pocahontas. Animator John Pomeroy did the animation for John Smith.

This scene transitions into the pivotal moment where Smith's thinking is transformed during the song, "Colors of the Wind." The magic of the swirling colored leaves, as well as the faint recalling of the Listen To Your Heart song on the gentle wind, allows the audience to understand how these two characters who spoke different languages can communicate with each other because of the deep emotional connection between the two of them.

"John Smith feels he is opening up to Pocahontas all the great things the British are going to bring her tribe," Pentecost said. "Pocahontas is confused because she thinks things are fine just as they are. Just as they start to know each other, it all goes sour."

"Eventually, Pocahontas does show him the way she feels in the song 'Colors of the Wind.' It was the first song written for the movie," he said. "The characters end up in a different place at the end of the song than where they were at the beginning of the song. It really is a journey the characters have made together. She has changed John Smith's thinking. In the final scene, his gun is left to the side of the frame, leaning by a tree."

However, just as in Shakespeare's classic play Romeo and Juliet, the course of true love does not run smooth nor ends happily. At one point, the brave Smith is to be killed in retaliation for the death of the warrior Kocoum and Pocahontas visits him to say their final goodbye.

"It is an emotional moment saying to each other that they love each other before they say goodbye," said director Mike Gabriel. It strengthens their love. It's an adult emotion that is being expressed and it is very powerful. The story of Romeo and Juliet is universal and this is another retelling."

Producer Pentecost echoed, "It was the first Disney animated film that did not have a happily-ever-after ending. Smith returns to England because of his wound and Pocahontas remains because of her obligation to her people."

The two characters have learned from their relationship that their personal responsibilities exceed their feelings for each other.

The meeting of Pocahontas and John Smith, according to actress Irene Bedard who was the original voice of Pocahontas, "is the heart of the film. If you try to see things from another person's point of view, you will gain a great wisdom and a deep understanding of others."

The Tale of Thomas

Thomas (voiced by Christian Bale) is an inexperienced, but eager, redheaded English settler who has joined the British Virginia Company expedition to the New World, little suspecting the forthcoming hardships that will challenge him to quickly mature from a callow youth to a potential leader.

As he tenderly kisses his concerned mother on the dock and says goodbye to his proud father and baby sister, the impetuous Thomas is completely unaware that he is also saying farewell to his childhood and his narrow perceptions of the world he knows and its prejudices.

On the ship, the Susan Constant, Thomas naively blurts out to intrepid Captain John Smith: "This New World's going to be great. I'll get a pile of gold, build a big house, and if an Indian tries to stop me, I'll blast him!"

A raging storm at sea tests Thomas' resolve as he desperately tries on the increasingly slippery deck to save one of the heavy cannons that has broken free of its water soaked ropes. The always resourceful Smith helps the fumbling Thomas to secure the dangerous rolling weapon, but, in the process, a mighty wave washes the young sailor into the churning waters below where he is again rescued by Smith.

In a scene deleted from the final film, the sopping wet Thomas ruefully admits to Smith, "I never dreamed it would be so hard just getting there."

Supervising animator Ken Duncan did several different character studies of Thomas at ages 12, 15, 17, and 19. Finally, it was determined to make the character about 19 years old. At one point, it was considered to give him a mustache and goatee like his father, since Thomas wanted to appear older.

"In the first few animation tests, Thomas was too young and 'cartoony,' so we redesigned him to more realistic proportions," Duncan said. "At the beginning of the voyage, Thomas is a naïve boy looking to find adventure, lots of gold, and battle with the savages. At first, he really wants to use his gun to kill Indians, but he's quite shocked by what transpires when he actually does kill someone. At the end, the experience has matured him. Thomas is no longer the innocent boy he had been."

The character of Thomas was loosely based on an actual person. The inspiration was the real Thomas Savage, a young laborer, who arrived in Jamestown in January 1608, and was sent to live with Chief Powhatan and his tribe the next month, sort of like a "cultural exchange student."

Pocahontas meets John Smith in this postcard from the film, in a scene that shows how the two communicated without words.

Before his death, legendary animator Ollie Johnston commented that one of the pieces of recent Disney character animation he had seen that he particularly admired was Duncan's work on the character of Thomas stating that is "was simple and subtle emotionally specific work".

When the English expedition digging for gold is attacked by a scouting party from Powhatan's tribe, the inexperienced Thomas clumsily trips over a fallen tree and almost shoots the pompous Ratcliffe, who later scolds the crestfallen boy that he better "learn to use that thing properly." Later, when Thomas almost accidentally shoots the returning Smith, the veteran explorer advises Thomas to keep both eyes open if he intends to actually kill something.

"This is an interesting section here because it played out one of the more serious themes in the movie," director Mike Gabriel recalled. "On the one hand, John Smith, unknowingly, other than trying to help Thomas out, tells him how to shoot. On the other hand, Ratcliffe berates Thomas and says he is never going to be a man until he learns to shoot. So Thomas is torn."

"He wants to do right, wants to be a good soldier," he said. "So he does all the things he is supposed to do dutifully but it ultimately backfires on him later in the film. And it really is the question of what really constitutes being a man. Does a gun help you be that? It is knowing when to pull the trigger and when not to pull the trigger."

Co-director Eric Goldberg loved the lighting in the scene where an angry Ratcilffe orders Thomas to follow Smith who has just left the fort. Goldberg claimed "that thin strip of light between Ratcliffe and Thomas emphasizes that Thomas is in the hot seat, so to speak."

Goaded by Ratcliffe's taunts that Thomas was "a slipshod sailor and a poor excuse for a soldier" and that "a man's not a man unless he knows how to shoot", the belittled boy trails after the secretive Smith.

Innocent Thomas is shocked to discover his hero Smith embracing the lovely Pocahontas and even more taken by surprise when the Native American warrior Kocoum attacks the unsuspecting Smith. Without thinking, Thomas shoots and kills Pocahontas' bethrothed, and Smith once again saves Thomas from the consequences of his actions.

"I think Thomas is really successful in this movie," Gabriel recalled. "He is a wonderful secondary character who just has so much internal turmoil and decisions to be made. He gets caught between the two worlds in a just beautiful way. He really is in a vice grip. I think it is a really compelling performance."

By the end of the film, Thomas has learned the folly of his early prejudices and assumes the role of potential leader when he stands up to the overbearing Ratcliffe and orders the men to "put him in chains…and gag him as well." When the men are boarding the ship for the return trip to England, it is Thomas who appears to be in charge of the much older crew seeing to the care of Smith and inquiring about the readiness of the vessel.

In the blink of an eye, his experiences in Jamestown have transformed Thomas from an uncoordinated, shallow boy to a wiser, more self-assured young man.



  1. By davidgra

    I've never much cared for the film, although I wanted to like it since I love its soundtrack. Judy Kuhn is one of my all-time favorite Broadway performers and did a fantastic job with the songs. The movie just felt like they were trying to make a movie out of a true-life story that didn't have much to offer in terms of good Disney storytelling. I'm glad there's at least one Native American "princess" in the group, though. Diversity is always a good thing, and we need more of it from Disney.

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