A Study in Disney: ‘Pocahontas’ (1995)

| January 16, 2022

Disney is as much a part of our lives as love and death.  It’s wrapped around us, and not just in our childhood.  There are thousands and thousands of Disney movies by this point but the one that really shape the company and the culture are the animated features.  Disney busted out of the gate in 1937, intending to create a new artform and make an evolutionary leap in cinema.  So, every other day from now through March, I will be chronicling every single one of Disney’s canon animated features.  It’s a fascinating journey, and a lot of fun too.

Pocahontas (1995) - FILMGAZM

It is no secret that Disney has a . . . history with history.  Going all the way back to the days when Walt was running his studio, the company bore a brand in which he paralleled works of fantasy with a revisionist version of the American landscape that didn’t exactly deal in historical fact.  Disney’s vision of American history in everything from Davy Crockett to Song of the South has little to nothing to do with factual history but was chaired in a fantastical revisionism that mass audiences could find comforting.  Davy Crocket could kill a Grizzly Bar and Uncle Remus could spin amazing tales, and while they could tell a story that was marginally entertaining, their legacy would be troubling to proceeding generations that understood the darker truths of history than Disney was willing or able to explore.

For the succeeding generation Pocahontas commits the most egregious violations of historical inaccuracy.  What was supposed to be a sensitive portrayal of an important part of Native American history, for many, has been battered down to a simple-minded Romeo and Juliet narrative that ages down pudgy. middle-aged John Smith as a young, golden-haired white Adonis and ages up Pocahontas as a supermodel with long legs, full pouty lips and bosoms till Tuesday.

Of course, there is no sin in rearranging history in favor of dramatic license.  Stories based on fact are necessarily bent or often blended to fit a dramatic narrative and it is permitted so long as the overall point remains intact.  You can do this all day long with Davy Crockett and few would complain, but when it comes to Pocahontas, things get a little sticky.  The movie reconditions the plight of America’s indigenous people and their relations with the European settlers as tense at first but eventually hunky-dory over the course of time.  As with the enslavement of Africans, America has had a long and difficult history of trying to tie up relations with the Native Americans, a struggle that continues to this very day and Hollywood’s portrayal of Native Americans is strained even when trying to be positive.  Pocahontas was a revision of history from a film factory whose revisionism is troublesome because its brand cannot permit the darker corners of human history to flourish.  Its intentions were probably good but the result was a product to which the movie-going public just wasn’t on board.

Inside the Disney studio, Pocahontas was seen as a prestige picture that would finally win the Best Picture Oscar that was lost by Beauty and the Beast.  The problem was that the response to the film came in the form of tepid box office returns and protests from Native American groups who were upset over the way in which the film rewrote an important chapter of their history.  It did win two Oscars though, for the music.

Most troubling to Native American activists was the perfected quality of Pocahontas herself which drew protest from the Colville tribes of Spokane Washington because they saw the characters as a sinister Hollywood revision which were certainly not unfounded.  There was a great deal of validity to the argument, but within the Disney company, the filmmakers really thought that they were breaking new ground.  Pocahontas was the first Disney princess of color after Jasmine in Aladdin.  This was the first Disney film to have interracial romance and the first Disney film with an up-front environmental message.  And the movie boldly addressed the fact that the major motivation of the English settlers was to tear up the new world in search of gold (the villain sings a song about this) – although, curiously, it does lay a measure of the blame on the Powhatan tribes for being thoughtless and reactionary.

The chief argument, at its core however was that Pocahontas came off as a piece of neo-liberalist entertainment fluff that took a sad and troubling story and retooled it into a Romeo and Juliet narrative based on the stereotype of an indigenous woman falling in love with the first hunky white dude she lays eyes on.  Pocahontas is aged-up at least 10 years (in reality she was 10 to 12 when John Smith arrived in America).  The movie simplifies her struggle and loses the most important aspect of her legacy in that her short life included exploitation and a tragic early death from an unknown disease.

The Disney version adheres to the romantic mythology that most of us learned as children – much of it bogusly recounted by John Smith himself – that he was seized by the tribe and was about to have his brains bashed in before Pocahontas threw herself upon his head and demanded that the madness be stopped, asserting “If you kill him, you’ll have to kill me too,” and after being ordered by her father to stand back, reasons: “I won’t!  I love him, father.”  It also asserts that his death sentence was brought on by the accidental death of Kocoum, whom Powhatan had chosen as a husband for Pocahontas but to whom she had doubts because he was, Pocahontas says in the Disney film, “So serious.”  In reality, Pocahontas married Kocoum, whom she reportedly loved very much, and their union produced a daughter in 1612.

Pocahontas’ fate got even darker.  In an organized plot, she was lured onto an English ship and after she was safely aboard, Captain Samuel Argall had Kocoum killed.  During her captivity, she learned English, converted to Christianity and married John Rolfe with whom she later produced a son named Thomas.  In England, she was paraded and exhibited as an example of the “civilized savage.”  Pocahontas’ journey would be cut tragically short as she died in March 1617 at the age of 21.

Comparatively, the Disney version retrofits the story to streamline it into a much less complicated narrative.  After she rescues John Smith, her father recants his violent ways and proclaims that if there is a war between the English and the Natives, that it won’t come from him.  The Indians and the Colonists lower their weapons only to have the silence broken by Governor Radcliffe, the movie’s chief villain, who orders his men to fire only to be met with baleful protest.  John Smith takes a bullet for Powhatan and the colonists seize upon Radcliffe.  He is then chained and set out to sea in a tiny dinghy.  Pocahontas and the injured Smith are reunited, requite their love and are separated as the English head back across the ocean because her place is with her people.  Peace is had between the Indians and the English.  Pocahontas watches her beloved sail out to the horizon.  She strikes a pose.  Roll Credits.  Melodic Top 40 song plays.  Disney logo.  The end.

Even a rudimentary study of commonly known early American history (as has been presented here) reveals the problems with Disney’s Pocahontas.  It is obvious that the filmmakers were trying to break new ground by presenting a strong woman of color who imparts to the savage colonists a message both about the environment and diversity.  They had good intentions and the controversy would be answered by animator Tom Sito who wrote that “Contrary to the popular verdict that we ignored history on the film, we tried hard to be historically correct and to accurately portray the culture of the Virginia Algonquins. We consulted with the Smithsonian Institution, a number of Native American experts, Pocahontas’s descendants, the surviving Virginia tribes, and even took several trips to Jamestown itself.”

Fine, but the story still beats the historical record with a rock in order to make it fit the parameters of family entertainment.  Could they have told the story accurately and still satisfied their target audience.  It would have been complicated but not impossible.  Early meetings between the Disney staff suggest that it was on their minds.  Pocahontas was originally to be portrayed as a child and there was even the suggestion that the Powhatan people would speak entirely in their native language leading Pocahontas to have to learn to speak English.  But those ideas were squashed by Studio Head Jeffrey Katzenberg who wanted a narrative that would appeal to the average movie-goer and possibly secure the film a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  As a result, the story was rerouted into an interracial love story and the language barrier was hardly even an issue.  In other words, the history was pushed aside in favor of gold, precious gold – Oscar gold, to be exact.

Did they learn their lesson?  Well . . . that depends on your perspective.  In the years to come, Disney would write and rewrite the cultural history and cultural lore of indigenous people with much more accuracy and less neo-liberalist sand-bagging in films as diverse as Brother Bear, Lilo and Stitch, The Princess and the Frog and most notably Moana.  But the stain of Pocahontas still lingers.  It doesn’t hang in the Disney canon with nearly the same kind of collar-tugging regard as Song of the South but looking back on it, most movie-goers’ first inclination is to jump on the historical inaccuracies.  Will time change that attitude?  Probably not, but one can take comfort in the fact that at least Disney has taken steps to change its tactics regarding stories of indigenous peoples.  You could say that they eventually learned how to paint with all the Colors of the Wind. 

What does that even mean?

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.