Topics in History: History through Film

A Southport student review of the 1995 movie Pocahontas

Topics is a course at Southport High School, taught by Kevin Sanders, which analyzes major events from United States and world history through Hollywood films that attempt to portray those events. Students investigate historical documents and other sources to determine if a film is historically accurate.

The goal is for students to develop deeper understandings of the historical discipline while generating questions about the way the world is around them, along with watching classical films that have graced American and international screens. This week, Cooper Heaton reviews the film, Pocahontas.

By Cooper Heaton

Pocahontas is a 1995 Disney film which follows the story of Pocahontas and John Smith coming together and forming a relationship which leads the Jamestown settlers and the Powhatan Indians to see each other’s differences and end the conflict between the two groups. Pocahontas is not based in history. The contents of the film make for a nice and neat children’s film but do not accurately portray the lives of Pocahontas and John Smith and the conflict between the two groups.

We do know that some aspects of the film are correct. John Smith was in fact abducted by the Powhatan tribe. During his time that he was captured by them, he did get to know Pocahontas and is on record saying that she taught him some of her language and vice versa, but it is disputed whether she was truly involved in freeing John Smith.

But the film is more fiction than reality. In the film, Pocahontas is presented as an 18-19-year- old woman, yet in reality she was around 11-12 when she met John Smith. Another discrepancy between real life and the film is John Smith and Pocahontas’ relationship. John Smith and Pocahontas were never in a relationship. In fact, the real Pocahontas was married to another settler named John Rolfe when she was around 15-16 and was subsequently paraded around Europe for spectators to stare in awe at the “noble savage.” Pocahontas died at the young age of 21 from an unknown respiratory illness, separated from her family, in a foreign land.

These discrepancies are not accidental, as the true story of Pocahontas is a tragic one of colonial powers corrupting her culture and marrying her off to be shown as a spectacle in Europe. This story, obviously, is not pleasant and can’t be marketed toward children. The film has received an outpouring of dissatisfaction from Native American groups for its dishonest portrayal of events and whitewashing of history. Disney chose to tell a story that was heartwarming over the truth, and it is only up to time to tell if this was the right decision.