U.S. History in Film

Prof. McClurken’s HIST 329 — Fall 2008

Archive for Pocahontas


So the first movie we watched in this class was Disney’s Pocahontas. Before last Tuesday (Sept. 2nd) I had not seen this children’s classic since I was about 8 years-old. I know I don’t have the most accurate memory, but I think it is safe to say this film provided a different perspective about Native American life than when I was a grade-school kid trying to sing-along to the lyrics of the popular soundtrack. Furthermore, it would be an understatement if I said that in class, we just bifurcated the movie into what was accurate about it and what they got wrong. We actually focused more on the inaccuracies and pretty much denounced Disney for their attempts at making a film about the English settlement in America.

One thing that gets me, though, is are we really justified in calling out Disney’s inaccuracies? What I mean is, was Disney’s original intention to tell the true story of Pocahontas, John Smith, Jamestown, etc.? Or did they just want to take two historically significant figures, develop a romance story between them in the context of a historical event, and make it animated so it’s targeted towards kids? If the former is true, then I think it is everyone’s duty as Americans to point out every minuscule flaw we see (even if it is outrageous as a talking tree). However, if the latter was the way Disney wanted to go, then we should think twice about our criticisms. After all, do kids really care about whether or not Ratcliffe was technically a captain of the ship and not a governor of London? I would think they were more concerned about Mikko being funny and cute enough and songs catchy enough to sing along to. I think it is great that we as movie-goers and history-buffs are keen and aware not to be fooled by a false story when we see one; but we should look at why a movie about specific historical event was made. Not everyone enjoys history, so movies are a great way to go about teaching it. Maybe the errors movies make were on purpose just so the film as a whole could be appreciated by a specific audience. Then it is up to the audience to delve deeper into history and find out its true story.

Pocahontas and the Modern Woman

On Thursday, we discussed “Pocahontas” and all of the aspects that Disney got wrong or right in the making of the film. While Prof McClurken very obviously is not a fan of Disney, I’ve always been firmly on its side. Growing up in the 1990s meant that Disney princesses and I grew up together — I even remember seeing “Pocahontas” in the theater with my mom. It is my roommate’s favorite Disney movie, and I bought it for her 20th birthday.

One of the biggest criticisms of Disney, and especially the princesses, is that it gives young women exactly the wrong ideas about themselves and how they should behave. I know a lot of girls my age who saw these movies and have grown up to be strong women. Are we still missing something? Is it enough of a risk that we should bar our daughters from seeing them? Of course, growing up to be a strong woman has as much to do with personality and upbringing – including our parent’s responses to these movies – regardless of the movies that we watch. How could we trace a subservient personality to watching these movies, any more than we could trace a love of flowy dresses or breaking into song?

One cannot argue that these movies can be simply for entertainment value when they are aimed at toddlers who haven’t been exposed to other entertainment, much less other people. But there is definitely a thin line between teaching mysogyny and giving little girls dreams of being princesses. It is our earliest exposure to escapism and dreaming of a better/different life, which.. let’s face it, we all have to accept that our real parents, the king and queen, aren’t coming to get us after all.

In this movie in particular, we are exposed to ideas about gender, but also race and revisionist history. Pocahontas is arguably quite white looking compared to the others in her tribe, with a more English accent, and a kickin’ Barbie body. When taking into consideration that she would have spent a lot of time outside, and that there would have been little to no racial mixing at this point, one would think she would be a lot darker. Darker like the other members of her tribe, for example. This small change serves tons of roles for Disney, but it can easily be summed up by saying that little white girls can’t identify with a Native American woman nearly as easily as they can to a white “teenager.”

On the issue of history, Disney is definitely reprehensible. It is important to remember that no matter how many consultants they bring in, the final decisions are up to them, and they can make all of the informed poor decisions that they want. The idea that the Jamestown settlers just packed up and happily left after being told that there was no gold is beyond laughable; it is an irresponsible portrayal. As we discussed, part of this portrayal is meant to assuage American guilt and to show an openness to other cultures (this was hardly the only movie of the mid-1990s to feature Native American main or supporting characters).

I can’t argue that Disney is an educational experience for little girls and boys. Unfortunately, this discussion lands in the gray area of entertainment vs. reality, and each person decides which they want more for themselves. People should be more cognizant of what their children are absorbing, but the ideas of female subservience cannot be blocked out just by a Disney boycott.

Pocahontas Music

For those that are interested, I’ve uploaded all of the musical numbers from Pocahontas.

The Virginia Company The Virginia Company

The Virginia Company (Reprise) The Virginia Company (Reprise)

Steady as the Beating Drum (Main Title) Steady as the Beating Drum (Main Title)

Steady as the Beating Drum (Reprise) Steady as the Beating Drum (Reprise)

Just Around the Riverbend Just Around the Riverbend

Listen with Your Heart I Listen with Your Heart I

Mine, Mine, Mine Mine, Mine, Mine

Listen with Your Heart II Listen with Your Heart II

Colors of the Wind Colors of the Wind

Savages (Part 1) Savages (Part 1)

Savages (Part 2) Savages (Part 2)


U.S. History in Film

This is my test blurb! Hope this tagging business works!


Test page 1234


One thing about today’s discussion of Pocahontas that bothered me was the blame put on Disney for making a historically inaccurate film. While I agree that they could have done a better job with facts you have to remember they are Disney. You can not judge a Disney film on not being real when they are in the business of magic and make believe. Any Disney film requires the viewer to suspend their disbelief. Why are you even going to a Disney movie to learn about history. While Disney did make some attempts to correctly portray some aspects, they did get others completely wrong.
They did a good job showing the close connection between the Native Americans and nature with Grandmother Willow, Meeko and Flit, as well as the spirits all around. They also did a good job showing the motives of the Virginia Company, all these men wanted was God, gold, and glory. The song at the beginning of the movie clearly states these things as well as the fact they they have been told by the company that they will find them in the New World.
While they did get a lot of things wrong, they did accomplish what they set out to do. I don’t believe that Disney looked to make a historically accurate documentary of Pocahontas but rather follow closely to the legend of her. If this is the case can we really fault them?

And so the Disney version of Pocahontas was destroyed.

I think that in today’s class discussion on the historical accuracy of Disney’s “Pocahontas,” we actually covered a lot and really learned what this semester is going to be like.  It seemd like a vast majority of the class (and I think Dr. M’s “overview” at the end of class summed this general opinion up quite well) is that the portrayal of Pocahontas via Disney is not really that accurate at all.  I mentioned on the class wiki that once again, Dr. M was right and that determining this accuracy was indeed like “shooting fish in a barrel.”  Personally, I believe Disney should be given some credit since they did consult a wide range of sources that did know about the culture that the movie was trying to convey.  I believe that there was a bit that Disney did get correct and unfortunately, I think the bad outweighs the good with this movie.  Although the creators got (most of) the trip to the New World accurate and although the creators did get the idea of cultural superiority correct, I think the fact that the entire movie was based on a love story between two figures who barely knew each other and were separated in age by about 20 years makes it a little difficult to identify what it was that Disney got right.  I believe that it is an excellent movie for kids and that it is a wonderful way to introduce the idea of Native Americans and their interaction with the colonists.  However, if they wanted the entire thing based on a love story, they should not have used Pocahontas.  If the entire 90 minute movie were based on fictional characters and a fictional story line, I don’t think historians would have as much of a problem with it as they do.  But to learn that this is a movie that kids first see in a classroom and to learn that this is how they’re taught about Pocahontas and John Smith is just plain scary.  

I’m hoping that this is the worst of the bunch and that the movies slowly get more and more accurate as the weeks go on.  Historical filmmakers have to have some sense of dignity, right?  I don’t know how well I can handle ripping movies to shreds every week.  Maybe it’s not Disney and it’s just Mel Gibson.  (And if that’s the case I guess we should be ready to bash ”The Patriot” in a few weeks.)

Disney’s Pocahontas Discussion

Just for anyone reading that may not be in the class – we have a process of posting comments the day before a discussion. So…. NOW please enjoy what I would have posted last night if I weren’t an idiot who forgot to actually post all the thoughts/work I had to contribute (that was conveniently already typed up in word all ready to go):

In both Smith’s journal and in Pocahontas (movie), how do these two cultures magically find a way to communicate. Smith makes no mention of not understanding or struggling to get messages across. Maybe this is a sign of his overconfidence in his own abilities of assuming things about the culture. I like to think that in the movie it was love that allows Pocahontas and Smith to suddenly both speak English together.

Are prisoners granted messengers? Would Smith be considered a guest or prisoner in this case that he has described? This is a question not about the movie at all – I am a little lost in Smith’s account. And would this messenger be carrying a written English message… if so what did he write it on and what with? If it was a message relayed verbally, we have a communication problem yet again.

Also to continue the confusion with the primary source – Disney doesn’t really relay that there are competing tribes of Indians. Smith talks about divisions giving him gifts/food, which is more realistic.

Something they did get right is the culture barrier – the gender role differences, the civilization issue (English superiority), property ownership, etc. Though, it was a little strange that John Smith and Pocahontas immediately understand and can somewhat relate to each others cultural beliefs.

And now reflections on discussion:

I did enjoy this discussion, I am glad that we are all on the same page. We paid Disney its dues, but also picked it apart somewhat for its inaccuracies and blatant fabrications of events. Things that I particularly found interesting were…

Newport was the early leader who then left to go back to England, Ratcliffe wasn’t the richest of the rich in Jamestown and he did actually do some dirty work himself, which is how he died due to a poor communication with Pamunky (probably spelled wrong and I apologize for this profusely) Indians (he tried to negotiate for food and apparently not nicely).

I am sad to know that the Indian environmentalism is not necessarily true… as we talked about in class, they didn’t have many people to sustain, and they simply moved on to more land when they exhausted the resources. Sure it was in a different way than Europeans, but still not very environmentally minded.

Public displays of affection – didn’t really happen like that. John Smith and Pocahontas didn’t kiss in real life, and even if they did have a relationship, Pocahontas wouldn’t know to kiss (as that was not in our culture to out knowledge).

Disney’s depictions of women – my defense of Disney is and has always been “it’s written primarily for kids.” Why should kids need women (and men for that matter) to look so stereotypically beautiful? And beyond Pocahontas’s figure, John Smith is certainly not the way he is portrayed in the movie. Blond hair, tall, muscular, handsome – not so much.

Primary sources compared to movie depiction – interactions between the two groups were hostile, yes. But, they did trade and attempt to be peaceful for a great deal of time (according to Smith’s account) and did not go straight to weapons etc. Also – the end of the movie makes it seem that the settlers are going back and that they will be welcome whenever they wish to return… not quite true.

For future movies we are — keeping an eye on the outsider in historical American film (who may be civilized but not spoiled by culture that he is a part of.)

John Smith was not actually popular. People weren’t sad when he had his accident and was injured, having to return home.

Movie is a primary source of the 1990s. Racism/intolerance, consumerism, Western coming of age story (courage and love conquers).


Today we discussed Disney’s film Pocahontas. We talked about what Disney got right. We talked about what Disney got wrong. Professor Mcclurken ranted on the evils of Disney. At the end of the day my love for Disney remained. I am not saying Disney is right I know that is it not but I still love their movies anyway. However, in all of our discusions today, I think people forgot that Disney wasn’t trying for historical accuracy, they were trying to make a move that would entertain people kids especially and they wanted to make money. They never claim to be accurate and if you look at their advertising they are all about the”magic.” If this movie had been historically accurate there would have been no Disney “magic” that people know and love. I think it is sad that people use Disney as the only tool to teach with because I believe it can teach somethings as long as it is made clear that they are not totally right. I also think anyone who goes to see a Disney movie and expects to learn all about a particular place and/or time has other problems that have nothing to do with Disney.

Gold in Virginia

I noticed that nobody mentioned gold at all, on the wiki or in class, aside from the 3 G’s.  Well, it’s true that the colonists didn’t find any gold, but that’s not because Virginia doesn’t have any.  What a lot of people don’t know, even those who have lived in VA a long time, is that VA has a significant history of gold mining.  (yes, I’m going into this, because I gave tours of an old gold mine site and gold panning workshops all summer long).

Running from the DC/MD area about 200 miles southwest into central Virginia is what’s known as the Gold-Pyrite belt, rich in not only those but other minerals such as iron, lead, zinc, and copper.  So the colonists weren’t terribly far off.  However, it would take nearly 200 years-1806- before Virginians would discover any of the numerous gold deposits that existed.  There grew to be about 170 gold mines in VA, with the most productive mines in Spotsylvania, Orange, and Fauquier counties.  VA was the country’s #3 gold-producing state from 1830-1850, peaking in the 1840s, before the CA gold rush that meant lots of experienced prospectors and miners left VA.  With disruptions during the Civil War and World War I, gold mining continued, albeit at a much lower production rate than before, until WWII, when nationwide gold mines were closed to redirect production efforts elsewhere to more important industry.  The most

And that’s just part of it.

It surprised me that John Smith didn’t say much about gold in his account.  Well, at least he didn’t lie and say they found some when they didn’t.  Plenty of Spaniards before them died searching the current US SW, and beyond, for the fabled seven cities of gold, and the colonists, as we know, were also led to believe that they would be able to find gold easily once they were in the New World.  They actually ended up collecting pyrite for a good while before they realized it wasn’t gold.

And not just gold, too.  Governor Ratcliffe gives the impression that gold is all he cared about (then again, Disney HAS to have an egotistical, GREEDY antagonist).  What about looking for any resource they could send back to England?  Exploitation, exploitation.  That seems to be Disney’s tamed version, like all they wanted was gold, which they didn’t find, and trees to build Jamestown with.  On that matter, picking up off of the beautiful forest-turned-wasteland idea, the gold-digging song is the only time in the movie when we see any effects of the colonists upon the landscape (other than Jamestown).


Next entries »