It seems obvious what is meant by the title of "The New World" as soon as you find out Terrence Malick's film is about Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher) and John Smith (Colin Farrell). But there are additional layers of meaning to the term, because Malick is trying to evoke the moment of equilibrium where two cultures met and each was confronted with the strange newness of the other. As always, Malick's vision is poetic, relying on images and music more than dialogue in his marriage of sight and sound. Even in terms of the spoken word, the emphasis is more on narration than on conversation. The approach might be frustrating to some viewers, because Malick does not tell his story using the conventions of contemporary cinema. But then we have known for some time that Malick makes movies in his own world. He just does not not invite us for visits as often as we would like.
Judging this film in terms of historical accuracy is difficult, given what little we know about these characters. It is believed that Pocahontas was born around 1595, which would have made her 12 in 1607 when she supposedly rescued John Smith from death when he was captured and brought to Werowocomoco. Whether Smith's version of the story is true, is open to debate, as is the nature of exactly what he was being rescued from, but it is the meeting between them and how the Powhatan Confederacy supported the fledgling Jamestown colony. The actress playing Pocahontas was fourteen when Malick was filming, which would made her a couple of years too old for the initial scenes with Smith, but then Kilcher also has to play "Rebecca" when she travels to England at approximately the age of twenty-two in 1617, ten years after she first met John Smith and a year before she died in the new world she found on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.
The character is never called Pocahontas in the film, and indeed the daughter of Powhatan (whose named was really Wahusunacock) was named Matoaka, with "Pocahontas" being a childhood nickname referring to her frolicing nature. The idea of a romance between Pocahontas and Smith is studiously avoided, since she ends up marrying another Englishman, John Rolfe (Christian Bale). Her assimilation is the focal point of the film and there is a sense in which Malick is telling the familiar story of the stranger in a strange land who goes native. In other words, this is the opposite of what we saw in "A Man Called Horse" and "Dances With Wolves," because it is the Native American, the "natural," who is captivated by the alien culture. But notice that this reversal takes place at a time when the "Indian princess" would be welcomed at the court of the king and queen of England. The fate of the woman we know as Pocahontas is relatively unique in our cultural history, especially with the horror stories to come regarding the fates of other Native Americans. That is why Malick's movie presents a vision of a brief moment in American history that was pretty much gone as soon as she passed away.