LEADING ARTICLE : Pocahontas and the chain-smoker

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The Disney Corporation is displaying the first signs of madness. It seems to believe that there is some connection between its cartoon Native American princess - currently enchanting the nation's children in the blockbuster film Pocahontas - and the real 17th-century personality, who is buried in a churchyard in Gravesend, Kent. To that end it has decided to endow the true Pocahontas's burial site to the tune of pounds 9,000 - money that will help to buy floodlights for the church.

In fact the most historically accurate aspect of the Disney character is probably Pocahontas's friendship with a talking raccoon. She never got off with the settler John Smith (who, far from being a blond surfing hunk, looked a bit like Ronnie Corbett with a false beard) and she was considerably younger than the lithe 18 or 19 depicted in the film. The true princess married a different colonist, John Rolfe, one of the earliest tobacco importers and conceivably the first European to become a chain- smoker.

You can see why the real princess had to be tampered with a little, so as to appeal to the audience of today. A tale of ragged Indians and settlers of unpleasant mien, comfortable with paedophiliaand smoking themselves silly on something that made filterless Gauloises taste like perforated Silk Cut, would not sell the books, figurines, dolls and other flim-flam, which between them are netting yet another fortune for the Disney people.

This is not, of course, the first or even the thousandth time that the film industry has tampered with history. Some movies - mostly starring Raquel Welch dressed in furs so revealing that they must have come from tiny prehistoric rodents - have done so much violence to truth that they have even lost a few million years, in order to allow man and dinosaur to meet. Most - a la Braveheart - have simplified, or exaggerated, the role of heroes in a way that Michael Portillo would heartily endorse. Only a few have sacrificed all audience interest for the sake of historical exactness.

But most of these films have been aimed at an adult audience - an audience well able to make the distinction between mythology and reality. Pocahontas, however, has been sold to the world's children as being the story of a real person. Disney's Pocahontas no more existed than did Snow White, Sleeping Beauty or Pinocchio - yet Disney itself is now attempting to co-opt the historical princess, merging true stories with their cartoon shadows. Now conscientious parents throughout Britain will be forced to explain to their disappointed offspring that it just ain't so.

As for Disney, what next? A sponsored kennels in Sherwood Forest for the descendants of Disney's vulpine Robin Hood? A subsidy for a poisoned apple detector service? A handbook on what to do if your dog gives birth to 101 puppies? Or, better still, a sense of humility in the presence of history. Now that would be magical.

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