- “This is my land! I make the laws here! And I say anyone who so much as looks at an Indian without killing him on sight, will be tried for treason and hanged!”
- ―Ratcliffe to Smith[src]
Like most Disney villains, Ratcliffe is very power-hungry. He is unbelievably greedy, as evidenced by his insatiable craving for gold, which would make him a very wealthy man. He is also highly xenophobic, ruthless, cruel, heartless, insulting, manipulative, and incredibly racist. While he exudes great confidence and gives the impression of being rather vain, Ratcliffe in fact seems to take a rather dim view of himself, admitting in a sad voice that he has never been a popular man. In addition to the fact that his peers at King James' court consider him a "pathetic social climber", this appears to be intended to make him a mildly sympathetic character in spite of his villainous nature. His mission to colonize the Americas is his last chance to make a name for himself. Ratcliffe's lack of self-esteem stands in contrast to the egomania of most Disney villains, such as Gaston, making him somewhat unique. Despite his self-confessed lack of popularity, Ratcliffe seems quite charismatic and manages to command the respect of his troops up until the climax of the film. This is continued in the second film, as shown when Ratcliffe manages to manipulate King James multiple times and, as he is about to set sail with his armada, he riles up his troops' excitement as they prepare to "scour the world of the savage vermin".
Another thing that distances Ratcliffe from most Disney villains, and similar to Judge Claude Frollo, is that he actually believes that he is a good person and refuses to find fault in himself. He believes what he does to be in the name of the crown and even goes as far to call John Smith a liar, sees the land he found as his own, believes what Pocahontas told Smith to be lies and even calls his own men traitors at the end when they turn against him and take him prisoner for treason (after he inadvertently shot Smith while trying to shoot Powhatan). He also believes himself to be powerful as he threatens his men that he will have them hanged or executed when they turn on him at the end of the film. The men, however, are not discouraged by this threat, and Thomas, who takes control, further orders the men, "And gag him as well."
Ratcliffe is often calm and collected during the two films. For example, when John Smith tells him there is no gold in Virgina, Ratcliffe, rather than lose his temper, insists in a stubborn voice that it's a 'lie' and will hang anyone who refuses to shoot a Native American. He does get flustered at times, but is easily calmed.
Ratcliffe is sarcastic, as shown when he 'praises' John Smith for saving Thomas, which implies he actually does not care whether Thomas had drowned or not. In the second film, he flirts with Pocahontas at the ball and mocks John Smith's death in a sarcastic voice.
Ratcliffe is also somewhat lazy and self-indulgent, as shown in the first film where he simply slouches off eating rich food while the settlers do all the manual labor digging for gold and survive on stale and unappetizing supplies.
Ratcliffe is a tall and obese man with long black hair tied up into short pigtails with red ribbons, thick black eyebrows, and notable lavender eyelids. He is most often seen in a rose-colored long-sleeved shirt with a long V-cut neckline underneath a magenta-purple coat with lavender collar and cuffs, black linings on the chest and waistline, and a magenta-purple colonial hat with a blue feather on its black band with a turquoise medallion resting around his neck to top his sophisticated look off. He also wears magenta-purple knee-length pants, lavender calf-high socks, black colonial boots, and a red cape. In his imagination at the King's ball, he wore a golden yellow version of his uniform with a red medallion.
Ratcliffe leads an expedition to Virginia to find gold and other riches (which he wants to keep for himself). He fails to tell any of the other crew of his real reason of going to Virginia and recites the "adventure of our lives" and "freedom" speech to cover it up. When they see land, Ratcliffe meets with John Smith, whom the crew admire, about his plan on dealing with the "savages" and "filthy little heathens" (what he calls the Native Americans) and Smith assures his success and the meeting's through. Ratcliffe arrives at the Shore of Virginia shortly after Smith, Thomas, and Ben and Lon do, then claims the land (and any and all riches it has) in the name of King James and names the settlement Jamestown.
After Smith leaves to search for the Native Americans, Ratcliffe orders some men to build the fort and clear the ship while the rest dig for gold. In the build-up to the song "Mine, Mine, Mine", he reminds the men that the Spanish found "mountains" of gold when they came to the New World, and it was now their turn to make a name for England and themselves. Unfortunately, the men's search turns up nothing, and moreover, several Native America warriors spy on the settlers, which Ratcliffe soon notices. Believing that they are about to launch an ambush, Ratcliffe panics, and a battle ensues between the settlers and the warriors, during which Thomas nearly shoots Ratcliffe by accident and the governor himself wounds one of the warriors named Namontack, forcing them to retreat. The men celebrate, but Ratcliffe, knowing the Native Americans will return in bigger numbers, orders his men to return to camp, bring the rest of the ship's cannons ashore, and finish the fort's construction. He then chastises Thomas' ineptitude on the battlefield and warns him that unless he learns how to shoot properly, he'll never be considered a man; this leaves Thomas with diminished self-esteem.
A few days later, as the men finish the fort, Ratcliffe begins to panic over the fact that after so much digging, he and his men still have not found any gold at all. He struggles to figure out what he's overlooking, when Wiggins, his servant, stumbles into his tent, having apparently been shot through the head with an arrow. Ratcliffe is shocked, but Wiggins happily notes it to be a joke, having made the contraption himself using a broken arrow. Irate, Ratcliffe snatches it from him and derides the thing as silly, but then, it gives him an idea about why they haven't found any gold. Ratcliffe asks Wiggins why the Native Americans attacked them earlier. Wiggins correctly points out that they invaded the Native Americans' land and began stealing their resources, but Ratcliffe dismisses this, explaining his belief that the Native Americans are hiding the gold, and begins forming a plan to take it from them. He then goes out to find John Smith, only to find that he has gone off and sends Ben and Lon, who were napping near the wall of the fort, out to find him.
Later that evening, after John Smith returns from supposedly "scouting the terrain", Ratcliffe orders him to prepare the men for battle, so they can destroy the Native Americans and take the gold. But Smith tells Ratcliffe that there is no gold and that they don't have to fight the Native Americans because he already met one of them. Instead, he suggests the Native Americans can help them by showing them their land. Ratcliffe, however, refuses to believe this. He declares that it is his land and his laws, one of which is that anyone refusing to shoot a Native American on sight will be branded a traitor and punished with execution by hanging.
Later, when he sees John Smith running off somewhere that night, Ratcliffe finds Thomas, who also saw John leave. Ratcliffe comes up to him from behind and pushes him out ordering him to follow John and figure out where he was going. He tosses Thomas a musket and tells him to shoot any Native American he sees. Before Thomas leaves, he tells him that he's "a slipshod sailor and a poor excuse for a soldier" and leaves him with a warning not to disappoint him again. He later overhears the men talking about Smith's capture (Smith had been attacked by a warrior named Kocoum, whom Thomas had promptly shot dead during the fight, but had been ordered to flee the scene for Smith to take the blame) and decides to wage war against the Native Americans to rescue Smith, exterminate the "savages" and take their gold for himself (although he merely tells his men it is solely a rescue mission to ensure their support). After the two sides march their way to one another, they are stopped abruptly by Pocahontas, who tells everyone that they were led onto the path of hatred. All the men on both sides are deeply touched by the woman's love and wisdom, and lower their weapons. The would-be combatants now make it clear that there will be no battle.
Ratcliffe is the only one not moved by this, however, and orders his men to open fire anyway, thinking it is a trick, but they refuse. Outraged, Ratcliffe grabs a gun from one of his men and prepares to shoot Powhatan himself. John Smith sees this, jumps in the way and takes the bullet (though not fatally). Finally, seeing Ratcliffe for the corrupt, greedy monster he really is, and realizing that Smith was right all along and they should never have listened to him in the first place (even when he tries to defend himself by saying it was Smith's own fault for stepping in the path of the blast), Thomas, Ben, Lon and the other settlers rebel, disarming, chaining and gagging the governor and sending him back to England in disgrace to face punishment for his crimes. All the while, he angrily denounces them as the traitors and swears to see them all executed as revenge for their rebellion against him.
Ratcliffe returns in the sequel Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World as the main antagonist once again, where his personality changes from just mere greed to pure menace.
Apparently, upon being questioned by King James in the time between the two films, he had fabricated his own version of the events in Jamestown to implicate John Smith as the traitor, and despite the impossibility of his honesty, he is easily believed by the King (mostly due to their close, personal friendship) and sent to capture Smith for questioning along with some soldiers. In the ensuing fray, Ratcliffe tells Smith "Pity. I so would have preferred to see you hanged", knocks Smith off a building to his apparent death in a canal, and tells King James that Smith had died in an accident while being apprehended, despite Ratcliffe's attempts to save him; unbeknownst to anyone, this is part of Ratcliffe's plot to go to war against the Powhatan Nation and find the gold he still believes they possess, all while getting revenge on his enemies and avoiding punishment for his own crimes.
When John Rolfe, who had been sent to Jamestown to bring back Powhatan for negotiations to prevent the war, returns with Pocahontas instead, Ratcliffe immediately plots to get rid of her, convincing James to invite Pocahontas to the Hunt Ball, where he has planned a bear-baiting with a jester, believing that her "savage" instincts would lead her to protest it. Pocahontas, at first, impresses the King with her manners taught by Rolfe, but naturally becomes outraged at the bear-baiting, especially when the snobbish aristocrats in attendance do nothing but laugh at the creature's torture, and openly insults Ratcliffe and King James, calling them savages. Ratcliffe convinces King James to imprison her and sentence her to death for this, and is allowed to take his armada to Jamestown for war with the Powhatans. However, unbeknownst to Ratcliffe, his lies are finally exposed when John Smith, who survived his ordeal with Ratcliffe, aids Rolfe in breaking Pocahontas out of prison and later presents himself in the King's court alongside them. Realizing that he has been fooled, King James orders Ratcliffe to be stopped.
In the subsequent battle, after the armada is successfully halted, Ratcliffe attempts to end Pocahontas's life until Smith intervenes. The two duel, with Smith ultimately disarming Ratcliffe. However, in a sneak move, Ratcliffe pulls a pistol on Smith and almost kills him for real, but is subdued by Rolfe and then thrown overboard by Smith. Before he falls into the river, Smith ironically quips to Ratcliffe the latter's earlier remark: "Pity. I so would have preferred to see you hanged." Ratcliffe makes it to shore where King James and his soldiers are waiting. He makes a last and feeble attempt to lie to King James, telling the king that the "fugitives are getting away", and of them sabotaging the armada. However, King James, who has already learned the truth of Ratcliffe's treachery by this point, coldly tells his now-former friend, "No more lies", and orders his men to arrest him while walking away to his carriage in disgust. Ratcliffe's sentence for high treason is unknown, though realistically, he would have been put in prison for life and/or executed and also stripped of his position as Governor.
Ratcliffe appears as a minor guest character in the show. He appears in the episode "House of Genius", where he is seen behind Fagin. He reappears in "Goofy's Menu Magic", where he is seen at a table with Powhatan, and again in "Humphrey in the House", where he is seen at a table with Wiggins.
In Mickey's Magical Christmas: Snowed in at the House of Mouse, Ratcliffe is one of the many Disney character guests to be trapped inside on Christmas Eve.
Although he does not appear in Mickey's House of Villains, it is believed that he took part in the takeover.
Ratcliffe plays a notable part in Disney's Hollywood Studios' version of Fantasmic! Ratcliffe and his men claim the mountain as King James' land and battles the Indians, whom he still believes are savages.
Ratcliffe also appears in the interactive Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, in Frontierland and Liberty Square. Here, Ratcliffe is freed from prison by Hades (in the guise of Lord Indigo) and makes a deal to take control over Frontierland in exchange for the crystal of the Magic Kingdom. Ratcliffe agrees, but soon enough, Ratcliffe begins to panic as the crystal is nowhere in sight, but being that Pocahontas knows the land, he kidnaps Meeko to force her into helping him find it. Fortunately, the guests defeat Ratcliffe by blasting him with magic, making him fall off of his ship.
Wiggins (also voiced by Stiers) is Ratcliffe's manservant. In sharp contrast to his villainous master, Wiggins is light-hearted, timid and very playful (in one scene, he is seen cutting topiary from Virginian shrubs). Although he is typically not considered an "evil" character, he nonetheless appears to be very loyal to his master and Ratcliffe, though constantly annoyed by his shenanigans, seems to trust him implicitly. At the first film's end, he expresses regret at seeing Ratcliffe for the greedy monster he truly is, and even sobs. He does not appear in Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World.
Percy was originally Ratcliffe's pet pug. He appears spoiled and seems to have an irritable personality, especially in the first film. Percy and Meeko spend most of the first film fighting, usually over food with Meeko always coming out on top, only to apparently become friends by the film's end. Percy leaves Ratcliffe at this point and remains with Pocahontas and her people. Ratcliffe never reacts to the fact Percy isn't with him anymore in Pocahontas II. Percy, on the other hand, seems to have had a change of heart and does not want to go back to Ratcliffe, at one point cowering underneath a carriage in Ratcliffe's presence.
- Unlike most of the other Disney animated villains, Ratcliffe is one of two villains based on an actual historical person, with the other being Prince John from Robin Hood.
- Although Ratcliffe was overall based on John Ratcliffe, his overall design bore a closer resemblance to Gilles de Rais.
- In the foreground of Ratcliffe's first scene in the film, a rat can be seen boarding the ship in exactly the same manner (thereby pronouncing the 'rat' in 'Ratcliffe').
- Despite being the main antagonist of the first film, Ratcliffe does not interact with Pocahontas until their first true onscreen meeting in the second film.
- In the final scenes of both films, Ratcliffe is wearing his armor.
- The Governor Ratcliffe action figure doesn't come with the hat or cape.
- In real life, the supervisor of John Smith's ship on the journey to America was Christopher Newport, not Ratcliffe.
- The real life version of Governor John Ratcliffe was a far more positive figure as he never tried to exterminate the Natives but actually tried to negotiate with them and war erupted because of the hostility of Chief Powhatan.
- Ratcliffe's portrayal in the second movie is highly inconsistent with the first movie in which he claims to have never been popular among the Royal Court who consider him a pathetic social climber who fails in every assignment. His mission to colonize the Americas was, by his own words, his last chance to prove himself and he failed. And yet in the second movie he is a highly respected figure at the British Court even going so far to be able to manipulate the King himself acting as his closest adviser.
- David Ogden Stiers, who voices Ratcliffe, also voiced his servant Wiggins. In Pocahontas II: Journey to a New World, Stiers also voiced the Drunk Man at the Hunt Ball who invites Pocahontas and John Rolfe to a party at his house but was uncredited for that role.
- Ratcliffe is never called by his first name John.