In the year 1992, the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, there were various attempts to celebrate the event, especially in places with names that commemorated the Italian explorer. Columbus, Ohio made the most visible effort in the U.S.  Throughout the Americas, however, these plans were hampered by vigorous protests from indigenous groups pointing to the cruelty and rapacity of the invasion of their lands spearheaded by Columbus. Two Hollywood movies on the 1492 voyage appeared in the anniversary year and stepped squarely into the snakepit of controversy. Both were box office disappointments. The Ridley Scott epic was the more successful of the two films, though still a major money-loser. I will make a full report on this one and then compare it to the less well-received Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. For a touch of levity on this subject, see also the 1992 German-made animation, The Magic Voyage.

1492: Conquest of Paradise  (1992)

This Ridley Scott film looks much better than it sounds, though the music by Vangellis is stirring.  Gerard Depardieu and his French accent were a decided liability for the project.  The moment of the first sighting of land is, however, memorable. I saw this movie in Dallas on the 500th anniversary of the Columbus landing, October 12, 1992. It was almost like being present at a turning point in history.

There is a print legend that speaks of the time of the Inquisition in Spain.  The son of Columbus, who is the recorder of this story, provides an early narration.  The film opens with the two men sitting on a rocky seacoast watching a ship sink into the western horizon.  On a visit to a monastery, Columbus discusses his plans with a monk; there is talk of the inspirational reports from Marco Polo.  On the negative side is the climate of fear and intimidation created by the Inquisition.  Columbus goes home to his beautiful wife but does not stay long.  In the city, they are burning heretics.  At the University of Salamanca, Spain 1491, the ambitious mariner is challenged by skeptical scholars.  Spain drives the Moors out of Granada in early 1492 and there is a renewed sense of national pride.  Columbus meets with an advisor to the Queen (Armand Assante) and is given an audience with Isabella (Sigourney Weaver).  He is 39, and the Queen is 40.  After negotiations with Assante, he gets Isabella’s permission to sail.

At the port of Palos, August 3, 1492, the three ships depart.  The filming is superb and it is a fine sight.  Not long after they are at sea, the doubts and fears of the crew set in.  Columbus has misled  all concerned with his estimates of the distance to be sailed.  The men have reached a psychological point of no return, but the ships press on.  On October 12, the trees of an island in the Bahamas emerge from the mist.  They make their landing, and Columbus names the isle San Salvador.

Marching inland, they encounter a tribe of islanders who take them to their large village.  The villagers have an Amazonian look.  Later, Columbus declares, “I think we have returned to Eden.”  He is still looking for Marco Polo’s Far East.  Noticing golden ornaments on the Indians, he takes some captives and begins to sail from island to island in search of gold.  They are at Haiti in December.  It is time to return to Spain.  A fort is established and 39 crew members remain in the New World.  He has little in gold and spices to bring back, but he is full of hope.  The King and Queen welcome him with pageantry and feasting.  He presents a gold mask to the Queen and rises to a level of fame he will not see again  Surrounded by ambitious officials and hangers on, he enlists the help of his two sons to return with him and run the colony.

In November 1493, Columbus arrives in the West Indies with a large army and seventeen ships.  They find the fort burned and all of the crew killed.  There is an evil officer, dressed in black, who wants revenge.  Columbus forbids it, pointing out that they are one thousand and the native peoples are ten thousand.  They confront the chief, and he explains that mysterious marauders from the sea attacked the fort.  Columbus decides to accept the explanation and begins to rebuild the colony – first is a church.  He has brought designs made by the Florentine, Leonardo da Vinci.  As things settle into routine, the depravity of the Spaniards begins to show itself.

INTERMISSION

The brutality picks up where it left off without a pause for breath.  The evil officer in black hacks off the hand of an Indian and the tribes turn on the Spaniards.  An angry Columbus imprisons the officer but it is too late.  There is war and then there is mutiny.  The savagery of the Spaniards begets the savagery of the tribes.  Things fall apart.  Columbus sits and muses, “This is not how I imagined it to be.”  A hurricane blows the island to bits. In 1500, a new Viceroy of the Indies arrives at Port Isabel to relieve Columbus of his post.  The disgraced discoverer of the New World is sent back to Spain and put in prison.  The Italian, Amerigo Vespucci, has found the mainland and it will be called America.  The Queen sets Columbus free, but he must live in disrepute.  The Columbus family works to get his privileges restored.  Old and broken, he begins to dictate his story to his son.  A print epilog says that Columbus made one last voyage, landing at Panama in 1503 and pushing into Hondurus.  Through the efforts of his son, his reputation is restored.  It is a weak ending.  Baseline suggests that Assante should have played Columbus.

Christopher Columbus: The Discovery  (1992)

 The first sign of trouble for this movie is that Marlon Brando gets top billing for his role as Torquemada, leader of the Spanish Inquisition. The King and Queen of Spain are played by Tom Selleck and Rachel Ward. Columbus, here called Cristobal Colón, is played as a swashbuckling hero by Georges Corraface (known for his roles in French films!). For added glamor, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays the second wife of Columbus. This weak effort cagily preceded the Ridley Scott  film, and followed pretty much the same historical formula. This film ends with the return to Spain after the first voyage. Cristobal Colón, like Ulysses, stands rejoicing on a rocky shore at what fortune has given him.

The Magic Voyage  (1992)

This German-made cartoon feature pushes the tributes to Columbus over the edge of absurdity. The tale of the discovery of the New World is narrated by Mickey Rooney and Columbus is played by Dom DeLuise. The key character is a “smart wood worm.”

The trailer is good for a laugh.

Surreal Conquistadors

The four voyages of Columbus opened the windows to a New World, but hardly a glimmer of awareness that two new continents had been revealed to the mapmakers of the Old World. Cortes, Pizarro, and Ponce de Leon got some attention from the movies but the rest were left to languish in cinematic obscurity. In the last half of the 20th century, however, there were some movies that employed the metaphor of the conquistador as a haunting image for Western Civilization.

The Lost Continent  (1968)

Surreal in the extreme, this obscure film opens on the deck of a tramp steamer off the coast of South America. The people in attendance are a strange combination of characters in Spanish colonial outfits, and people in modern dress. The ship’s captain concludes the funeral of a young boy and in a voice-over narration ruminates on the circumstances that brought the ship to this place. A prolonged flashback picks up the ship on its departure from Freetown in Africa bound for South America. There are hardly more than half a dozen passengers, each of them with some urgent need to get away from Freetown. This ship is carrying a large cargo of volatile explosives, from which the captain hopes to profit. Various disasters at sea turn the story into a lifeboat drama. There are threats from carnivorous seaweed and giant sea creatures. Others are left on the ship to face additional perils. It gets more bizarre and one might even say ridiculous; now it involves conquistadors in service to a boy king. There is also a young woman who escapes from their Spanish galleon with a large chest. It ends explosively. There appears to be a connection to the Bermuda Triangle myth, though the term is never used. Hildegarde Neff leads the cast of displaced persons.

This film is based on a novel called “Uncharted Seas” (1934) by the fascinating Dennis Wheatley (1897-1977), who was a prolific and very popular British author of occult horror novels. Another of his successful novels was made into a film in that same year of 1968, see The Devil Rides Out. On the DVD for The Lost Continent, there is an extra feature, narrated by Oliver Reed, which provides a survey of the remarkable span of Hammer films.

The Fountain  (2006)

This film by Darren Aronofsky is maddeningly difficult to follow not only for its many interconnected layers but because there is not enough point to staying with it. Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz play the lead roles in three different time frames. At the center of the drama, they are a neuroscientist named Tom and his wife, named Izzi, who is dying of cancer. Five hundred years ago, they were Queen Isabella of Spain and a conquistador named Tomás. The conquistador is seen at the top of the film trying to gain entrance to a Maya pyramid and encountering resistance from its protectors. There are flashbacks to Spain where Tomás is charged by his queen with a quest for the biblical Tree of Life in New Spain. In the third time frame, Tom has become a mystical bodhisattva traveling through deep space in a biosphere bubble with the very large tree of life at its center. Izzi appears to him in visions. It can be thought that Aronofsky is proposing the Tree of Life as a universal spiritual symbol and antidote to the fear of death. See The Tree of Life (2011), the film by Terrence Malick.

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