1492: Conquest of Paradise
Ridley Scott’s first historical epic (The Duellists was his first historical, and his first feature, but hardly an epic) is also one of his least remembered films. It bombed at the box office (as did the year’s other attempted cash-ins on the discovery of America, including Superman: The Movie producers the Salkinds’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery) and met with a less than rapturous response from critics. Such shunning is undeserved, as 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a richer and more thought-provoking experience than both the avowedly lowbrow Gladiator and the re-evaluated-but-still-so-so director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. It may stand guilty of presenting an overly sympathetic portrait of Columbus, but it isn’t shy about pressing a critical stance on his legacy.
Sanchez: The truth is, that he now presides over a state of chaos, of degradation, and of madness. From the beginning, Columbus proved himself completely incapable of ruling these islands. He appointed his brothers to very important positions, and in so doing he injured the pride and dignity of the nobles. He then promised to build the city of Isabel, named after your majesty. It was a collection of huts, all of them in the wrong place, all of them easily swept away by the rains and the mud. He then promised gold. Evidently, not finding easy quantities he promised, Columbus has since commanded each Indian there to pay a tax. A monthly tribute of gold. Most, being unable to, we find, have been punished, have been massacred. Columbus forced nobility to hard labour. He treated them equally to Indians. He reduced them into his slaves. When the nobleman Moxica protested against this treatment, he was executed.
It certainly sounds like a fairly damning indictment of the great explorer, doesn’t it? Except maybe the bits about the nobility, which suggest Columbus was running some sort of proto-communist enclave. This litany of offences is announced towards the end of 1492, by which point we have seen all said charges take place. Yet Columbus is not shown to be at their centre. Rather, he is more a hapless observer. He carries the corruption, but he does not instigate it. Elements outside his control rally against him, and in response he is found inadequate, unable to martial sufficient resources to overcome them. The Columbus of 1492 might be labelled inept, but he isn’t cruel or tyrannical.
Which is precisely the opposite of the current position on the man. Scott and screenwriter Roselyne Bosch have transferred Columbus’ most transgressive qualities onto nobleman Moxica (Michael Wincott), along for the voyage and treating the natives with every abusive instinct at his disposal. Wincott delivers a typically great performance. Moxica is a snarling, leering devil, an antagonist so despicable that Columbus is granted gracefulness and actual nobility by contrast.
But this leads to the question of why. If Scott and co are willing to go far enough that Columbus’ actions are shown to be disastrous (albeit with the de rigueur retrospective knowledge that one day his name would be a legend), why not go the whole hog and also depict his brutality? In 1492, Columbus is the peacemaker. He is slowly roused, even when provoked. Moxica is personified as the peace-breaker, cutting off the hand a tribesman without a tribute and so inflaming the Indian revolt.
In reality, Columbus ordered tributes in retaliation for the initial attack on the party he left behind after his first voyage. Those who did not deliver had their hands chopped off and were left to bleed to death. He took Indians as slaves from the first, bringing some back to Spain (those who survived the trip). This is only obliquely referenced, as is his presiding over (and therefore implicitly condoning) the rape of tribeswomen (we see this with Moxica, and there is a suggestive dinner conversation with Columbus’ brother). Columbus was removed as governor in 1500. Bartolome de las Casas commented that, when he arrived on Hispanola in 1508, millions had died from war, slavery, and the mines.
So it is with good reason that Columbus is tainted by brutality, atrocities, and a stark failure of leadership. The rush to release competing Christopher Columbus anniversary movies went hand-in-hand with obliviousness to the possibility that no one was very interested in seeing them, no matter how accurate or estimable they might be. It’s evident that Bosch was conscious of the controversies surrounding her protagonist, but attempting to ameliorate matters by evidencing the spoiling of Eden and rebuking the rulers, the church, and the politicians, while sort-of letting Columbus off as a well-meaning dreamer, mostly serves to muddy matters.
Columbus: All we can do, is go forward. The land is there. The land is close.
That said, movies are not beholden to telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It’s quite possible to make a great but historically inaccurate film; more likely than not that a great period movie will take significant liberties, in fact. But diverge too far from the facts, and show ignorance of themes and issues surrounding them, and you run the risk of making your film look ridiculous. 1492, for a picture commemorating a key passage in the transition to the modern world (irrespective of the Vikings getting there first, or Amerigo actually touching the continent before Columbus), is quite unabashed in showing culpability for the ruination and despoiling of paradise (the clue is in the title). Even if viewers were tempted by the prospect of a movie about the explorer, the invitation to share in the guilt over what soon transpired would probably put them off. They might have opted for the Carry On… version instead (but doubtless not for the Marlon Brando one).
Arojaz: What a waste of life.
Sanchez: A waste? Well, if you name or mine is remembered, Arojaz, it will only be because of his.
The trouble here is that, in shifting the blame, there isn’t a very clear vision of who this Columbus is. The opening scroll announces him as the one man who challenged the grip of the Inquisition, but the portrait that follows isn’t as convinced he holds such heroic stature. He becomes the reluctant governor, but we only learn this when his title is removed. Then, all he is concerned about is that he be allowed to voyage again. His paramount desire is for discovery, not the pecuniary ones that defined his worst acts (the enslavement, the tithes of gold).
As is set out in the film, Columbus was motivated to find a trade route to Asia; it isn’t covered that he was turned down several times by the Portuguese (and Henry VII) before he found funding from Spain.
Columbus: Asia can be found to the west, and I will prove it!
One of the many means used to douse the historic veneration of Columbus is that he was clueless even as an explorer. He grossly underestimated the circumference of the globe. The Portuguese rejected his proposal for this reason, and the film cites those who rightly disputed the viability of his plans; Columbus is made out to know full well his claims were inaccurate, lying to his crew about how long it will take. There are conflicting statements that he remained insistent that he had, in fact landed in Asia, rather than recognising it as what came to be known as the Bahamas, until his dying day (there are also those that indicate he was indeed aware this was a new continent).
Yet, despite his avaricious intentions (“This man is a mercenary!”), this Columbus is untouched by debasing thoughts. The key to this is the light in which the explorer is painted. His critics are shown to be a rotten bunch, and even a wrongheaded Columbus is better than they. He does not find the spices and gold hoped for, but he has something better; “the land intoxicates the senses” and represents a “chance for a new beginning”. The quote that ends the film, “Life has more imagination than we carry in our dreams”, suggests a hopeless romantic, and so the preferred image to take away of the man.
There are smatterings of arrogance on screen, but they tend to translate as reported rather than shown (his demands to be made a knight, his governorship, and a tenth of all profits; “And I thought he was an idealist”). Much of reason this ends up as a sympathetic portrait comes down to Depardieu’s performance. It’s difficult not to like him here, and this is certainly the most dashing the lumpy fellow has looked on film. His casting as an Italian might have provoked questioning looks from those who considered Sean Connery playing an Spaniard in Highlander was the pinnacle of peculiar Hollywood choices (to say nothing of Scott using Sigourney Weaver as a Spanish queen here and most recently as an Egyptian one in Exodus: Gods and Kings), but he holds the screen (where actors often disappear into Scott’s landscapes) and lends a soulfulness and lyricism to sometimes perfunctory passages.
Columbus serves as a facilitator of the rupturing of dreams. He speaks of an untouched Eden, but, as soon as they arrive in the New World, he is incontrovertibly positioned as the serpent in the garden. The actually sighting of land (the real Columbus craftily laid claim that he saw it first, not his lookout, so taking the reward) is a glorious moment as the mists part and the lush coastline is revealed.
It might as well be an alien planet, and Columbus’ setting foot on the shore is treated with similar import. It bears saying that this is an entirely gorgeous looking film (courtesy of Thelma and Louise cinematographer Adrian Biddle). The shots of the trio of ships at sea, to the stirring accompaniment of Vangelis, are among the most dazzling a director celebrated for his vistas has delivered (as with his scripts, Scott has since been far more mechanical with his visuals, and uninspired with his scores; there is little room for flourish or poetry from post-Gladiator Ridley, he just wants to get on with it).
Vangelis’ score couldn’t be accused of subtlety, switching from choral to tribal at the drop of a horn, but it’s never less than powerful and evocative. It’s easy to appreciate why the soundtrack’s afterlife has been far greater than that of the film itself.
This Columbus also refrains from overt indulgence in religiosity, while in later life the actual Columbus increasingly dressed himself in such paraphernalia. 1492’s protagonist invokes spreading “the word of God” as one of his mission goals. But Columbus is depicted as a moderate, one who recognises that, if they are to convert the natives, “then it will be by persuasion and not by force”. He also instructs that “They are not savages, and neither will we be”. Moxica later counters, “If these animals wish to learn savagery, we will teach them”. To underline the point, he repeatedly disdains the tribespeople as “monkeys”. When Columbus announces to a tribal leader that many will come to these islands “To bring the word of God” he does so not from devotion or passion, but merely as one rehearsing the party line.
Columbus: Paradise and hell, both can be earthly. We carry them with us wherever we go.
Scott and Bosch rather make a meal of much of the religious commentary and imagery, but here’s the occasional pointed exchange. When Columbus announces the intention to bring God’s message, the reply comes back, “He says he has a god”. When he follows it up with, “And also to bring medicine” the response is “he has medicine”. Columbus is remarkably accepting and understanding, noting these people have no such word as sin. He explains, “Nature is their god. It is if god and nature are as one”.
Indeed, there are times when, if Scott had a little more philosophical gumption, once could see the picture extending itself into a Malick-esque rumination on existential themes. Perhaps the most succinct charge levelled against his Columbus comes when interpreter Utapan (Bercilio Moya) returns to tribal ways, heading off into the jungle with the damning parting shot, “You never learned how to speak my language”.
Columbus announces, “We came here to stay, not to start a crusade”, and in the picture’s terms he is lead reluctantly down the path of war. It’s here that 1492 trips into some particularly on-the-nose statements. When Columbus finds men crucified at a mine working, he is told “You did the same to your god”.
Later, a storm rips through Columbus’ city built on sand. It’s a (literally) thunderous metaphor for his world falling apart, and climaxes with the triumph of untamed nature gods bursting a makeshift crucifix into flame. Scott really isn’t one for delicacy and nuance of thought. Pointedly, it is Brother Buyl (John Heffernan) who does the worst finger pointing at Columbus for his crimes (“It is all true. All of it. I saw it with my own eyes”), but the accusations are thus seen only as half-truths (when Buyl earlier confronts Columbus, his complaints are of a godless place where Christians are treated equally with heathen savages; there is no mention of Columbus’ ruthlessness).
Almost from the first, the New World rejects its intruders. As they explore the lush jungles, Pinzon (Tcheky Karyo) succumbs to infection, pissing blood. If this neatly encapsulates that the corruption they bring lies within them, Scott then goes and spoils it when an actual serpent bites one of their number, and he dies.
Moxica: You’re nothing. Your bastards will never inherit their titles. No, we are everything. We are immortal.
Scott’s film also gets behind Columbus as something of a rebel, a man of low birth who kicked against society’s norms. Not only does he have a nuanced understanding of religion, but he also has no time for hierarchies of power (this despite demanding his own titles). At a late point in the proceedings, the queen grants him a fourth voyage and Sanchez (Armande Assante) asks why. “Because he’s not afraid of me,” she replies.
The scene in which Columbus commandeers Moxica’s horse, to aid in the raising of a bell (a magnificent spectacle of the sort at which Scott excels, albeit undercut by Gerard sweating away as if he’s raising the damn thing singlehanded) makes its point about Columbus having no time for the airs of gentry. However, the point then crumbles rather crudely a scene later, as we cut to a shot with a group of horses standing idly by. Where were they when Columbus needed all hands (and hooves) on deck?
Bobadilla: I am the new viceroy of the Indies.
Columbus: Then I am free to search for the mainland?
Bobadilla: The mainland was discovered weeks ago by another Italian.
Subordinate: Yes, Americo Vespucci, your Excellency.
Columbus: How far?
Bobadilla: I am not a seaman, but I heard it is no more than a week at sea.
Bobadilla (Mark Margolis, familiar from Breaking Bad amongst others) is introduced initially as the man whose appointment will give Columbus political currency. But Columbus wants none of this. Pointedly, and again somewhat crudely, it is Bobadilla who then replaces him as viceroy. Columbus is stubborn, has his own set of values, and won’t play the game. This emphasis is on a conspiracy to bring about his downfall rather than legitimately resulting from his own misrule. So this makes him decent, in a way.
Sanchez: Only that, if he is right, we have everything to gain. And if he is wrong, we have so, so little to lose.
Generally, 1492 makes a better fist of dealing with money as the carrot that leads the horse than it does with the religious side. Central to this is Sanchez, and one wonders, had Assante instead been cast in the lead role, if Columbus would have been less audience friendly and thus more accurate, even given the redressed script.
Sanchez is a pragmatist, juggling Columbus’ potential for success with the limited downsides. He even sets out his reasons for helping him; “Faith, hope, charity. But the greatest of these is banking”. He warns Columbus explicitly of his capacity for making enemies; “Don’t you think to rise so high in so short a time is a dangerous step?” But again, this sets up Columbus’ downfall as a matter of cruel forces, rather through his own making.
Scott is as roused by the scenes of action as he is with the chief temptation to step back in time. This is a movie of longueurs, not to be hurried (it might well be Scott’s longest film, and I am doubtful that the mooted four-hour cut would add much to our appreciation since it wouldn’t convincingly adjust the overall depiction of the explorer). When Columbus must go on the offensive, to quell the native rebellion, the director makes a number of not wholly successful choices. Columbus, who is shown buckling some swash in a fencing match with Sanchez, to show he can handle himself, is paralysed by the sight of a fearsome oncoming local.
Depardieu looks unintentionally comical, suffering from an attack of slow-motion gas. Then, when he stabs his opponent, the tribesman screams like an animal and foams at the mouth (this may be to suggest he has ingested hallucinogens, but the effect is unfortunate, suggesting a cliché of the feral and ferocious primitive).
A rebellion against Columbus follows, led by the hissable Moxica, and his culpability is questioned here too. We can see that Moxica is right, in as much as Columbus has found “neither gold nor your earthly paradise”. The ensuing battle in a shallow river, followed by Columbus’ confrontation with Moxica, is one of the film’s most dynamic episodes. Scott is unstinting with the violence in 1492. There are dismemberments, bloody squibs, frenzied stabbings and horrible strangulations.
The Inquisition is wreaking its horrors during early scenes, with burnings at the stake as a backdrop fact of life (particularly memorable is a strangulation victim whose tongue lunges out). This sets up the escape to untouched paradise, but in one of Scott’s better inverted parallels, also leads to Columbus looking on as insurrectionists are strangled at his instruction.
Columbus: I remember, I…
1492 tries to cram a lot in, and elements fall by the wayside. Columbus’ relationship with his mistress Beatrix (Ángela Molina,) is skirted over, and his sons and brothers (including Steven Waddington) remain peripheral. Familiar faces include Kevin Dunn, Fernando Ray and Frank Langella (even Arnold Vosloo) but they make little impression.
Watching, one might gain the impression that the grey-haired Columbus died an old man, rather than the 54-year-old he was (even given limited life expectancy then); the intention is to show an old man looking wistfully back upon his life, and Scott cannot be blamed for reusing Columbus’ peak memory of the mist breaking and the island revealed. Where the director absolutely succeeds with 1492 is in presenting the wonder of an idyllic discovery, and the disintegration of a dream.
The attacks on 1492 over accuracy are entirely understandable, then. If one demands a historically precise presentation of Columbus, this won’t find favour. There is even uncertainty in the final scrolling text, announcing his descendant’s then role in the Spanish Royal Navy; is that supposed to be cause for applause?
Queen Isabel: The New World is a disaster.
Columbus: And the old one, an achievement?
But, as a reflection upon a corrupted Eden, and the malign influence of supposed civilisation, it has some considerable merit. There is no glory here, except in the brief passage that is the voyage itself, and the landing. Either side lies avarice, barbarity and subjugation. Yes, the picture lets Columbus off the hook, but it couldn’t be said to foist upon him elevated stature. Even as a visionary the explorer comes across as half-cocked. In the end, all Bosch and Scott can muster is the old standby of a name that will live on through the ages.
Part of 1492: Conquest of Paradise’s appeal is that this isn’t so controlled and instructive as Scott’s post-Gladiator work. Thereafter, Scott sticks to the script for fair or foul results. Here, makes heavy weather at times, but more often his loose hand at the tiller actually propels 1492 into more interesting waters than much of his later output. Perhaps the key is in the title. That colon speaks of the indecision and uncertainty of marketers who don’t quite know how to sell a troublesome property. A colon also suggested hesitancy in another Scott historical epic, one that also provoked controversy in its presentation of reported history, Scott’s beleaguered Exodus: Gods and Kings. 1492’s standing will likely be forever marred by its unwillingness to come to grips with a character now marked as cruel and unjust, but this remains one of Scott’s most beautiful and ambitious pictures. And, if you’re unconvinced by the film itself, there’s always that score.
Addendum 04/07/22: This piece was obviously written with the idea in mind that there’s accurate Columbus history and inaccurate Columbus history, as opposed to the more avant-garde notion that both are equally manufactured. For the sake of argument and sanity, it’s probably best to assume anything pre-1700 is made up, more or less, so Sir Ridders’ account is no more or less valid than the one you’ll find on Wiki (or in “reputable” text books).