1492: Conquest of Paradise (UK/USA/France/Spain, 1992)

Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Roselyne Bosch
Starring Gérard Depardieu, Armand Assante and Sigourney Weaver.
Rated PG-13

IMDb: http://akas.imdb.com/title/tt0103594/

1992, the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, saw two major films on the subject: Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The former was a disastrous excuse for a film with wooden actors and dull writing, the latter is a significant improvement, yet riled with historical incongruity.

Story

Christopher Columbus (played by Gérard Depardieu), Italian by birth but living in Spain, is a man with a vision. Contesting the Church's view that the vast sea in the west is far too long to cross by a ship, he seeks funding for an expedition to discover a short route to India, with the African route taking up a year of sailing and the Turks clamping down on travel by land.

The council and the church see his attempts as folly, but a favour from a banker and an audience with Queen Isabel (Sigourney Weaver) allows him to take three ships to the west on the 28th parallel. As the ships set off, however, Columbus has something on his conscience: he has surmised the distance needed to cross the ocean to be far more than what he has told his crew.

As the voyage progresses with no land to be seen and the wind dying out, the crews of the three vessels are about to revolt. Columbus manages to avert mutiny by promising the men glory, and a hefty bonus for the first one to see land. By lucky chance the wind wakes up right after he finishes his speech, and the journey goes on.

Sure enough, in October 1492 they find and land on the island of San Salvador. The natives welcome them as gods and the two peoples coexist in happiness, making Columbus think they may have arrived in the Garden of Eden. They find a handful of other islands, receiving a warm welcome everywhere. However, not much gold, spices or other riches can be found.

After finding what is nowadays Haiti, one of his captains, Pinzon, falls ill, and Columbus sees no other choice but to leave behind some volunteers to found a fort, La Navidad. The three ships return to Spain. On arrival, he is welcomed as a hero, and granted the titles of Don and Viceroy of the West Indies, as he had requested before setting sail.

After a few months in Spain a second expedition heads out, this time with a whopping 17 ships and 1 500 men. Accompanying him are a handful of nobles including Adrien de Moxica (Michael Wincott). Columbus also appoints his brothers as his seconds, to the chagrin of many nobilities.

Back in Haiti, the new expedition finds La Navidad sacked. The natives appear from the woods claiming another tribe is responsible - Moxica does not believe them and wants to kill them. Columbus refuses, believing the natives, and decides to found a city as planned with the help of the natives, in the name of his queen.

The new expedition is unable to find too much riches on its own, either, and Columbus is forced to start taxing the natives for any riches they find or have. He also decides that everyone, native and noble alike, must work as equals on the fields.

One day a native returns to the tax collector empty-handed, saying that he was not able to find any gold. Moxica refuses to believe this and cuts off the hand of the native as a warning to others. Things quickly go to hell in a handbasket, and the native tribes join together against the colonists.

Columbus trials Moxica and sentences him to detention and deportation to Spain. The natives attack the settlements, and Columbus's men have no choice but to attack the natives. A bloody battle ensues, but the Spaniards emerge as victors.

Don Christopher's troubles are far from over, though. Moxica is freed by some Spanish insurgents and stages a rebellion against Columbus. The rebellion is crushed, but not without heavy losses, and Moxica throws himself down a cliff. To top it off, a hurricane devastates the colony.

Word of these events travel to Spain, and a new viceroy is dispatched to relieve Columbus of his duties. The new viceroy upon arrival also tells Columbus that the mainland has been finally discovered by Amerigo Vespucci. Columbus is disappointed, having always wanted to find it himself, but also relived, for he had always said the continent would be there.

Once back in Spain, Columbus is thrown in prison, but freed by Isabel after a plea from the mariner, so that he can make one final trip to explore the continent proper. However, Columbus's achievements are not officially recognized: Vespucci is declared the discoverer of the New World, and Columbus is left a disheveled man, sitting on the porch of his house, telling the tale to his son.

But What About Historical Accuracy?

Those versed in the history of the expeditions of Columbus have probably already noticed that certain things in the story are just nonsense. Granted, many details of Columbus's life and travels are shrouded in the mists of history, but the facts of Conquest of Paradise can be questioned over the simple fact that the writer, Roselyne Bosch, used scores of letters written by Columbus himself as the basis of the film. Such a source, with the amount of historical controversy surrounding Columbus's character, is shady and biased at best.

Then again the choice of source can be justified. When you create a film to commemorate a person who is responsible for the discovery of an entirely new patch of the Earth, which has fostered one of the greatest powers in the world, it's difficult to try to approach the subject with proper realism. Columbus's personal recount provided a source that sounded secure and credible, and its version of events will be a sugarcoated one.

Therefore, Conquest of Paradise portrays Columbus as a shiney-eyed hero, an idealistic man who strives to achieve equality, liberty and knowledge despite the Church. Only once in the movie does the character show his more materialistic side, and even then the viewer can only nod and think, "with all the trouble it's only fair". The natives he treats as equal human beings, attempting to avoid a conflict with them as best as he can. This could be called "the school book Columbus".

The reality is much darker, however. The "captain who fell ill", Captain Pinzon, actually mutinied in the New World and took the Pinta with him. Columbus needed to return to Spain before him so that he wouldn't be slandered by the mutineers. La Navidad was founded on the lumber of Santa Maria, after the ship had crashed on rocks at the beach. Under Columbus's command, only one ship returned to Spain: the Nina.

After the second expedition had arrived, it was Columbus who dictated the policy of cutting off the hands of natives who failed to pay up their tribute. In fact, Columbus also sent hundreds of slaves as a gift back to spain, but Queen Isabel, a staunch opposer of slavery, sent them back. The character of Moxica, seeking wealth and recognition from the New World after not achieving it in Spain, can be considered the cinematic manifestation of Columbus's "true" self, while the actual Columbus played by Gerard Depardieu is his "good" self. A real Moxica did exist, however, and he did lead a rebellion - but it was only one of a great many.

Columbus also did several journeys to the New World instead of the two in the film - this however can be jotted down on creative licence, as it helps condense the already long film (154 minutes).

The final removal of Columbus from office was not, as the film may suggest, a move by power hungry men to get rid of a fundamentally noble person who had simply been out of luck, surrounded by arrogant bastards. By 1500 Columbus was a sickly man, with possible signs of madness, writing in a letter to the queen and king of Spain that the world is in fact not round, but pear-shaped with a breast of a woman on top of it.

After shipped back to Spain, he was not thrown to prison, but placed under house arrest in a monastery for five weeks, after which he was released by Their Majesties. His mental faculties got worse, and he started to liken himself to Jesus Christ.

In an amusing twist, in Conquest of Paradise, when Columbus in the beginning is questioned by the Church officials, as to why would God choose him to bring the word of God to the peoples of India, Columbus replies: "Did not He choose a carpenter's son to reveal himself to the world?" The men of Church reply: "So you consider yourself the Chosen One?" Perhaps Bosch did know of contradicting versions of the mariner's life when writing the script.

Yet Bosch's efforts to glorify Columbus appear to have been in vain - the numbers say that Conquest of Paradise was one of the least popular movies of the last fifteen years, costing 50 million USD but only bringing back 4.4.

The examples above are a few of many, but are enough to establish that 1492: Conquest of Paradise is far from an accurate account and should be taken with an ocean worth of salt.

Execution

Historical merit - or lack thereof - set aside, the film itself is an uneven bunch with so-so acting, jarring pace, beautiful visuals and brilliant music.

Depardieu's choice for Columbus is a strange one. Director Ridley Scott supposedly wanted him and no-one else for the role, but with his thick French accent one wonders, what the hell for? Another strain on Suspension of Disbelief is the Babel of languages that abound: the main characters speak only English, while in the background anything from Spanish to Latin can be heard. Decide already!

The scenery in the film, on the other hand, is definite eye-candy. The island of San Salvador emerging from the mist is very striking, as are the panning shots of horizons with the setting sun colouring the sky in different shades of red and blue. The locations seem oddly sanitized, the 15th century was dirty, but the general feel is that of "being there".

Pace-wise the film is very jumpy. The first half with the ocean voyage becomes a bore quite rapidly. The second half attempts to present a thoughtful view on the treatment of natives, "We bring hell and paradise everywhere we go with us", but ends up only skimming the issue.

The middle of the second half is packed with everything from very bloody fighting to a quite impressive hurricane. The film is rated PG-13, which I personally found surprising with the amount of blood-letting involved, even more so with the bare breasts of native women.

Let us get to the music, then. The soundtrack is composed by none other than Vangelis, hired by Scott after the success with Blade Runner's score. Appropriately, the mood of the music is far from Blade Runner, and instead of a mix of electronica and jazz there are grand orchestral compositions, with nice chorus chanting to boot. It feels both contemporary and classical, as it's put in the cover leaflet.

The moving title song, Conquest of Paradise, is one of Vangelis's most recognized pieces alongside Titles from Chariots of Fire and the main Blade Runner theme. The music is what sets the scene in the film, and the film is worth watching if only because you love the soundtrack.

The subject of 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a tricky one. You can either spin up a gritty, realistic story of how life in 15th century sucked but sucked even more in the New World, and how Columbus was an opportunistic swine; or you can create an inspiring tale of a groundbreaking discovery and the man behind it. Conquest of Paradise tries to be the latter but falls short. It is, however, the best of all films made on the subject.

The only inspiring thing is the awesome soundtrack, and that can be found with some luck from a record store at a good discount - I've got my copy for eight euros.

Sources

A website of essays, written by undergraduate students of Lehigh University: http://www.lehigh.edu/~ineng/crr2/ , especially http://www.lehigh.edu/~ineng/crr2/crr2-histcontext.html
The film itself (naturally)
The Internet Movie Database: http://akas.imdb.com/title/tt0103594/

Soundtrack

Track list:
  1. Opening
  2. Conquest Of Paradise
  3. Monastery Of La Rabida
  4. City of Isabel
  5. Light And Shadow
  6. Deliverance
  7. West Across The Ocean Sea
  8. Eternity
  9. Hispanola
  10. Moxica And The Horse
  11. Twenty Eigth Parallel
  12. Pinta, Nina, Santa Maria (Into Eternity)

Listening to the CD, the track division seems arbitrary, the same way a film is divided to scenes or a play to acts. The back of the case lacks the lengths of the tracks - all 54 minutes of it ought to be listened to in one go, anyway.

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