1492 (1992)                     

Reviewer: Charity Bishop

 

Some people think he was a hero. Others believe he was an egotist. But everyone agrees that Christopher Columbus was human, made mistakes, and changed the face of history forever with his revolutionary desire to sail as far as he could in search of a passage across the Atlantic. This film isn't entirely historically correct, but tells its story well enough that you're rather inclined to forgive its faults.

   

Believing he can charter a route across the sea from Europe to Asia rather than running the dangerous over ground passage or even sailing for a year around the coast of Africa, adventurer Christopher Columbus (Gerard Depardieu) is in search of financial backing for his expedition. Most believe he is mad, that he will sail to the world's end and perish in the sea, that such a journey cannot be made, much less in the six weeks he believes it will take to reach land. But his proposal catches the attention of a banker (Frank Langella) who manages to arrange an audience for him with Queen Isabella of Spain (Sigourney Weaver). She is amused with the charming man that appeals for her assistance, but her advisor Sanchez (Armand Assante) warns her that the man desires too much in return for his voyage. Still, Columbus' passion inspires her and she gives him leave to pursue his dreams.

    

They set out, the crew becoming disgruntled and mutinous as their supplies wane and there is no sight of land. Then an island is discovered, full of friendly and curious natives. Leaving a band of men there to build a settlement, and taking what gold and riches he can find to Spain, Columbus convinces Isabella there is a need for further men and supplies, but upon returning,  finds the settlement burned and his men slaughtered, setting the stage for a brutal and historic struggle that ultimately leads to Columbus' political downfall. The result is a decent film, that throughout Columbus remains an empathetic if misguided hero. Circumstances are often beyond his control, but he does make several errors of judgment. The film does not explore the consequences of these beyond the obvious, but does have a good grasp of basic history and manages to bring it to life with beautiful simplicity. One of the more perplexing omissions is the complete absence of King Ferdinand, who was present for each of Columbus' appearances before the Spanish court and is here shown only in one scene without any dialogue. Ferdinand was an outspoken critic of Columbus and his nonexistent role omits what might have been a powerful plot arc. However, it also touches on the inquisition in Europe at the time, with the ousting of the Jews, the capture of Granada, and the burning of six heretics. Some if its early scenes were very good, particularly when remarking on the departure of the Moors. The costuming is gorgeous and the sailing sequences were particularly picturesque. However, it fumbles on some of its historical aspects, such as sailing three ships back to Spain (the Santa Maria ran around a reef and was lost), as well as mingling two of Columbus' later voyages into one.

   

An early sequence shows heretics being strangled before set on fire at a public burning. Prisoners are later shown the same punishment on the islands. We hear gagging noises. Brutal warfare is depicted between Indians and Spaniards; when stabbed, the natives spit up white froth. The grotesque remains of the settlers are found. When a native cannot fill his quota of gold, a man cuts off his hand (the bloody stump is shown), causing an uprising that results it mass death and chaos. A man commits suicide by leaping from a cliff; his limp body smashes through a building below and is shown in the wreckage. There are several harsh abuses of deity and some general profanity. The natives are often half naked. There are two instances of upper female nudity on teenage girls; the natives bathe in a stream with the settlers and most of the women are topless, but details cannot really be made out due to the use of shadows. Twice we see a nude little boy from the front or side; it's uncertain whether the Indian men are nude from behind or just wearing tight loincloths. Columbus has a child with a woman who is not his wife. There is some cleavage at the court. Religious wise, Columbus blesses the Islands in the name of the Lord and desires to bring salvation to the natives, but his behavior is often self-serving and once he becomes furious with God and destroys part of a monastery, before a monk crosses himself and knocks Columbus flat.

   

If the film has one thing going for it, it is the casting and the cinematography. One thing I loved was that Ridley Scott knows how to show off the majesty of horses. Two important scenes featured them as a primary point, and for someone like me who loves their beauty and power, it was simply breathtaking. I was skeptical about all of the casting but everyone made their characters complex and believable. There were a lot of things I did not like about the film (it feels a bit long at times, and is quite brutal in places) but overall it was an entertaining and thought-provoking voyage into the past.