By Murray Dahm
When looking for movies about Christopher Columbus we discover something surprising – there are actually very few such films, most came in a flurry in 1992, the 500th anniversary of his first journey and ‘discovery’ of America.
The explorer known to us as Christopher Columbus (Crisoforo Colombo in Italian and Cristóbal Colón in Spanish) was a Genoese adventurer who made four journeys to and from the ‘New World’ and Spain between 1492 and 1503 on behalf of the monarchs of Spain, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. The exact date and location of Columbus’ birth are not known but he was born in approximately 1451; he may have been at sea since the age of ten. Some modern historians have wanted to make him from Spain or Portugal but this seems highly unlikely.
The great nautical question of Columbus’ age was finding a route to the spice islands of the East Indies, India and the Orient, and thus avoiding the expensive land route over Asia. Columbus would maintain until his death that he had found the eastern-most coast of the Asian continent by sailing westwards, crossing the Atlantic, the ‘Ocean Sea’ (despite much evidence to prove he was mistaken). The route to the spice islands was the Cold War and Space Race of its day all rolled into one.
Columbus’ proposals finally produced fruit with the Spanish monarchs in January 1492. He was provided with enough funds to mount a small expedition of three ships. If successful, Columbus would be named Admiral of the Ocean Sea and would be appointed as Viceroy and Governor of all the new lands he would claim for Spain. Columbus set off on his first journey in August 1492 in 3 ships, the Pinta, Nina, and Santa Maria, stopping at the Canary Islands before continuing on towards America on a six-week journey (arriving in the Bahamas on October 12th, 1492). Columbus made four journeys to the New world before dying in 1506 at the age of only 54 and he proved an unpopular and harsh ruler of his new dominons. These, and many other aspects of his life have been ignored or glossed over in the movies of his adventures.
Exactly which island of the Bahamas Columbus arrived at is still debated but the Taíno natives were friendly and Columbus explored further, reaching Hispaniola (modern day Haiti/Dominican Republic) and northeastern Cuba. Soon the Europeans would come into contact with the four major civilisations of the central and southern Americas – the Inca, Maya, Aztec and Muisca. What followed has shaped our world for better or worse but there is everything you could wish for in a film – adventure, romance, drama, tragedy, heroism, villany.
One aspect of Columbus’ journey which has been focussed on in movies, was the spread of Roman Catholicism to the new territories and the (forcible) conversion of its populations. It is difficult to underestimate the impact on world history that Columbus’ discoveries and their aftermath made. His four journeys revealed the Caribbean to the Spanish Empire and opened up the Americas for exploration and exploitation by European powers which began immediately and continued for centuries. America already had complex civilisations of its own but their technologies on the whole were no match for the steel, gunpowder and illnesses of the Spanish conquistadors and other Europeans who came in quest of wealth, power, territory to conquer, and land to settle.
The early movies
It comes as something of a surprise therefore to learn that Columbus’ exploits have been filmed relatively infrequently (there have been nine films, if we are generous), and none of those attempts has been entirely satisfying. At the same time, the figure of Columbus and his legacy make numerous appearances. Four of the movies about him were released in 1992 to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first landfall in the ‘New World’ and so most films concentrate on the lead up to the first journey and discovery and less on Columbus’ challenges after 1492 or the other journeys.
Just as Columbus’ journeys themselves were part of a wider European power struggle between Spain and Portugal, not to mention England, France and the Dutch, so too the first attempts to put Columbus on film actually reflected something of a filmic power struggle. The very first attempts were silent movies – a French version from 1904 and a 1923 German production.
In 1946, as part of the British Rank Organisation’s plan to break into the American market, Sydney Box announced he would be making a technicolour film of Rafael Sabatin’s 1941 novel, Columbus to spearhead the showing of British films in America. There were other Columbus films announced at the time to compete, but these never came to fruition. The Box Christopher Columbus was originally slated to have Stewart Granger in the title role, then James Mason before Frederic March was decided upon in late 1947. Replicas of the Santa Maria and the Nina were built for the film and filming was vastly expensive, especially when the Santa Maria broke its moorings, burned and had to be rebuilt.
The 1949 movie begins with the myth of the flat earth and in voiceover tells of the few ‘crackpot theorists’ who believed it was a sphere. This is one of the untruths of the Columbus story since, by 1492, the knowledge that the earth is a sphere was far more widespread than most people believe. The film gets some of its history right, Columbus’ brothers are missing, however, and there is a romantic subplot as well as conspirators arrayed against Columbus. This last is not wrong although the way it is portrayed is. According to the film Columbus’ motivations were (in order) conversion, gold, and spices for the glory of Spain. Unfortunately, the film was a failure and did not recoup its cost. Box had, however, intended to show a realistic portrait of Columbus, a partial failure who did not reach his proposed destination of Asia.
When the Rank Christopher Columbus came out in 1949, the Spanish took great umbrage at the depiction of ‘their’ Columbus a less than successful, and what they saw as less than heroic figure. They immediately made plans to make Alba de América (Dawn of America) which came out in 1951. The film was directed by Juan de Orduña and starred Antonio Vilar. In it, Columbus is a mighty adventurer whose achievements bring greater glory to Spain and the Catholic Church. The film was given an enormous budget (which it never made back) and also coincided with the 500th anniversary of the unification of Spain, the joining of Castile and Aragon (taken from the birth year of Queen Isabella of Castile in 1451 – Ferdinand was born in 1452, and they married in 1469). That such a film was made in Spain during the Fascist regime of Francisco Franco (1936-1975) is something of a surprise. Very few films which could bring glory to the ousted Spanish monarchy were made during the era although Fascist Spain did partner with other filmmakers and Spain was often used as a location for foreign productions with all the complexity that involved (such as El Cid in 1961). Perhaps national pride took over in this instance.
Columbus remains a divisive figure. Some see him as a vain, flawed, greedy egomaniac who maintained a misplaced belief in the idea that he had reached Asia, ‘discovering’ America by mistake and through entirely flawed thinking. Others cannot accept that view and see him as a visionary, a genius explorer, empire builder and devout propagator of the Catholic faith.
1951 also saw the Bugs Bunny cartoon ‘Hare we go’ with Bugs as a mascot on Columbus’ first journey. Columbus had first appeared in cartoons in an Oswald the Lucky Rabbit short ‘Chris Columbus Jr.’ (1934). This was followed by a Looney Tunes cartoon in 1939 with Porky Pig as Columbus (Kristopher Kolumbus, Jr.). He also appeared in a 1991 episode of the animated Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventures ‘Goodbye Columbus and America’ and there have been several cameos or references to Columbus, from episodes of Get Smart and The Sopranos to Assassin’s Creed (2016).
One of the remarkable things about Christopher Columbus films (indeed all films set in medieval period and early modern America) is that for the most part the look of the film is not in question. Nearly all of these films show costumes, arms, armour (and ships in the case of Columbus films), and they look remarkably good. In fact, the Spanish conquistador equipment seems relatively sound in nearly all of these films.
Even though Columbus films might be considered civilian, military accoutrements are never far away and there was a military aspect to Columbus’ journeys. Usually there are soldiers in the background but sometimes they take centre stage. The plate armour, typical Spanish morion helmets and swords, and other equipment such as arquebuses, are all convincingly done. Similarly, the depiction of the native Taíno people, their appearance and arms, is well depicted. What warfare there was, was relatively small scale and so there is no need for large tactical battles; small skirmishes were the order of the day and these things the films do well. Swordplay is not necessarily accurate to the fechtbucher of the times but is no worse than many other films. At the same time, it is the politics, culture and ideology which most often comes in for criticism and the films of Columbus seem unable to depict the complexities of his life, discoveries and controversies effectively. The movies also simplify issues or perpetuate certain myths (such as the flat-earth debate or Columbus’ financial difficulties).
The 1992 films
1992 saw the release of several films released to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first journey and the ‘Discovery of America’. Ridley Scott’s English language, French-Spanish production, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, starred Gerard Depardieu as Christopher Columbus. John Glen’s British-American-Spanish production of Christopher Columbus: The Discovery had Georges Corraface as the explorer. Peculiarly, both films ended up with Frenchmen (Depardieu and Corraface) playing the Italian explorer in Spanish service. I say peculiar because both films had prominent international casts (Marlon Brando, Tom Selleck, Sigourney Weaver, a score by Vangelis). Depardieu’s English was poor and so Columbus’ dialogue in Scott’s film is brief and stilted. Timothy Dalton was intended to play Columbus in Glen’s film (Glen had been the director of both of Dalton’s James Bond films) but when Glen was named, Dalton quit.
The two films were the competing celebration of the anniversary from Paramount (Scott) and Warner Bros. (Glen), released at (almost) the same time, and confusion between the two has persisted. Scott’s film has been criticized for perpetuating the myths and (heroic) misconceptions about Columbus (such as the flat earth debate) and not showing him as he really was (he stole the credit for being the first to see land from one of his men, thus robbing him of the pension promised back in Spain). The forcible nature of conversion and governance is also glossed over (speaking in Scott’s film of ‘respect and persuasion’) whereas, in reality, Columbus’ attitude was far more condescending and dismissive. Columbus saw at once that the native populations could be easily exploited (and conquered). The film does show some brutality towards the natives, but Columbus is innocent of it (rather than the instigator as he was in reality). In the Scott film, the villain is made out to be Adrián de Moxica (played by Michael Wincott). de Moxica did instigate atrocities (and rebel against Columbus) but didn’t accompany Columbus until the third journey in 1498. Thus, the eventual resistance to and revolt from Spanish rule is, in the film, because of the men disregarding Columbus’ directives rather than because of them. Columbus’ retaliation was swift and brutal, killing and enslaving vast swathes of the local population.
Further 1992 Christopher Columbus servings included Carry on Columbus, the 31st and last of the ubiquitous British comedy Carry On films. It too was released to mark the actual anniversary in October but was loathed by critics (it was later voted worst British film ever made). That said, Carry on Columbus took more money at the box office in the United Kingdom than either 1492: Conquest of Paradise or Christopher Columbus: The Discovery did. All three films were considered failures. No film got much history right. Glen’s film introduced a fictional romance between Columbus and Queen Isabella (they were almost exactly the same age) and focused on getting to the Americas (financing the expedition and the sea journey) spending only half an hour of the film’s two hours actually in America. Scott’s two-and-a-half hour film, by contrast, spent much more time actually in the Americas (reaching America for the first time in the fiftieth minute). Scott’s film gives a truncated and potted history (there are two journeys not four) which misrepresents much of what happened but does continue to Columbus’ death.
One further 1992 Christopher Columbus film was the animated German fantasy film The Magic Voyage (Die Abenteuer von Pico & Columbus). It was the most expensive German animated film produced up to that time but was savaged by critics and two attempts were made to dub it into English. Neither helped. 1992 also saw a Japanese animated series from Nippon Animation.
After 1992 there seems to have been little attention paid to Columbus on screen – perhaps because of the miserable results of the films of that year, for which the producers had held such high hopes. One exception is Even the Rain (Tambien la Iluvia) a Spanish film from 2010 directed by Icíar Bollaín which told of a Mexican director travelling to Bolivia to make a film about Columbus but getting caught up in the real-life Bolivian water crisis of 2000. The scenes of the Columbus material are interesting (and relatively accurate – and work as something of a counter to the misrepresentation in Scott’s film). The Columbus (Karra Elejalde playing ‘Antón’ who is cast as Columbus) looks too old, however. The actor was 50, Columbus had been 41 (Depardieu had been 43, Corraface 39).
Of all the attempts to put Christopher Columbus on screen, therefore, perhaps the most successful was the 1985 television miniseries starring Gabriel Byrne. Again, everything looks right and the costumes, locations, ships, arms and armour are accurate. This Italian-US production spanned six hours and was thus able to give more attention to the complexities of the Columbus story. The ‘reduction to essentials’ of the films was too simplistic. Possibly because it had more time to explore the issues, of all the Christopher Columbus offerings this miniseries is actually the one which offers most satisfaction. As we shall see, where similar material is able to be given fuller treatment over several hours in a series, often the results are more satisfactory and able to explore more complex issues more fully. Not always, however, and several medieval television series (The Borgias, even Vikings) can squander such opportunities and revert to un-historical plots which grab viewers but dismiss history (and so become more historical fiction than they started out as).
For such an important aspect of history, the filmic attempts to show Christopher Columbus are disappointing. No doubt future attempts will be made, although the next significant Columbus anniversary to celebrate won’t come until 2041/2 with the 600th anniversary of his birth and the 550th anniversary of his landing. But don’t let it get you down, there’s always Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig.
Top Image: Hare we go (©Warner Bros. Pictures)