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Conquistador! Hernán Cortés in the movies

By Murray Dahm

Having explored movies of Christopher Columbus and those of the indigenous medieval peoples at the time of European contact, it remains for us to examine the films which explore the conquest of the New World itself. 2019-2021 marks the 500th anniversary of the first of those conquests – that of Hernán Cortés and so we shall begin with depictions of him.

The question of the conquest produces some unexpected and remarkable movies and series (those exploring El Dorado and the Fountain of Youth belong here too) – but they are so complex they shall all need an article each! The conquest, in the first quarter of the 16th century, was firmly planted in the Medieval – the ideas, ideologies, and tactics were all thoroughly Medieval – there was no use of cutting-edge tactics or even technologies which were being developed in Europe at the same time. The conquistadors never had enough men to form a tercio and could not use massed pike which appeared in Spain in the Granada War.

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The technology brought over to the New World was therefore late medieval itself (including steel and gunpowder) and proved to be sufficient and superior to those of indigenous cultures. As we shall see, many of the conquests took a remarkably small number of men. What is more, the local cultures allied with the Spanish and took the opportunity to wage a continuation of traditional tribal wars or wars of revenge on traditional enemies. Later conquerors like Francisco Pizarro will be explored in our next article. Until recently, Cortés was portrayed relatively rarely on screen (we’ve explored The Other Conquest already), but there has been a spate of portrayals as the 500th anniversary approached.

We might consider that the conquest of the Americas started immediately with Columbus’ arrival (and Columbus did indeed come with troops and established forts and garrisons from 1492 onwards). Columbus also came with Christian missionaries, not to mention the European diseases which would decimate the local populations. It wasn’t until the early 16th century, however, that concerted efforts were made to conquer the local empires. Early conquest consisted mainly of Spanish soldiers, known as the conquistadors (literally ‘conquerors’), armed with typical arms and armour of the time. Some cannon were brought and (very few) horses. Some conquests were lightning quick and relatively easy. At the same time, however, other parts of this ‘new’ land were incredibly stubborn and their conquest took decades. Some areas even continued resistance for centuries. This was mainly a Spanish conquest although – as an extension of European power politics – several other European powers got in on the act as well.

The first conquest was, perhaps, the most successful. In 1519 Hernán Cortés conquered the Aztec Empire in a rapid, two-year, campaign. After launching from Cuba, taking with him 500 men (including slaves) and 13 horses. Cortés showed that conquest could be an extension of local politics and successfully used Aztec rivalries to aid his conquest, allying with one faction of the indigenous people (the Tlaxcala) who were traditional rivals against the other, especially the Mexica of Moctezuma.

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The Mayan cities of the Yucatán Peninsula by contrast took much longer to conquer even though first contact with them had been made during Christopher Columbus’ fourth journey in 1502. The last Mayan city did not fall until 1697. 1532 saw the first campaign against the Inca Empire of Peru, led by Francisco Pizarro (with only 200 men). Again, this was not a rapid conquest, lasting until 1572.

Attempts to put this dramatic and historic story on film are remarkably few. We have Captain from Castile from the 1940s, a brief exploration in The Other Conquest (which we’ve already explored), and an unmentionable film from 2008 (but we will mention it). Cortés was the subject of an episode of the BBC’s Heroes and Villains also in 2008 (marked out with Attila, Spartacus, Napoleon, Richard the Lionheart, and Tokugawa Ieyasu – what an interesting mix!). The approaching 500th anniversary saw a mini-series, Conquistadores Adventum, in 2017, then in 2018 a Mexican TV series, Malinche, which concentrated on the role of Doña Marina, Cortés’ interpreter and consort. In November 2019, Amazon Prime produced Hernán, a Spanish language series (of eight episodes although the second season began filming in early 2020). I’ll also give a shout out to the 1809 Italian opera Fernando Cortez by Gaspare Spontini, commissioned by Napoleon, which was performed and filmed in 2019 (again for the approaching 500th anniversary).

1947’s Captain from Castile directed by Henry King stars Tyrone Power as Pedro de Vargas who joins Hernán Cortés’ expedition in 1519. The film was based on a popular historical adventure novel of the same name by Samuel Shellabarger published in 1945. The film rights had actually been purchased by Twentieth Century Fox’s Darryl F. Zanuck prior to publication, in 1944, for the then vast sum of $100,000. The film is notable for cinemafiles since it was the debut of Jean Peters (who later married Howard Hughes) and the Mohawk actor Jay Silverheels as the Aztec slave Coatl (he later went on to play Tonto in the television series of The Lone Ranger). It also had a score by Alfred Neuman which itself had a long afterlife as an orchestral suite.

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The gestation of the film is fascinating, especially since in 1945 Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote to Zanuck about the need for accuracy (and the risk of offending various groups if they got it wrong). He also warned of the expense; the film used almost 20,000 extras and cost four and a half million dollars. Mankiewicz was correct and, although a success, the film didn’t make back its cost. This is a common refrain of films about the ‘New World’ which may explain the reluctance in more recent times for (non-indigenous) filmmakers to explore its stories. Even though Captain from Castile ended up only filming approximately half the book, the accuracy of the script (especially in its portrayal of the Inquisition) got the production into trouble. The Inquisition scenes and characters had to be toned down, the torture and auto-da-fé scenes (made with meticulous attention to detail) needed to be cut. Several of Cortés’ atrocities are also not shown (he destroys an idol with a cannon shot – but the great massacre, when the Aztec elite were murdered in the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan in 1520, is absent). The film used an (undisclosed) language for the Aztec characters (it may be Nahuatl) but their speech is translated by Doña Marina (portrayed by Estela Inda and who has a quite prominent role – her relationship with Cortés is also much in evidence) just as it was in history (and one which has become a focus of portrayals of this story in the past three years). Filmed in Mexico, the location of Uruapan had an active volcano which serendipitously mirrored the active volcano around Cholula during the conquest in 1519.

Captain from Castile is different from most films set in the period in that, even though it used actual locations for Cortés’ expedition, the architecture is restored so we see colourful temples and idols. This may have been less than careful in 1946 but looks more in tune with how the architecture would have appeared, lime-washed and full of colour. There are other surprising aspects to the film such as the discussion of the mistreatment of slaves. A runaway, Coatl, is being hunted by dogs as the film opens, and we see the scars from his whipping and hear of other punishments. Many films set in the medieval period do not broach the question of slavery at all, even though slavery was pervasive in every medieval European civilisation.

Militarily there is much to commend Captain from Castile. When the expedition finally gets underway, we see Morion helmets, as well as accurate armour and weapons including the more decorated examples for Cortés and his senior captains. This reinforces the rank and status of the aristocracy above their men (even if many of the individuals involved in the conquest were self-made men originally of low status). The conquest of the new world offered many opportunities for men to make themselves (just as Columbus had). We see the army on the march from Villa Rica as it crosses the Rio La Antigua to Cempoala. And when we advance to Cholula, we see wheeled artillery pieces and cavalry, as well as spears, pike and crossbows.

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The film dwells at length on the diplomacy of Moctezuma’s ambassadors, giving gifts to Cortés and the ambition and greed of the conquerors to seek the source of all such wealth. Cesar Romero does an excellent job as the charismatic and ambitious Cortés (and looks great in the role) – his facial hair absolutely fits the part and his smile is utterly infections (second only to Douglas Fairbanks in my opinion and before Errol Flynn). Lee J. Cobb is also excellent as Varga’s friend Juan Garcia.

When we see the vast numbers of the Aztec army, they are decked out in all manner of the various contingents, many drawn from the codices (such as the Codex Mendoza and Codex Magliabechiano). We see spears (with authentic chert heads) and shields, cloaks and feathers of all colours and these all seem drawn from original sources. The final march of Cortés army with banners unfurled and an array of weapons (and so many extras) across the ash of (a very real) smoking volcano towards Moctezuma’s capital Tenochtitlan is visually (and acoustically) impressive. We are denied a final battle and told in voice-over of the success that would follow but, of all the films which concern the conquest, Captain from Castile may be the most visually rewarding (and authentic?). From the number of extras in what appear authentic costumes on both sides, and the colour lavished on ancient ruins (rather than leaving them naked and ancient as is now the norm) all this leaves an imprint on the imagination.

Another film which deals with Hernán Cortés, but which comes with a warning, is Azteca Rex (aka Tyrannosaurus Azteca) which debuted on the Syfy Channel in 2008. This was directed by Brian Trenchard-Smith, was filmed on Hawaii and involved a plot set in 1521 where the Aztecs worship a pair of living Tyrannosaruses. Enter Hernán Cortés, played by Beverley Hills 90210’s Ian Ziering although perhaps he is now more famous for the Sharknado franchise. Enough said.

Actually, there is some history here (such as Cortés’ use of a slave interpreter) and, again, relatively accurate arms and armour. On the other hand, there are giant dinosaurs. This combination really shouldn’t come as a surprise given Trenchard-Smith’s oeuvre (cult classics Stunt Rock (1980), Turkey Shoot (1982) and others). Cortés is also portrayed as a lustful and indecisive governor in The Other Conquest. Looking at portraits of Cortés, the actor there (Iñaki Aierra) is an uncanny doppelganger. And those are the Cortés portrayals on film – from Cesar Romero to Iñaki Aierra and even (if we must, just for laughs) Ian Ziering.

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Television depictions of Cortés have taken the lead since 2008 which saw Heroes and Villains from the BBC. The fourth episode was dedicated to Cortés, starring Brian McCardie as Cortés and directed by Andrew Grieve. Most of the roles were taken by British actors and the Aztec roles by actors of Indian or Southeast Asian descent. This is out of touch and did not follow the fabulous work of the original-language films and casts we have seen. The format of the series (as we saw with Attila) was to produce a short, episode length film of Cortés’ conquests. Unfortunately, things get off to a bad start when the film begins in 1521 and the invasion begins, setting it in the wrong year.

As the 2019 anniversary approached several television series have appeared, in different formats and lengths. 2017 saw a Spanish, eight episode mini-series, Conquistadores Adventum, directed by Israel del Santo for Movistar+ with Migel Díaz Espada as Cortés. Indeed, I should have noticed this series for Christopher Columbus depictions too (but only came across it since). The series told the story of the first 30 years of conquest after Columbus’ arrival in 1492.

2018 saw a five-episode Mexican television series, Malinche, staring María Mercedes Coroy as Malinche and José María de Tavira as Cortés, directed by Julián de Tavira. Building on a long tradition of the role of Malinche/Doña Marina as Cortés’ interpreter and partner, the series (unsurprisingly) concentrates on her and her experiences. She was one of twenty slaves gifted to the Spaniards at Tabasco in 1519 and from there she grew to be interpreter and intermediary with the various peoples the Spaniards came into contact with. She became Cortés’ consort, bearing him a son, Martin. Visually stunning and authentic in every way, it uses large tracts of authentic native Nahuatl and Mayan languages and Spanish. The interiors, indigenous costumes and decorations are wonderfully rendered (and much of the series is shot indoors adding to a sense of claustrophobia, but the external structures are undecorated. The slow-motion warfare (with arrows flying past the actors) is very effective (even though small scale). Much time (which can unfortunately become ponderous) is taken with Malinche’s role as interpreter although she also has visions of the fate of her people although her becoming the lover of Cortés is abrupt and done without any wooing – they hold hands and then make love, next moment she is heavily pregnant.

All of the interest in Malinche led to the 90-minute Mexican documentary Malintzin: The Story of an Enigma (Malintzin, la historia de un enigma) in 2019. The Malintzin documentary sought to correct the various misrepresentations of Malinche in several depictions and used some dramatizations (with Priscilla Lepe as Malinche and Fernando de Retes as Cortés). Controversy around Malinche/Doña Marina has arisen at various points in history. She was a key figure in the conquest and she has been portrayed as a traitor or scheming seductress (especially during the period of the Mexican revolution in the early 20th century. She can still be seen as a traitress but is also viewed as a victim and even as symbolic of the mother of the Mexican people (and mixed with various Aztec legends). Malinche/Doña Marina has given rise to both Malinchism (the attraction of one person to the culture of another) and a malinchista is a term synonymous with disloyalty. These receptions do not explore the complexity of Malinche/Doña Marina’s story which recent attention has explored. Episodes of Malintzin is available on Youtube, in Spanish only as far as I could discover.

The most impressive (and ambitious) setting of the Cortés story is also the most recent, Amazon Prime/Prime Video’s Hernán which began streaming in November 2019. This was to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the fall of Tenochtitlan. The Spanish-language series was co-produced by Televisión Azteca in Mexico, Mexico’s Dopamine, and Spain’s Onza Entertainment. The eight-episode series is distributed by A+E. The Cortés, Óscar Jaenada Gajo, was Spanish and the Moctezuma, Dagoberto Gama, Mexican. Other actors are all from Spanish, South American or Central American descent. The series was shared between three directors (Norberto López Amado, Julián de Tavira, and Álvaro Ron) and three writers (Curro Royo, Maria Jaen, and Julián de Tavira).

If Malinche was visually stunning and authentic in every way, Hernán doubled down on that although it may owe a slight debt in costume, decoration and architecture – but that debt may be from the authenticity of the sources. The characters (unsurprisingly) are all the same in both series. Hernán continues the trend we have seen in the original language films although with a big television budget and we get vast tracts of Nahuatl and some Mayan (often conveniently translated into Spanish within the context of the story). The series format also allows much more time to explore a complex history (the first season had six hours whereas Captain from Castile could barely get through half its material in 140 minutes).

Each episode is named after an individual (‘Marina,’ ‘Cristobal’ (after Cristobal de Olid), ‘Bernal’ (after Bernal Diaz), ‘Moctezuma,’ or ‘Hernán’ for instance). This method moves around in both the timelines and perspectives, but the series does a good job of keeping us clearly up with each story- and time-line. The two main timelines are the conquistadors under siege in Tenochtitlan in 1520 and the march there in 1519.

As with other explorations, the importance of women is explored and the place of La Malinche is prominent (as is the role of Maria Luisa, princess of the Tlaxcala who married Pedro de Alvarado). Visually we have authenticity in both the Spanish and several Aztec cultures (especially Mexica, Totonacas and Tlaxcala). We see an array of authentic Aztec weapons, shields and armour, and a similar entirely convincing range for the Spaniards. Unlike other depictions the Spaniards are much less armoured overall, wearing leather jerkins shirts and hose in the oppressive heat and only suiting up for actual battle.

The Aztecs themselves are in authentic body paint, decorations and costumes taken from the codexes. Episode 5 (‘Moctezuma’) sees us visit a full size reproduction (with CGI) of the Great Temple as it would have appeared, limewashed and colourful (and with the skulls of sacrificial victims adorning it). In some ways we can see the influence of Game of Thrones (and Black Sails) in the credit sequence – a cello score and spreading flames, not to mention a great deal of blood and gore, glorying in it (and all shot in HD). We also see human sacrifice (presented matter of factually) and even cannibalism. The brutality is not one-sided, however, and we see the Spanish cutting off of hands, ears, and noses to send a message to those who would oppose them. The Aztec religions, their beliefs and sacrifices, ae presented without judgement (the Spaniards, perfectly in character, are appalled) and this, along with the authentic language, decoration, dress make it an incredibly immersive visual (and acoustic) experience. Nonetheless there seems condemnation of the greed for gold and the religious zealotry on the part of the Spaniard Catholics.

This series also embraces the large scale with aerial (CGI) shots of Tenochtitlan and its lake and a much bigger cast. The series’ format of jumping between time periods progresses each storyline well – and the fact that each episode’s focus shifts the perspective, this is handled very well with a minimum of confusion. The relationship between Cortés and Doña Marina is emphasised and well handled (more so than in the 2018 depiction – both Óscar Jaenada Gajo as Hernán and Ishbel Bautista as Doña Marina are more compelling than José María de Tavira and María Mercedes Coroy had been). Here, Doña Marina is not only an interpreter of both Mayan and Mexica languages but also a wise adviser (who Cortés ignores at his peril). She also translates (or interprets) better fitting the situation in several cases (and the idea that Moctezuma’s flowery language was misinterpreted is present, calling Tenohtitlan ‘your city’ when he first met the Spanish). She is not the temptress and schemer (that role is given to Maria Luisa of the Tlaxcala (played with seductive venom by Mitzi Mabel Cadena) who wants to see her rivals, the Mexica (and the Cholulans) destroyed utterly). The definition of Malinche here (in episode 8) is presented as relating to Cortés rather than Doña Marina, and meaning ‘he who accompanies Marina.’

Interestingly the fact a figure like Bernal Diaz learned the local Nahuatl languages is largely ignored. Late in life (he lived until 1584), Diaz published his account of the conquest, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain – an important eyewitness, but here he writes his account as he marches (it is certainly a permissible argument that he may have done this). Doña Marina also has visions (like earlier versions) of what is to come so there is much that is the same in these recent depictions. Personally, I prefer the performance of this cast all ‘round to that in 2018. Dagoberto Gama is magnificent (and more fitting to the role than earlier depictions, especially age-wise (Moctezuma was born around 1466 and so in his 50s and an ‘old man’ (by the mortality rate of the time) when he died in June 1520).

In Hernán we have the time to explore and understand the complicated motivations and relationships within the conquistadors and with the local tribes depicted (especially those who indulged in their own power politics such as the Tlaxcala). There is subtly and nuance in little details (like Moctezuma walking on the dusty earth rather than carried or have mats placed for his feet). We see arquebus, war dog and few horses which is a great touch as are the references to ‘hornless deer’ (horses) ‘yellow-eyed beasts’ (dogs) and the ‘lightning sticks.’ The Aztec weapons, armour, body-paint, and decorations are all wonderful. The casualties to the Aztecs are disproportionately high but the battles are not entirely one sided (and it is all very grisly and bloody). This series is a rewarding (and thought provoking) experience; it has debts to the original language films (and series) which came before it but if you can track it down, it is well worth the effort.

2014 had also seen the announcement of an HBO series, Cortes, which never came to fruition. It was to have been directed and produced by Martin Scorsese and star Benecio Del Toro as Cortés but it did not progress. Another series on Cortés is also currently in production, also with Amazon Prime, building on their epic, big-budget dramas with wide international appeal. This one, called Cortés, will star Spanish actor Javier Bardem as Cortés and Mexican actor Tenoch Huerta as Moctezuma. The history of this production looks like it is cashing in on the anniversary and the previous series, Hernán, and continuing a trend of using culturally authentic actors. Indeed there seems to be more happening to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the conquest than happened with 500th anniversary of the discovery in 1992.

In reality, however, this show stretches back into the 1960s. In 1965 Dalton Trumbo (screenwriter of Roman Holiday and Spartacus) penned a screenplay called Montezuma – intended as a vehicle for Kirk Douglas to play Cortés. (Kirk Douglas was, until his death in February 2020, one of the producers of the series). It is regarded as ‘one of the great unmade scripts in moviedom’ and tied to Trumbo’s imprisonment and blacklisting as one of the Hollywood Ten in 1948. In 2014, the original filmscript was rewritten by Steven Zaillian (screenwriter for Schindler’s List, Awakenings, Gangs of New York, Moneyball, The Irishman) and a film was to be directed by Steven Spielberg. It would also star Bardem but 2018 saw the announcement the project had been turned into a four, one-hour, episode series for Amazon Prime/Prime Video (with Spielberg as one of the executive producers through his company Amblin Television). Bardem was excited by the role: ‘as an actor, there is no better challenge than to serve such a unique project that I have been passionate about for years.’ Bardem also saw the complexities of the role ‘the best and worst of human nature came to life in all its light and darkness’. The directors are Columbian Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallegos and several high-profile Mexican actors and producers are attached. The role of La Malinche (played by Mexican actress Yoshira Escárrega) will also, once again, be prominent.

Just as the Columbus films came in a flurry in 1992 therefore, we seem to be awash in Cortés material in 2019/2020. It will be intriguing to see whether the current pandemic impacts these series. Happy viewing.

Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for Medievalists.net. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

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Top Image: Hernán / Amazon Prime

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