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Features Films

The Fountain of Youth in the movies

By Murray Dahm

Legends of the Fountain of Youth, a spring whose waters will restore youth to anyone who drinks them, stretch back into classical antiquity. Accounts can be found in the ancient Greek writer Herodotus and the historians of Alexander the Great. In the New World, the indigenous Arawak people of Hispaniola had a legend of a land of wealth, Beimeni/Beniny, located somewhere to their northwest. Other legends told of Bonica (perhaps in the gulf of Honduras) which was likewise associated with a Fountain of Youth. These legends soon led to expeditions in the 16th century to find the fabled fountain and their adventures, in turn, have inspired filmmakers to portray them.

1951’s Hurricane Island, directed by Lew Landers for Columbia Pictures, depicted the search for the Fountain of Youth in 1513, in Florida (given the climate of Florida and the vast number of retirees who flock there, perhaps the legends persist). The historical 1513 expedition was led by Juan Ponce de León (portrayed by Edgar Barrier), a conquistador and gentleman volunteer with Christopher Columbus’ second journey in 1493. The Royal patent (dated to February 1512) granted León permission to explore and does mention claiming the island (and wealth) of Beniny. None of León’s writings or other contemporary evidence specifically mention the Fountain of Youth but several single out Beniny as the subject of their explorations. León subsequently led the first attempt to colonize (the Island of) Florida in 1521 but was met by fierce resistance and the attempt was abandoned. León was wounded on that expedition and died soon after the expedition’s retreat to Cuba.

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The movie version opens with Florida ‘Island’ being claimed by León in 1513, accompanied by musket-armed Spaniards (in breastplates and Morion helmets; all other details of Spanish dress seem appropriate). The more elaborate armour of León himself is modeled on that of the contemporary portraits of King Charles V. The landing party is immediately attacked by hostile natives (who look much more like those from familiar Westerns rather than the more accurate depiction of indigenous tribes which we have seen). Later we get tribal dancing but it is fanciful (and not at all ‘native’). The Florida tribe, called the Carralu(?) (and not intended to be part of the Seminole Nation as was historical) is ruled by a woman, Okahla, played by Jo Gilbert in one of her first film appearances. This is an interesting touch, and one in keeping with what we know of the importance of other tribal female figures and matrilinear tendencies in the New World which we have explored. None are specifically mentioned for the tribes of Florida, however. There is also an accurate reference to a god ‘Yuracan’ which must be the Taino god ‘Huracan,’ ‘god of the storm’ from which we get the word hurricane.

We are in the thick of battle from the first moments of the film – the arrows of the natives are very effective, finding vulnerable (unarmoured) points on the Spaniards. Given the military ineffectiveness of León’s expedition against the local tribes, this is fine. Yet we still have several tropes – the locals are finally driven off by an explosion – a keg of powder ignited by a flaming crossbow bolt. Here though, the invaders immediately retire to Cuba, thus a seven months’ campaign is reduced to four minutes on screen – León’s expedition wasn’t that unsuccessful!. León is wounded and can only be healed by the Fountain of Youth – thus we get a combination of the 1513 expedition and the wound León suffered in 1521.

A female pirate, Jane Bolton, played by Marie Windsor, hears of the planned visit, assumes the Fountain is full of gold (it is also referred to as the Golden Fountain, thereby combining legends) and tries to steal the map of its location. We also have the complicating (and inaccurate) detail of European women prisoners in Cuba who are convinced to become potential wives for the new colony of Florida and placed aboard ship with the expedition. And so, the invasion of Florida is made by armoured men and queues of potential wives.

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The message of the film of ‘peace for the people of the world’, goodwill and a lack of greed would soon become out of favour in American movies during the Cold War (viewed as a pacifistic perspective and therefore suspect of communist tendencies). The message of rulers living for their people and not using them are, however, as relevant today as they ever were. Okahla is sustained by the Fountain and when she is ‘rescued’ from the pirates and natives who rebel against her peaceful rule, she withers and dies, no longer protected by its power.

Another movie which has a Fountain of Youth connection is Disney’s animated Kronk’s New Groove (2005), the sequel to The Emperor’s New Groove (2000). It is of interest that both The Road to El Dorado and The Emperor’s New Groove came out in 2000 (although interest had been shown in the subject since 1992). That anniversary did foster great interest and film explored it too as we have seen.

Keeping with adventurers for a moment we should also look at Nicolás Echevarría’s Cabeza de Vaca from 1991. Another Mexican film, this one examines the life of the explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490 – c. 1557). After serving in the Spanish army in Italy, de Vaca joined the 1527 expedition to try, once again, and establish a Spanish colony in Florida under the leadership of the conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez. Once they reached the territory Narváez declared himself governor of Spanish Florida and took 300 men to march north and explore for gold. After a series of adventures and disasters, nearly the entire expedition was dead. The four remaining survivors, who had traveled to Texas and perhaps as far as Arizona, were eventually discovered by another Spanish expedition in 1536. De Vaca returned to Spain in 1537 and wrote several accounts of his journeys which were published after 1542.

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This amazing story of disaster and survival was made into a movie starring Juan Diego as de Vaca. The script was based on the second of de Vaca’s accounts, Naufragios, published in the 1550s. The film shows de Vaca at one point enslaved in the service of an indigenous shaman. Tension is built largely without dialogue but there are tracts of indigenous language (untranslated) between different tribes. These tribes are distinctive and they add to the sense of bewilderment for the Spanish characters of the new world they were encountering. It is difficult to say if the local tribes are drawn accurately although the shaman sketches the Cerne Abbas Giant (a chalk figure from Dorset in England) in the mangrove mudflats at one point, so these may be products of imagination.

The three other survivors were the Muslim slave Estevanico ‘little Esteban’ also known as Esteban the Moor, who was the Moroccan Muslim slave of Andreas Dorantes de Carranza (another of the survivors). Some accounts state that no non-Catholics were allowed to sail for the New World and so it is possible that Esteban had converted to Roman Catholicism. The fourth survivor was Alonso del Castillo Maldonado. All four men are depicted. In the film’s climax they discover a Spanish musket ball and so must lie (and feign madness) to escape from the tribe they are traveling with in order to march on and be found by Spanish soldiers. The tribe they walked with for so long are enslaved leading to a crisis of faith and identity.

The film closes with an enormous crucifix (for the new Cathedral built by the slaves) marched toward an approaching thunderstorm.  Echevarría’s main interests were in ritual (of which there are many in the film) but also the spirit of a documentary filmmaker (which he had been) in de Vaca whose account documented the encounters with the New World. He was also interested in the Spanish expectation to find the Fountain of Youth, El Dorado and the Seven Cities of Gold and what they did with the reality of their discoveries.

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Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011) also featured a search for the Fountain of Youth even though a fantasy film set in a historical period and dated well after this period, in the reign of King George II and so ‘dating’ to the period before 1760. Attempts to find the Fountain (and false claims of its discovery) continued into the 20th century.

Another movie that came out in 1992 for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ first journey was ¡O no Coronado!, directed by Craig Baldwin. The film is one of the few which explores the attempts to find the Seven Cities of Gold. This legend grew in New Spain (Mexico) in the 16th century. Despite little evidence, the legend proclaimed that seven cities of gold existed hundreds of miles to the north – Hawikuh, Halona, Matsaki, Quivira, Kiakima, Kwakina  – the name of the seventh is unknown. These cities are known today as the Zuni-Cibola complex (or the Cities of Cíbola) and sometimes the legends use the collective name of Cíbola.

Baldwin’s movie, like his others (such as Tribulation 99 (1991)), is a found-footage film, sometimes described as experimental or underground. Based in San Francisco, Baldwin uses footage from Swashbucklers, Westerns, and The Lone Ranger television series (in fact anything which comes to hand) as well as re-enactment, voice-overs and interviews with (contemporary) locals. ¡O no Coronado! was Baldwin’s first film to feature live action footage – using only four actors for re-enactments. This method of filmmaking actually opens up many possibilities for juxtaposition and metaphor. I first saw it during the Auckland Film Festival in 1992 or 1993 and its imagery has stuck in my mind ever since, especially because it is more honest than most films on similar topics: it depicts the story of Francesco Vázquez de Coronado, ‘one of the least successful conquistadors of all time’.

The legend of Cíbola makes another appearance on film in the Nicholas Cage vehicle National Treasure: Book of Secrets (2007) as a literal city of gold beneath Mount Rushmore. It was also being sought in the first episode of the television series Daniel Boone in 1964. There is also an invented cross of gold that Hernán Cortés is supposed to have given to Vázquez which is important to the opening of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Vázquez would have been twelve and still living in Spain when Cortés is supposed to have given him such a cross although the story of the cross is used to solve some mysteries of its own, explaining the source of Indiana’s trademark hat, his penchant for a bullwhip, enigmatic chin scar, and his fear of snakes.

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There is so much variety in these films of adventure set in the New World that hours of enjoyment can be had from exploring and comparing them. You might not get the time spent watching them back but maybe, just maybe, you’ll feel younger and refreshed once you’re done. 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: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

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