This would make a really interesting lower half of a double bill with Terrence Malick’s The New World. They’re pretty explicitly about the same theme, finding paradise on Earth only for it to slip through the characters’ fingers as they reach out to reclaim it, but the idea is approached very differently across the two films. The New World is the poetic version, and 1492: Conquest of Paradise is the more literal minded (but still visually sumptuous) take by Ridley Scott. It’s not nearly as successful as The New World, but I do think there’s quite a bit to like in Scott’s take on Christopher Columbus.
It’s the early 90s and everyone knows that a new world is required. I’m of course talking about the early 1990s and a bunch of studio executives remembering a nursery rhyme from their nannies about Columbus sailing the ocean blue in 1492. So, they greenlit two pictures. I’ve never seen Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (and have no desire to, considering its reputation), but being a Ridley Scott fanboi, I’ve always had a soft spot for this large adaptation of ten years of Columbus’ life.
The first hour is where the movie works best. It’s his time trying to convince financiers and representatives of the Spanish crown and Church that he could easily sail to India by going west from Portugal. The ancient Greeks who devised the circumference of the Earth were wrong and it’s not actually that far to India. The knowledgeable academics scoff at Columbus because he’s rejecting settled science that’s been settled since Ptolemy. Columbus was actually wrong, by the way. If America hadn’t happened to have been right there, smack dab in between the two, Columbus would have starved to death on the open sea.
But that’s not the point. The point is that Columbus was a visionary. He didn’t see the world as it was accepted, he saw it as he wanted it to be. He lucked out when the unknown continent and its islands happened to be between Europe and India, but his vision didn’t end with just a new trade route.
The trip westward is finely filmed with the expected grumblings of mutiny, but it’s the landing at San Salvador that takes the cinematic cake of the film. Perhaps it’s filmed as one would expect (slow motion with Columbus falling to his feet), but the combination of image and sound (with a quality score from Vangelis) makes the landing feel really special.
It’s here, on the island that the natives and the movie call Guanahani that Columbus sees his new vision, that of a new Eden. This is right out of Malick’s playbook and even feels like the retreats to nature seen in Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line, and, especially, The New World. It’s innocent and where the European men are their happiest. They live with nature and the natives in perfect harmony for a time, but this paradise is temporal, for it is on Earth. Columbus must return to Spain for the health of his financier, and he leaves behind several dozen men who wish to remain.
The trip back is a huge success, though he brings back little gold or spices that one would expect from part of India. He gets feted and honored by Isabella, and sent back with hundreds more men to truly make that place a new Eden for more Spaniard, but upon his arrival, Columbus finds all the men he left behind dead, killed by one of the native tribes. He advocates mercy and tolerance in the face of his more extreme noble members, determined to make the paradise he envisioned.
This second half of the film is a bit clunkier, covering more time with more moving parts and characters to track. It works as well as it can with action beats and a villain, but it’s still a letdown from the first. Columbus comes through it as noble-minded but deeply flawed, unable to see the world for what it is, pushing everything aside for his vision of what the world should be. There are implications that he’s foreseeing what would become some of the central tenets of the American War for Independence, especially in his interactions with Moxica, a Spanish lord who accompanies Columbus on the second voyage.
Being a Ridley Scott film, the movie looks really good from beginning to end. His use of smoke, steam, and snow to provide texture helps throughout. He frames his scenes exceedingly well, and the lush greens of the tropics pop off the screen, offering a strong counterpoint to the whites and light browns of the Spanish settlement that rises from the jungle. Gerard Depardieu is large and physically imposing as Columbus, while also convincingly wide-eyed and innocent of the world while hardheaded about his own vision.
It’s not Scott’s greatest work, but it takes a large subject and boils it down to a compelling theme that twists around its main character in interesting ways. It’s a solid effort, and a quality entertainment.