by ANDY DURSIN
Twitter - @theaisleseatcom
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. In 1992, two big-budget movies sank like a stone at the global box-office, failing completely to find an audience as the world celebrated – more or less – the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World.
The two competing pictures – Ridley Scott’s expensive “1492: Conquest of Paradise” and Alexander Salkind’s “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” – were heralded at Cannes as far back as 1989, when the Salkind picture was first announced.
According to producer Ilya Salkind, his movie’s model was a film a classic. “A good parallel would be ‘Lawrence of Arabia': It’s going to be historically accurate but it won’t be a history lesson,” boasted Salkind, whose movie was produced (and, presumably, partially financed) by Spain’s official Fifth Centennial Commission. The latter meant that the Spanish government was going to give the producers “source material that potential rivals won’t have, including Columbus’ on-board diary,” according to a 1989 L.A. Times article on the film’s announcement.
Those rivals included Ridley Scott’s proposed Columbus film, which took shape at the 1991 Cannes Film Festival. “1492″ had the benefit of an even larger budget and a script by Roselyne Bosch, a French journalist who did a great deal of research into Columbus and sought, along with Scott, to produce an authentic, dramatically balanced (some would argue politically correct) portrait of a man Scott himself said that “very little is actually known about.”
The two rival productions bickered with one another – in an interview at the Cannes festival, Scott, who was initially courted by the Salkinds to direct their picture, had to tell a reporter during an interview that the planes flying overhead were for “the other” Columbus film (this can actually be seen on Umbrella’s Australian Region 4 DVD release of “1492″). Lawsuits and mudslinging were bandied about from the two camps, and both films had to overcome numerous production difficulties in trying to reach the each picture’s 1992 release date. Ultimately, viewers chose to ignore both movies, which have since sailed off into the sea of cinematic obscurity.
CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY is a strange film through and through: a picture that essentially functions as an old-fashioned Hollywood swashbuckler, complete with a grinning hero (Georges Corraface, who stepped into the role vacated by Timothy Dalton), several sword fights, a sweeping orchestral score by Cliff Eidelman, and a stock company of familiar faces from the James Bond films – including Robert Davi and Benicio Del Toro, who had just worked with director – and long-time Bond veteran – John Glen on “Licence to Kill.” However, the script – credited to Mario Puzo, John Briley and Cary Bates – does offer an occasional historical nugget of interest, whether it’s in the Spanish court’s interest in backing Columbus’ journey and Columbus’ accidental trashing of the Santa Maria (elements totally neglected by Scott in “1492″), or painting Columbus as an arrogant and greedy imperialist in its final third.
Indeed, much of “The Discovery” finds Columbus as a determined, charismatic explorer who comes to the Spain seeking the support of Queen Isabella (the over-eager Rachel Ward) and King Ferdinand (Tom Selleck, looking like he’d rather be fishing…or doing anything else). Steadfastly demanding his cut of the potential colonies that lie across the Atlantic, this Columbus refuses to cut a deal with the King, and eventually persuades the Queen that there are potential converts to Catholicism that lie ahead. Despite the reluctance of the King as well as Spain’s Grand Inquisitor, Torquemada (a sullen, top-billed Marlon Brando), Columbus sets out on his journey along with a motley crew that includes a Portugese spy (one-time King Arthur Nigel Terry), a young Jewish apprentice working in spite of Spain’s sudden persecution of the Jews, a fellow captain (Davi) who veers from friendship to outward hostility towards Columbus, and the erratic, troubled son (Del Toro) of his Master of Arms.
The journey is fraught with danger – storms, starvation, St. Elmo’s Fire – but eventually the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria arrive in the New World, just in time for Columbus to revert to a greedy, arrogant European desiring only gold and the conversion of the native people. Speaking of which, a couple of the local girls resemble Playmate of the Month material more than National Geographic subjects, with copious topless nudity in spite of the picture’s PG-13 rating.
“Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” seems to have been intended as something grander and more elaborate than what ended up on-screen. Dalton backed out of the lead role as soon as Glen – who directed his two Bond pictures – signed on to helm the movie, confirming there was longstanding friction between the two. The director ended up bringing in not only Davi and Del Toro but numerous Eon veterans (cinematographer Alec Mills, 2nd unit director Arthur Wooster, editor John Bloomfield, co-producer Bob Simmonds among others) to work on the film, which had a rocky production similar to other Salkind pictures.
According to his autobiography “For My Eyes Only,” Glen made the film for what he estimated was $12-$14 million – a far cry from an announced budget of $40 million. $5 million had gone to fund Brando’s week-long work on the film, while the rest was blown by the Salkinds on the lavish Cannes flyovers and parties announcing the production of the film. Things apparently became so bad that Robert Davi holed up in his hotel after his agent said he hadn’t been paid in two weeks – while the hotel the crew was staying at literally confiscated reels of film, holding them hostage in a refrigerator before the Salkinds paid the bills.
The result is a movie that very much appears to have been made at a bargain-cost compared to the extravagance of Scott’s “1492,” yet aside from the technical challenges, “The Discovery” isn’t a total washout. While the slavery elements and arrogance of Columbus’ behavior were added late into the production by writer Carey Bates – shoehorned into what’s an otherwise straight-ahead “Hollywood” treatment of the story – the picture is curiously entertaining. Corraface brings an abundance of charisma to the lead role, and the sailing sequences are well-executed by Glen, offering more intrigue between Columbus and his crew than anything in “1492.”
Cliff Eidelman’s score is the composer’s Magnum Opus – a lyrical, rousing and inspired musical creation that harkens back to the thematically-driven orchestral works of the Golden Age. It carries the viewer through the film’s rough spots effortlessly. The Virgin Islands location shooting, meanwhile, is also pleasant to look at, though the climax of the film turns out to be its weakest element as Del Toro’s unhinged character finally loses it, leading to a bloodbath on a decidedly smaller scale than what’s on-screen in Ridley Scott’s picture.
If “The Discovery” feels like a movie mostly out of step with the times, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE comes off as a picture very much in-step with them – perhaps too much so. In trying to make a more “sensitive” film that would address the evils of Colonialism imposed by Europeans on the New World, Ridley Scott and writer Roselyne Bosch don’t seem to have had a very good grasp on what, exactly, they were trying to say. The movie ultimately tries to have it both ways, painting Columbus as a product of his era, but – unlike the Salkind picture – not solely responsible for the native genocide that took place after his discovery.
It’s a movie that’s shocking in how it gives us so little information on the actual background of Columbus and the practical journey he undertook – one could argue there’s more history in “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” – and yet the picture drags on, at times interminably, for 155 minutes.
Structurally, the film is similar to “The Discovery,” if decidedly more “serious” in its approach. Scott and cinematographer Adrian Biddle capture the Spanish locales to great effect – no surprise since the Spanish Ministry of Culture gave “1492″ their official blessing (to hell with the party planners!). However, once “1492″ reaches the shores of Hispaniola, the film shifts gears into a violent and unpleasant slog as relations between Columbus’ men and the respective locals break down. Bloodshed, a nasty mutiny, and a ridiculously filmed storm sequence follow as Columbus’ dreams are shattered…though ultimately not broken.
Much of the problem with ”1492″ is undoubtedly due to the casting of Gerald Depardieu as Columbus. While the French actor looks the part and brings an endless amount of energy to the role, he mumbles his way through the film’s dialogue from start to finish. “The land is there!” intones Depardieu at one point, his eyes drifting off into the distance in one of several unintentionally funny moments. Another occurs when Columbus is initially rejected on his mission to sail west, leading him to ransack his stash of maps in a woefully scored sequence that must have tracked Vangelis music from elsewhere in the picture. It ends with Depardieu getting punched by a monk and crashing over a table in a moment that may have been intentionally funny had the inappropriately spotted music not signaled that the Apocalypse had dawned.
With his command of English being less than optimal (I’m not even sure it rises to the level of mediocrity), Depardieu’s Columbus is an empty vessel – but his dialogue delivery isn’t the only issue the film has.
While the initial set-up of the picture functions well enough, the movie loses nearly all of its momentum midway through once Columbus returns to Spain. Another meet-up with Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver, in a lightweight role that actually feels less developed than Rachel Ward’s part) and her stuffy minister of finance (a bearded Armand Assante, who’s at least more credible than Selleck’s King Ferdinand from the Salkind film) sends a nefarious villain on-board Columbus’ next voyage to the New World. Played by a black-clad, long-haired Michael Wincott (more or less reprising his role from “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’), “Moxica” is supposedly based on a real person who accompanied Columbus on his journey, though his villainy is trumped up to an almost comical level of nastiness. With his growling, sneering distaste for the natives and Columbus’ mission, Wincott is ridiculously over-the-top, and sinks whatever dramatic momentum the film had established in its later stages.
There are also issues in the picture in regards to its authenticity – once Columbus and his men start building a new colony, it quickly resembles a Sandals resort, complete with Wincott’s bad guy staring at the naked behind of a native woman as she serves him a drink. You nearly expect him to light up a joint and start dancing to The Doors after downing some of the native juices.
Vangelis’ beautiful score and Scott’s visual eye do compensate, to a degree: whereas “The Discovery” feels confined in its visual scope, “1492″ is lavishly designed and offers something appealing to the eye in nearly every frame. Outside of that, Scott’s film is messy on most every front. Its higher ambition and artistic pretensions actually hurt the film more, in retrospect, than “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery,” which comes off like a silly Saturday matinee picture decades out of its element. Despite its loftier goals, you never feel like you’ve actually learned anything more from “1492″ than the Salkind film – and its portrayal of Columbus himself is surprisingly more lenient than “The Discovery,” which assigns more blame to Columbus than Scott was willing to.
Ultimately, it may not have mattered: both movies raced to theaters in time to mark the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ New World discovery, which had already been dampened by protests around the globe. “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” did so first – but during the tail end of August, where Warner Bros. dumped the film into release on August 21st (back then, August was a graveyard for unwanted, would-be summer blockbusters). Paramount staked out Columbus Day weekend of ‘92 for “1492″s release. While the hideous showing of “The Discovery” ($8.2 million domestic) might have lead some viewers to believe that it wouldn’t hurt “1492″’s box-office prospects, the Scott film fared even more dismally. Taking in just $7.1 mil at the U.S. box-office, it ranks still as the biggest bomb in the director’s career.
The two movies were released on VHS and laserdisc back in 1993 – and haven’t been seen since. Incredibly, neither picture received a DVD release in North America, and have received sparse showings on TV over the years. If you’re looking to track down either picture, imports are your only option (save an online streaming version of “1492″’s U.S. theatrical cut, which was cut by about four minutes to accommodate a PG-13 rating).
Both films have received Blu-Ray releases in Germany: “1492″’s Concorde Video release boasts an uneven though mostly satisfying 1080p AVC encoded transfer with a dynamically active 5.1 DTS MA English soundtrack. The disc is region free, though extras are only in German and French. “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery” is also region free, though it’s a rare 1080i/50 PAL release, meaning your Blu-Ray player must be able to display PAL in order to view it. The transfer is more satisfying than the “1492″ disc, offering a strong 1080p AVC encode freed from digital manipulation. The 2.0 DTS MA English stereo audio isn’t as elaborately mixed as the Scott film, though at least the original trailer is included as an extra.
In the end, both Columbus movies caused their respective producers a great deal of heartache and, surely, an endless stream of sea-sickness on the part of the cast and crew who made them. Even if the two movies aren’t quite ripe for rediscovery, they’re fascinating for their entirely different approaches to the same subject matter, and for containing two brilliant musical scores – the likes of which we seldom hear at the movies any more. Together, they’re at least a musical voyage worth embarking upon.