Whenever anyone asks me what my favourite film of all time is, I find it impossible to give a single definitive answer. However, I usually mention Ridley Scott’s forgotten Columbus epic, 1492: Conquest of Paradise. Released in October 1992 as part of the 500th Anniversary of the Genoese navigator making landfall in the Caribbean, it was dismissed by most critics and tanked at the US box office, making a measly $7million against a production budget of approximately $40million. It eventually recovered roughly $50million on its worldwide release, but the producers would still have been left with large black hole in their accounts after marketing costs.
The film well and truly had the wind taken out of its sails right from the beginning. There was a public backlash against the Columbus 500th Anniversary celebration, particularly from the Native American community who saw him as the instigator of the next 400 years of genocide against them. Two other Columbus films were released around the same time: a dismally unfunny and puerile Carry On Columbus, which nailed the lid on the Carry On series’ coffin for good, and the just plain dismissal Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, which was produced by the Salkind family and has rightly earned a place as one of the most universally awful films of all time.
My personal voyage with 1492
I first saw 1492 on television a few years after its cinema release when I was about 15 with my father. It received a glowing review in our household’s television guide, Radio Times, (although I seem to remember it was given the full five stars, not the four in the linked review). Aside from that, I came to the film with no preconceptions or baggage whatsoever and was able to enjoy it for what it truly is. I had always loved watching films but took no deeper interest in them once the end credits rolled. However, 1492 changed all that for me.
I had learned about Columbus in school, but never taken any special interest in him. I had never seen a film adaptation of his life, but considered the tale to be relatively straightforward. The Radio Times review rightly warns viewers “looking for an old-style adventure to look elsewhere, for this is a dark and brooding piece about colonial exploitation.”
“Dark, bloody and brooding” describes it perfectly. The horrors of the Spanish Inquisition are portrayed in full and while all other film versions have ended with Columbus’ triumphant return from his first voyage, 1492 continues to show the next ten years of his life with his attempts to set up a colony on Hispaniola resulting in the slaughter of the native Indians, civil war and natural disaster.
Columbus’ life ends in poverty and obscurity with fellow-Italian voyager Amerigo Vespucci, who discovered the American mainland c. 1500, taking credit for the new continent’s entire discovery; lock, stock and barrel. The final screen crawl provides a glimmer of optimism as it informs us that Columbus’ final voyage in 1502 with his son, Fernando, saw them land in Panama where the Indians revealed to them the existence of the Pacific Ocean (thus dispelling the myth that Columbus went to his grave believing that the land he had discovered was the east coast of Asia) and Fernando’s biography of his father restored the name of Columbus to its place in history.
Gérard Depardieu plays the lead role of Columbus. Although he seems like an odd choice of casting in terms of his thick French accent (some additional voice coaching and post production dialogue rerecording would have helped), but as Empire’s review puts it, “he’s the stand-out – loping around like a particularly charismatic sore-headed bear, and playing triumph, passion and crushing disappointment with equal Gallic aplomb.”
Adrian Biddle’s cinematography (in what looks like natural lighting as per Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon) gives the film a European Art House look while Scott uses even more smoke and wind machines than usual, and emphasises key moments with languid slow-motion and zoom shots.
Canadian rent-a-bad-guy Michael Wincott plays Don Adrian de Moxica (probably based on the real-life Adrian de Mojica who did lead a revolt against Columbus on Hispaniola) and gives the most memorable performance of his career. Previously starring as Guy of Gisborne in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, he is slimmed down to skeletal proportions, his famous raspy-60-Malboro-Reds-a-day voice has an authentic Spanish accent to it and he turns in a brilliant performance showing contempt both for the commoner Columbus and racist hatred of the Indians, conveying insane evil while staying the right side of hyperbole and ham. Look out for his almost as dastardly sidekick, Guevara, played by a pre-Mummy/baldness Arnold Vosloo.
The most outstanding element of the film though is Vangelis’ score. The first time I watched the film, the music did not register with me at all. I have my father to thank for rewinding the tape so we could listen to the final theme that accompanies the end credits again. The triumphant “Conquest of Paradise” is quite simply one of the best pieces of music I have ever heard (and that includes all output by Manic Street Preachers, Joy Division and The Verve!) and I can (quite literally) listen to it all day. The Spanish chants and tribal drums on “Hispanola” make it as good a track as any to wage war and the jungle murmurs of “Moxica And The Horse” (which makes a surprise appearance in Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller, Collateral) is as good a track as any to stalk your foe.
Only half the tracks on the official soundtrack feature in the film and “Hispanola” lurches into a dreadful rock-out organ solo halfway through which was mercifully exercised from the film. If you search Google, you should be able to find “The Complete Score” which restore gems such as “Porto Palos”, “Departure” and “Return”, albeit with less than perfect sound quality and inclusive of Foley sound effects and snippets of dialogue. I hope one day an official complete soundtrack album is released.
I had never heard of Ridley Scott nor seen any of his other films; although I was later to learn that he helmed the bona-fide cinematic classics Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma & Louise. After seeing these three films following 1492, Scott became my favourite director of all time and I was really rooting for him prior to the release of Gladiator in 2000 after nearly a decade of critical and commercial flops with 1492, White Squall and G. I. Jane; the first two getting far less critical praise and box office receipts than they deserved.
1492 was a life-changing film for me because it presents a familiar subject in a very unusual way and does not pander to audience expectations. Whether this is historically accurate or not, Columbus is portrayed as a man who is all too human with strengths as well as weakness, but essentially of good intentions.
When I researched the reaction to the film on the Internet, I discovered what a critical and commercial disaster it had been when it was first released. It currently holds a score of 39% on Rotten Tomatoes, although the public have been slightly kinder and it averages 6.3 on IMDb.
While reviews were mixed-to-negative, between them, the critics seemed to disagree on practically every element of the film as to whether it was a strength or weakness: the casting of Depardieu and his performance, Biddle’s photography, Wincott as the bad guy, Vangelis’ score; everything. Scott since commented following a viewing of 1492 on Laser Disc that he thought it was “a pretty good film, but not what people were expecting.”
Another charge levelled at the film is that it was heavily cut prior to release. While Scott has mentioned that in hindsight his initial three hour cut was his preferred version, if you take the time to read an early draft of Roselyn Bosch’s script as I have, it is clear that charges of “pre-release panic cutting” are nonsense. The largest removal from the script to the final film is the portrayal of Columbus’ final voyage to the New World with Fernando and even then some of the scenes have clearly been merged into the final shooting script so they occur earlier in Columbus’ life. They are also a number of sensible omissions where the violence lurches into bad taste or the character beats wander into cliché.
Following the success of Gladiator, 1492 was given a DVD release in 2001, predictably containing the marketing line, “From the director of Gladiator”. When I saw the film on DVD on my father’s then-state-of-the-art Toshiba widescreen, I fell in love with it all over again. Aside from a few “nicks and cuts” on the film, the picture and sound transfer was superb and the film “flowed” better than ever before.
So far, a Blu Ray version has not been released in the US or the UK, but French and German editions exist. I recently watched the German edition. The picture quality is amazing: all imperfections present on the VHS and DVD releases have been removed and the beauty of the cinematography and art direction can shine through. The sound quality is generally good, although there is some distortion in some of the sound effects, particularly the sea waves. The original English audio is in place, the text of the opening and end credits are in English, as is the opening screen crawl. Rather annoyingly, however, the end credit crawl is in German with no English subtitles!
A New Life
The critics’ reviews have not improved significantly with 1492‘s DVD and Blu Ray releases; one reviewer writing in a UK national online newspaper about three years ago published a rather scornful review mocking the historicity and the tone of the film. (I’m not linking to the review because quite simply I do not want you to read it since it is chocked full of factual errors and childish comments from a critic who clearly does not like to watch films so much as deliberately poke holes in them!)
However, as I recently posted about Michael Cimino’s epic Western Heaven’s Gate – a critical and commercial disaster on its initial release in 1980 – the passage of time can be kind to films previous considered box office poison, and with the baggage removed the film’s true merits can be reassessed and properly appreciated
So with this in mind, I am going to forward this post to the director, the producer, the studio and the score composer’s record company and suggest that the film be given a fully restored and re-cut Blu Ray edition for film’s 25th Anniversary.
Sir Ridley Scott
Scott Free Productions (UK)
42 – 44 Beak Street
Warner Music Group
Tags: 1492 Conquest of Paradise, Adrian Biddle, Adrian de Moxica, Alain Goldman, Alexander Salkind, Alien, Arnold Vosloo, Blade Runner, Carry On Columbus, Christopher Columbus The Discovery, G. I. Jane, Gérard Depardieu, Gladiator, Heaven’s Gate, Ilan Goldman, Ilya Salkind, IMDb, Internet Movie Database, Légende, Michael Cimino, Michael Wincott, Paramount Pictures, Ridley Scott, Ridley Scott Associates, Roselyne Bosch, RSA, Scott Free Productions, Vangelis, White Squall