1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE(director/producer: Ridley Scott; screenwriter: Roselyne Bosch; cinematographer: Adrian Biddle; editors: William M. Anderson / Françoise Bonnot; music: Vangelis; cast: Gerald Despardieu (Christopher Columbus), Sigourney Weaver (Isabella of Spain), Armand Assante (Sanchez), Loren Dean (Older Fernando). Ángela Molina (Beatrix), Fernando Rey (Marchena), Frank Langella (Luis de Santangel), Michael Wincott (De Moxica); Runtime: 142; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producers: Alain Goldman/ Mimi Polk Sotela; Paramount; 1992-France/Spain/UK)
“An uneven film and overlong, but not without some merit.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This epic biopic was the second film released in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, the first being Warner Brothers’ Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. This one proved to be a box-office flop, though artistically sound as it gets to some interesting topics despite some problems over its narrative’s clarity (overloaded with stories and ideas). It was directed by action director Ridley Scott and is adequately scripted by Roselyne Bosch, who tries to question the man and the myth with some limited success. Though, she did her homework for the most part in diligently researching the history part.

Scott argues over whether Christopher Columbus was a hero or villain to the world, as he attempts to make him into some kind of a rebel dreamer. The film is set for the most part in the 15th century and covers about 20 years of Columbus’s story from the time he tried to raise financial backing for his project to his triumphs and finally to his disillusionment at being neglected for his discoveries.

It sticks to the historical facts of Columbus’s (Gerard Depardieu) obsession to prove that the world is round, and his canvassing of Queen Isabella (Sigourney Weaver) to gain the needed funding for his expedition to India. She is a good counterpoint to him, and the scenes between these two were the highlight of the film. It takes about 45 minutes into the movie — from when Columbus is defending his theory before the church and the state until he finally sells his idea to the queen — for his sea voyage to begin. The Queen makes her decision not because Columbus convinces her of the importance of his voyage, but for practical reasons that there is not much to lose in giving him a few ships: “The same cost as two state dinners.”

The film is often vacuous as it loses energy plodding along, but once it moves on to the sea voyage part it becomes sumptuous (the gorgeous visuals were filmed in Costa Rica and Spain). The melodrama comes about as the crew gets angry with conditions and question the mission and threaten to mutiny, as the French actor Depardieu has trouble speaking English while playing the Italian Columbus sailing for Spain. His rousing speech to the crew that they should push onward in the New World (as all four of the explorer’s voyages are boiled down to one voyage), was more risible than intended as he sounded as if he were phonetically reading his lines off a cue card. Though Depardieu is good at getting to the inner nature of his role, as he’s a combination of childlike eagerness, fragility and arrogance. While the designated villain, who symbolizes the bad Europeans and their misdeeds, is acted in a one-dimensional manner by mod fashion-plate Michael Wincott as a sadistic Spanish nobleman whose abuse of the natives results in an open rebellion. At least Depardieu, whose presence gives this film weight, brings many different emotional levels to his performance and alone can’t be blamed for this film bombing

It’s the stunning visuals that give this film its elegance and worth, as it captures the violence of those times as well as the grandeur. An uneven film and overlong, but not without some merit. Though what Christopher Columbus was really like is not cleared up, as his purpose and nature continues to elude historians. The film is told through the eyes of his son Fernando, as he tries to convey to the viewer what his father was like as he knew him–but it never gets to Columbus’s complicity in the Indian brutalities, merely showing him as an enlightened being who treated the Indians as equals (which hasn’t been verified by history).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”