Ridley Scott’s “1492: Conquest Of Paradise” (1992)

I can still remember that song— the one we were compelled by our grade school teachers to sing every year on one particular day in October.  “In August 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. It’s understandable that the story of Christopher Columbus, the famed Spanish explorer, would be simplified and sanitized for elementary-aged minds as the man who “discovered America”.  After all, how exactly does one communicate to kids that this adventurous-seeming guy’s quest for exotic riches would play an instrumental part in one of the worst genocides in recorded history? Like many other kids of my generation, a fuller picture of Columbus came into view as I got older— he didn’t even discover “America” per se; he landed on an island in the Bahamas, and even then, it had already been “discovered”, judging by the centuries-old indigenous civilization they encountered upon making landfall.  In recent years, progressive America has increasingly caught on to the problematic nature of Columbus’ lionization, subsequently calling for the replacement of his eponymous holiday with one that better honors the native population decimated under his leadership. The movement has grown so strong, in fact, that many cities like Los Angeles have written this switch away from Columbus into law.

It was a far different story over twenty-five years ago: the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in The New World was fast approaching, and many parties were organizing efforts to celebrate the occasion appropriately.  One such person was screenwriter Rose Bosch, who had managed to find a treasure trove of parchments detailing Columbus’ activities in the land he dubbed “San Salvador” (1). Having long wanted to make a film on Columbus, director Sir Ridley Scott and fellow producer Alain Goldman subsequently became involved with the project that would ultimately become 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992) — their involvement securing $47 million in financing to realize a swashbuckling historical epic about the founding of the New World.  Scott’s eighth feature film certainly accomplishes this task, but it also manages to paint a more complex portrait of Columbus beyond a simple hero or villain.  Indeed, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE does not ignore Columbus’ hand in the genesis of bloodshed between conqueror and native.  The film represents another example of Scott’s impeccable technical artistry, consistently and brilliantly executed throughout what is ultimately a very problematic narrative with no easy explanation for its sympathies.  

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1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE spans a fateful decade in world history, beginning in 1490 in Spain — the height of the Inquisition — and ending in 1500 with Columbus a broken man, on the verge of being scrubbed from history entirely in the wake of Amerigo Vespucci’s discovery of the larger mainland continent.  Celebrated French actor Gerard Depardieu portrays Columbus, looking very much like the infamous explorer depicted in paintings from the period. That said, those similarities only extend as far as the surface level. Laboring through his heavy French accent, Depardieu displays a bombastic righteousness that’s calibrated for heroism but instead reads as megalomania.  A gifted navigator who maintains that the earth is round at a time when Flat Earthers controlled the paradigm, Columbus endeavors to prove it by sailing across the ocean in the wrong direction and still connecting with India. He has few allies in this quest, namely his wife and Frank Langella’s nobleman with deep pockets, but when he’s summoned for an audience with Sigourney Weaver’s Isabel of Castile — the Queen of Spain herself — Columbus is given the opportunity to make good on his claims and secure India’s untold riches for the glory of his country.  In her first reunion with Scott over a decade after her breakthrough performance in 1979’s ALIEN, Weaver projects a suitably regal, albeit emotionless aura as she sends Columbus forth into the great unknown.  After a long journey at sea filled with mutinous threats by his crew, Columbus finally sets his sight on land— memorably rendered by Scott in the image of a pristine beach and the lush jungle foliage beyond emerging from a cloud of dense fog.  He thinks he’s reached an undiscovered land near India, claiming it for Spain as San Salvador— however, he’s actually landed on Guanahani in the Bahamas. As he and his men venture deeper in to the island, they find that it’s not as undiscovered as they had assumed; indeed, it’s inhabited by a thriving indigenous civilization.  1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE subsequently chronicles the fraying of their initial alliance, as greed and xenophobia subvert their efforts to build a Spanish outpost on the island.  As the situation devolves into a bloodbath far beyond his control, Columbus must also fend off efforts by rivals like Armand Assante’s Sanchez and Mark Margolis’ Bobadilla to destroy his legacy in the Old World.  The result is a baptism of blood, filling nearly three hours of runtime with sweeping, albeit profoundly flawed, insights into the New World’s complicated origins.

After their successful, Oscar-nominated team-up with THELMA & LOUISE (1991), Scott and cinematographer Adrian Biddle once again join forces to deliver a visual tour de force.  1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE’s stylistic presentation retains Scott’s trademark aesthetic, with the 2.35:1 35mm film image boasting expressive contrast and atmospheric lighting effects like silhouettes, shafts of concentrated light, smoke, and flickering candlelight.  The color palette is marked by lush earth tones and flaring sunsets, given extra dimension by gradient filters that darken the top third of the frame. While his 1977 debut, THE DUELLISTS, could be counted as an entry in the historical epic genre, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE truly establishes Scott’s particular template for the realm, using classical camerawork to capture sweeping vistas and returning production designer Norris Spencer’s immersive period recreation.  Scott’s approach here would serve him rather well in later epics set in the Middle Ages or ancient antiquity— films like GLADIATOR (2000), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) and even ROBIN HOOD (2010).  Interestingly, Scott borrows from the Hitchcock/Spielberg playbook several times throughout 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, combining camera movement with zooms to create a surreal, imbalancing effect that collapses the depth of field around his subject.  The film’s use of extreme slow-motion also speaks to the action genre’s adoption of impressionistic flourish in the 90’s, echoing the work of like-minded directors such as Michael Bay, John Woo, and even Scott’s own brother, Tony.  While Scott initially wanted to reprise his collaboration with Hans Zimmer, the composer behind his previous two features, he would ultimately opt for a reunion with his BLADE RUNNER maestro, Vangelis.  Despite a decade having passed since their last time working together, Vangelis and Scott easily slide right back into a unified creative rhythm.  1492’s score is appropriately epic, matching the monumental scale of Scott’s visuals with a bombastic orchestra that combines synth elements with the exotic flair of tribal drums and wailing vocalizations.  While Vangelis’ efforts here aren’t as iconic to American audiences as his work on BLADE RUNNER, his theme has nonetheless managed to achieve a particular notoriety abroad as the adopted anthem of Portugal’s Socialist Party (2).  

Despite its status as a minor, somewhat forgotten work in Scott’s filmography, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE nonetheless serves as a prime example of the director’s particular thematic signatures.  There is, of course, his creation of an immersive environment, which he splits here to reflect the clash of cultures between the Old World and the New.  The film gives us an evocative glimpse into a pastoral, pre-industrial Spain as well as the urban atmosphere at its medieval zenith— castle-like city states with teeming crowds, vibrantly-colored flags, and diverse architectural flourishes that visually convey a long, complicated history of alternating Muslim and Christian occupation.  Scott is one of the rare prestige directors whose work is marked more by his technical mastery of craft and slick visual style instead of a unifying ideological thread, but if one had to name a dominant theme that runs through the man’s best work, it would undoubtedly be the theme of xenophobia. Scott’s filmography is populated with the distrust and hostilities between two vastly different cultures or races—  THE DUELLISTS and SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987) charted the bitter rivalry and simmering affair, respectively, between two people from competing economic backgrounds; ALIEN (and to a lesser extent, 1985’s LEGEND) portrayed the human response to a creature as far away from “human” as we could possibly conceive; BLADE RUNNER’s ongoing suppression of a replicant uprising recalled the dehumanization tactics that led to open racism and remorseless genocide; BLACK RAIN (1989) dropped a fiercely American worldview into the rigid social codes of contemporary Japanese society; THELMA & LOUISE brought complicated gender dynamics to bear by deliberately pitting the women against the men in a gun-blazing race to the finish line.  In its depiction of the clash between the Spanish and the indigenous population of the newfound Americas, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE folds effortlessly into Scott’s career-long examination of xenophobia.  Indeed, this is one of the more admirable aspects of a film that endeavors to portray an ethically-complicated historical figure, showing us the ease with which xenophobia could utterly destroy the fragile balance of trust between the two civilizations.  A lesser filmmaker would either lionize or demonize Columbus, leaving little room for the nuanced notion that none of us casts ourselves as the villain in our own narratives. Scott’s deep experience here allows him to dance along that line without losing his balance, painting Columbus as a profoundly flawed (and perhaps extremely narcissistic) man whose well-intentioned leadership nonetheless resulted in genocidal atrocities on a catastrophic scale.

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE boasts no less than five editors— a development most likely owing to a rush to meet an ambitious October release date that would coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall to the day (1).  Several other producers had the same idea, resulting in Scott’s film debuting against a wave of competing Columbus pictures. Scott’s effort has proven to be the one with the most staying power in the decades since, but it is still largely ignored in the context of his larger filmography.  Middling reviews and a disappointing box office bow as the 7th highest-grossing picture in theaters that weekend ensured 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE’s prompt burial.  Indeed, while 99% of Scott’s feature library has made the leap to Blu Ray and beyond, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE earned itself a high-definition release only very recently.  Two decades removed from its release, Scott’s work here ultimately reveals itself as less than the sum of its parts, with the director’s artistic strengths becoming the film’s weaknesses.  His over-the-top, epic treatment of a controversial figure makes for a cringe-worthy watching experience today, despite the expected top-notch technical execution. There is a palpable degree of directorial excess or indulgence on display here, perhaps a result of Scott’s increased confidence in the wake of THELMA & LOUISE’s success.  However, whereas that film pushed Scott out of his comfort zone, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE allows him to work very much within his wheelhouse, resulting in a finished product that is as visually striking as it is emotionally stale.  In order to avoid another sustained downturn like the one he had weathered in the mid to late 80’s, Scott would need to conquer the most lethal foe to his artistry yet: his own complacency.  

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Kino Lorber

Credits:

Produced by: Ridley Scott, Alain Goldman

Written by: Rose Bosch

Director of Photography: Adrian Biddle

Production Designer: Norris Spencer

Edited by:  William M Anderson, Francoise Bonnot, Leslie Healey, Armen Minasian, Deborah Zeitmar

Music by: Vangelis

 

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page
  2. Via Wikipedia: Da avaliação de Passos Coelho, cbs, blog La force des choses, 10 April 2011 (Portuguese)