by Mark Goldstein
Stars and Stripes Forever
The objective of Lights, Camera, History! is to work our way through American History chronologically from film. Each film will have two ratings, an “Enjoyability” rating using a scale of 1 to 50 stars, and a “Historical Accuracy” rating on a scale of 1/13 stripes. Our first film, Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise rates fairly low on both scales. Alert: the upcoming material has film spoilers.
Paige and I spent a long time debating about where to start. Should we begin with the Mayflower or Jamestown? Or should we start at the beginning of European Colonialism in the Americas: namely with Christopher Columbus? We decided that no discussion of American history could possibly ignore the age of exploration. It marked the beginning of the genocide of indigenous tribes across the Americas over a period of several centuries. The transatlantic slave trade quickly arrived in the Americas as a result (Clark, 1992).
Christopher Columbus: Hero or Monster?
Americans have finally started to wake up to the fact that Columbus is problematic as fuck. Twelve states and the District of Columbia have renamed Columbus Day to either “Native American Day” or “Indigenous People’s Day” (Walpole, 2020). With that said, up until fairly recently he was still portrayed as the swashbuckling folk hero who “discovered” America. Most Americans can remember learning poems about how “Columbus sailed the ocean blue” in primary school. They learned how he thought he had landed in India, and then befriended the natives. The whole ethnic cleansing part of the story tended to be glossed over until recent decades.
The changing historical depictions of Columbus have become a hot-button item in the right-wing culture war against reality. On October 12, 2020, the Donald Trump White House released a statement stating among other things that “Christopher Columbus represents one of the first of many immeasurable contributions of Italy to American history,” and that “radical activists have sought to undermine Christopher Columbus’s legacy. These extremists seek to replace discussion of his vast contributions with talk of failings, his discoveries with atrocities, and his achievements with transgressions. Rather than learn from our history, this radical ideology and its adherents seek to revise it, deprive it of any splendor, and mark it as inherently sinister (Trump, 2020).” With rhetoric like this: any film director, writer, or historian who depicts or discusses Christopher Columbus in any way is inadvertently declaring a side in this culture war. If you haven’t guessed yet, this blog is firmly on the “Columbus was a giant piece of shit” side.
“Like Blaming Christ for the Inquisition”
There have been a surprising lack of films about Christopher Columbus, and virtually none that are considered classics today. With that said, in 1992 (500 years after Columbus sailed the ocean blue) two films about Christopher Columbus were released by big-name directors at around the same time. Director John Glen, best known for his contributions to the James Bond franchise brought us Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. Meanwhile: Ridley Scott (Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner) released 1492: Conquest of Paradise written by French journalist Roselyne Bosch. Both films were panned by critics and box office bombs. We decided on 1492 mainly because it was available to stream on Amazon Prime. But I am here to speak to the film’s historical accuracy rather than its quality. Paige will be tackling that piece.
In order to understand 1492’s portrayal of Columbus, it is useful to look at a 1992 interview Scott and Bosch did with Jack Mathews of the LA Times (Mathews, 1992). Mathews take the following quote from Scott in the interview:
“Very little is actually known about Columbus,” says Scott, who has little patience with those who see Columbus as the symbol for all that has gone wrong with the world. “He was a visionary and he was certainly a man with a conscience. But most of all, he was a man of his times, and the times were different.”
Screenwriter Roselyne Bosch chimed in:
“For a long time there was the cliche of the hero, and now I’m afraid there is the cliche of genocide. The truth is in between. He was not Cortes, he was an explorer. He imposed his view once he got here, but to blame him for the massacres that followed is like blaming Christ for the Inquisition.”
Eurocentrism in Film
Bosch originally became interested in Columbus while researching a 1987 article for Le Point magazine. This led Bosch to pore through written material both by and about Columbus. A friend encouraged her to develop this research into a film synopsis. French producer Alain Goldman eventually signed on, and the script made it to the desk of Ridley Scott. French production company MK2 eventually signed on, seeking to capitalize on the 500-year anniversary of the voyage.
Based on all of this, the movie needs to be analyzed with several grains of salt. It was conceived in the 1980s by a European director/writer team. It was financed by a European studio, which almost certainly impacted how Columbus was portrayed. While Bosch did review primary sources, she admits that she took many narrative liberties such as creating composite characters and condensing events. This is a common and often necessary practice in film. But the historical inaccuracies go far beyond simply condensing the narrative. Bosch heavily white-washes the legacy of a man with rivers of blood on his hands.
“Daring to Dream”
The film’s framing device is an interesting one. The ending of the film reveals that the story is a telling of Columbus’ life by his son Fernando. Fernando had in fact written a biography of his father named The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus by his Son Fernando. Fernando was not attempting to create an unbiased work by any means. Rather he was trying to protect his family legacy, and present his father in a heroic light (Larson, 2014). Given that this book provided much of the source material for the film, we can expect some of the more unsavory aspects of Columbus’ tale to be glossed over.
Scott’s take on 15th-century Spain was riddled with misconceptions. Even the opening text gets it wrong when it implies that the Spanish Inquisition persecuted men for “daring to dream”. In reality, profiteers like Columbus had little to fear from the inquisition, as long as they were Catholic (Rowe, 2019). Jews and Muslims were the real targets of the inquisition, with the majority either expelled or forcibly converted. The first scene of the film harkens the false narrative that Columbus was viewed as a heretic for believing the Earth was round, with the opening scene showing Columbus articulating this view to his son Fernando. However by 1492, no educated person actually believed that the Earth was flat. This myth was actually created by Washington Irving in 1828 (Larson, 2014).
Did Columbus Get it On With Queen Isabella?
To be fair to Scott, a scene in which Columbus presented his theories to the University of Salamanca does imply that the clergy there understood the world was round. The major point of disagreement was about the circumference of the Earth and length of the journey. The film also portrays shipmaster Martin Pinzón as the party who approached Columbus rather than the other way around. In fact, Columbus had to win Pinzón over to his cause. He almost certainly would not have survived his voyage without him.
Additionally, there were more than a few inaccuracies in the scene depicting Columbus’ meeting with Queen Isabella in which she agreed to fund his voyage (the weird sexual tension between Columbus and Sigourney Weaver’s Isabella only being one of them). For example, Pinzón did not actually introduce Columbis to financier Luis de Santángel. Santángel actually intervened on behalf of Columbus simply to keep him from going to France (Rowe, 2019). The length of the original voyage was also greatly exaggerated for dramatic tension. While the film depicts Columbus and his crew as being at sea for nine weeks, the initial voyage only took five. While the film portrays Pinzón as being worried about mutiny among the crew, Pinzón had actually picked the crew, firing the initial crew that Columbus had hired. In actuality, Columbus himself was quite paranoid about the crew turning against him.
With 50 Men They Can All Be Subjugated
Columbus’ interaction with the Lucayan people he encountered when he landed in the Bahamas in the territory he named “San Salvador Island” was also severely misrepresented. While a fictional journal entry dated October 21 in the film claims that Lucayan natives are to be converted with persuasion rather than force, and that violence against the natives will not be tolerated. However, Columbus had expressed a desire to enslave, conquer and forcibly convert the natives in an entry on October 12, stating: “With 50 men they can all be subjugated and made to do what is required of them (Brockell, 2019).”
The film portrays Columbus befriending a local native named Utapán and using him as his interpreter. Utapán was a made up character, and there is no indication that Columbus had any intention of treating the natives humanely, or that he struck up a unique friendship with any of them. The discovery of the Arawak people was similarly white-washed. While the film correctly portrays Columbus leaving behind 39 men to build a fort and bringing a number of natives back to Spain, the film conveniently leaves out the fact that these men were not brought to Spain of their own free will (Larson, 2014).
The inaccuracies in the second act of the movie are even more pronounced. Columbus returns from Spain on his second voyage (his second and third expeditions were condensed for dramatic presentation) to find his 39 men massacred by the natives. The film also manufactures a villain and archrival to Columbus: Adrian de Moxica. According to the film, Moxica tormented and instituted draconian punishments against the natives for minor infractions (for example, cutting off the hand of a native for not bringing back enough gold), an action which captured the ire of Columbus and ultimately led to a rebellion against his rule. In the dramatic climax of the film, Moxica jumps off a cliff rather than surrender to Columbus.
While there was indeed a rebellion against Columbus, Moxica was only a minor participant (Von Tunzelmann, 2010). The real rebellion was led by Francisco Roldán. Moxica was captured and hanged, while Roldán surrendered to Columbus. However, the film omits an even more important fact: Columbus himself enslaved the Taino Indians, and who was responsible for the harsh punishments depicted in the film, including the hand cutting practice. According to Scott and Bosch’s revisionist history, the film portrays Columbus as a friend and advocate of the natives, as opposed to the brutal conqueror that history has shown him to be.
In retrospect, it is altogether unsurprising that 1492: Conquest of Paradise plays fast and loose with history. The hero myth surrounding Christopher Columbus goes back centuries. As recently as my own childhood, the age of exploration and European colonialism was largely portrayed as a victory for civilization. The legacy of Columbus was already being hotly debated in 1992, but Scott and Bosch leaned more on mythology than facts. As a journalist with wide access to historical source materials, Bosch could have chosen to challenge the popular narrative of Columbus, but she instead chose to write a film brimming with Eurocentric bias that severely misrepresents Columbus in his treatment of the natives. While the film does deserve some historical credit for dealing with the mistreatment of the natives at all, the film’s decision to portray Columbus as sympathetic and friendly to the Indians he brutalized and enslaved was both inaccurate and deeply irresponsible.
Rating: 7/13 Stripes
Brockell, G. (2019, October 14). Here are the indigenous people Christopher Columbus and his men could not annihilate. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2019/10/14/here-are-indigenous-people-christopher-columbus-his-men-could-not-annihilate/
Clark, J. C. (1992, May 17). HOW COLUMBUS CREATED SLAVE TRADE THAT CHANGED WORLD’S ECONOMY. Orlando Sentinel. https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/os-xpm-1992-05-17-9205160196-story.html
Larson, A. (2014, September 22). 1492: The Conquest of Paradise: (Not) Your High School Columbus. 1492: The Conquest of Paradise: (Not) Your High School Columbus. https://aelarsen.wordpress.com/2014/09/22/1492-the-conquest-of-paradise-not-your-high-school-columbus/
Larson, A. (2014, September 26). 1492: The Conquest of Paradise: Trouble In Paradise. An Historian Goes to the Movies ~ Exploring history on the screen Search: Search…. https://aelarsen.wordpress.com/2014/09/26/1492-the-conquest-of-paradise-trouble-in-paradise/
Larson, A. (2014, October 6). 1492: The Conquest of Paradise: Framing the Story. A Historian Goes to the Movies. https://aelarsen.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/1492-the-conquest-of-paradise-framing-the-story/
Mathews, J. (1992, May 3). MOVIES : Voyage of Rediscovery : With ‘1492,’ director Ridley Scott and writer Roselyne Bosch aim to portray Christopher Columbus not as a legend but as an extraordinary though flawed person. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1992-05-03-ca-2005-story.html
Rowe, B. (2019, August 9). Accuracy vs Storytelling in Ridley Scott’s “1492: Conquest of Paradise”. Medium. https://medium.com/@bentheorowe/accuracy-vs-storytelling-in-ridley-scotts-1492-conquest-of-paradise-9d6757423cd0
Trump, D. J. (2020, October 9). Proclamation on Columbus Day, 2020. White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/proclamation-columbus-day-2020/#:~:text=TRUMP%2C%20President%20of%20the%20United,with%20appropriate%20ceremonies%20and%20activities.
Von Tunzelmann, A. (2010, Jan 7). 1492: Conquest of Paradise – new world, old tosh. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/jan/07/reel-history-1492-conquest-of-paradiseWalpole, D. (2020, October 5). These Cities (and States) Have Abandoned Columbus Day. Reader’s Digest. https://www.rd.com/article/cities-states-abandoned-columbus-day/