Thursday, January 29, 2009

Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus posterChristopher Columbus (1949) is a tale of suffering on the part of its protagonist, who spent long, frustrating years soliciting monarchs to finance his voyage, then after the initial thrill of discovering the New World, spent long, frustrating years governing a colony perpetually on the verge of chaos. The fact that the indigenous people under his notoriously tyrannical rule also suffered is shielded from viewers, lest this distract them from the nuanced personality of the man himself.

It is immediately clear that the film plays fast and loose with the historical details. In the first scene Columbus visits a monastery, hoping to send a letter to Queen Isabella via her confessor, and speaks to a monk about his certainty that a “New World” has yet to be discovered. The viewer is thereby informed that Columbus had a vision of the Americas that primarily motivated his voyage, whereas in real life his goal was to chart a quicker trade route between Iberia and the Indies. When the monk later asks Columbus why he plans to sail to India, he responds “Because there are thousands of heathen in those parts to be converted, and they are rich in gold and spices.” In 1485, talk of the “New World” is a glaring anachronism, and the viewer receives mixed cues whether to imagine India or Latin America as the object of the voyage, especially due to the repeated references to the gold in these unknown lands.

After weaseling his way into Court, Columbus secures a private meeting with the Queen, whose interest is piqued by his vision of an “empire” with “illimitable riches.” Trade-routes to India have now been put firmly on the back-burner; the prime goal is now the colonization of an imagined abundant landscape. Columbus delivers his evidence of the New World before a royal commission, and despite the machinations of one Francisco de Bobadilla, whose Mediterranean trade investments would be threatened by the discovery of an Atlantic trade route, he is given the go-ahead and his fleet of three ships cast off towards the New World. Columbus quickly realizes that he underestimated the length of the voyage and rumblings of discontent culminate in an attempted mutiny. Following this, Columbus swears that if they do not reach land in three days they will turn back. To his profound relief, land is sighted at the eleventh hour. The camera lingers on him, in a shot taken from below, outlining his furrowed brow and windswept hair, for a heroic portrait with orchestral accompaniment.

Columbus kneels and utters a prayer, then reads aloud a proclamation taking possession of the territory for the Spanish monarchs, naming the land San Salvador, and stating the intent to teach its inhabitants the Spanish culture and language. It is uncertain whether the Europeans are aware that a giant ring of these inhabitants is forming behind their backs, or whether they are too caught up in the rituals of conquest to notice. First contact occurs without the mutual surprise and fear one might expect; the Spaniards merely ram their flag into the sand and an indigenous person approaches them, then drops to his knees and releases his spear as a sign of submission. The two cultures are shown fraternizing, the indigenous people helping the Europeans and trading with them. Within a decade, however, the honeymoon is over and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella are shown fretting about the tales of “disorder and bloodshed” that come back from the colonies. Francisco de Bobadilla is sent to the New World and he brings Columbus back in shackles, arrested on account of his irresponsible and tyrannical governorship. The film closes as he leaves court demoted from colonial viceroy and embittered with life: the conqueror of the New World branded a criminal.

In Christopher Columbus, Latin America appears only as a tropical shoreline and its loincloth-wearing inhabitants are portrayed as friendly, guileless, peaceable, generous and, significantly, entirely mute. These individuals are so passive that they not only drop their weapons at the sight of the Europeans, presumably understanding that they lost their sovereignty when the Spaniards planted their flag, but they do not even have voices. Conversely, the Spaniards exercise the power of language to change everything around them, from the requerimiento, the declaration of sovereignty read before conquered populations, to the practice of (re)naming places. When Latin America is on screen, the viewer learns very little about it; it is merely a landscape in which to showcase Columbus’s ingenuity, fortitude, and benevolence. The devastation caused by the introduction of European diseases and the violence of Columbus’s ruthless governorship is barely alluded to and never shown. It is ironic that in the main scene showing good Indigenous/Spaniard relations, Columbus stops a deckhand from trading broken crockery for a gold necklace, chiding him that “We are here to convert these natives to Christianity, not to exploit them.” In actuality, Columbus's log books reveal his rapacious nature from the moment he set foot in America, containing plans to subjugate the indigenous people and enumerations of the resources to be extracted from their lands.

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