Dueling Christopher Columbus movies couldn't capture the complicated man or his legacy.

On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus’ first voyage concluded with his arrival on the Caribbean island of Guanahani (which he dubbed “San Salvador”).

His legendary expedition, one of the four he undertook, cemented his place in history. Exactly how one refers to Columbus today, though, depends partially on when you grew up.

As a suburban child of the 1980s, my elementary school teachers taught me to celebrate Columbus’ life and work. Not only was I indoctrinated with the ubiquitous nursery rhyme (“in fourteen-hundred-ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…”) but assured that Columbus discovered America and proved that the world was round.

Revisionist History

By the time I was a high school freshman, I caught up with a considerably different depiction of the man, as revisionist history had caught up and offered crucial details. No Columbus didn’t “discover” America (Amerigo Vespucci gets that claim), which was inhabited by native men and women who were exploited and far worse by the new inhabitants Columbus brought with him.

In short, I learned that Columbus was, indeed, brilliant at sea but an incompetent leader and a rotten failure at overseeing his new settlement.

At the same time I was learning the vast, rich history of Columbus’ varied adventures in my 1992 history classes, it was announced that Ridley Scott’s “1492: Conquest of Paradise” (made post- “Alien” and “Blade Runner” but before his “Gladiator” comeback) would be released on the 1492 voyage’s 500th anniversary.

The film opened on Columbus Day and wound up sailing off a box office cliff. Now, Scott’s film is 25 years old. The 1492 milestone is 525 years old. And guess what? You still can’t find three people who agree on Columbus’ character and achievements.

Despite his statue looming large in New York’s Columbus Square, he remains a controversial figure. I’ve read how Columbus opened up slave trading, was an abusive tyrant and is in no way a man to be celebrated. I’ve also been told that we shouldn’t demonize him but strive to understand him and look at his life as forever-relevant cautionary tale.

Scott’s film is rarely mentioned in retrospectives of his work but deserves another look. It manages to be respectful without being blaringly PC, in love with the era of Columbus more than the man itself and more taken with his flaws than anything positive.

Every potential to make the man accessible is sidelined, (Columbus’ family and ability with a broadsword are pushed to background). Yet this isn’t an easy character assassin. Scott’s film is richer than that but also falls considerably short of its goals.

Here’s the biggest reason why.

Epic Casting Fail

Gerard Depardieu plays Columbus, who we meet as he’s gazing at the horizon with his son. As they watch a ship vanish as it sails off, Columbus explains to his boy that the world isn’t flat and holds many secrets.

Scott's '1492' is rarely mentioned in retrospectives of his work but deserves another look.Click To Tweet

He spends the rest of the film’s 150-running time drawing in collaborators to journey out to sea, mostly failing at his grandiose attempts to colonize a newfound Garden of Eden. In the process he ruins nearly every relationship he’s ever had.

Roselyne Bosch’s screenplay lacks focus and teems with on-the-nose dialog. Too many composite characters come across as one-note, only marginally fleshed out historical figures. There’s an abundance of pontificating about Columbus’ character, as the film is already showing us his flawed actions without need of commentary.

The biggest problem, by far, is Depardieu.

FAST FACT: “1492” earned an abysmal $7 million at the U.S. box office and had a budget reportedly of $47 million.

Made after the actor’s series of triumphs in France,  when he was casually referred to as “The French De Niro,” Depardieu’s attempt to play an Italian who grew up in Spain is out of his vocal reach. Undoubtedly, he physically resembles every portrait of Columbus we’ve seen. His quieter moments offer a glimpse of how good he can be.

Yet, for 90 percent of the film, he’s front and center, mangling his lines and coming across like a more prestigious Tommy Wiseau. It’s not nice to make fun of actors who struggle with dialog that isn’t in their native tongue. Depardieu is such an accomplished actor in his own language but, in “Green Card,” “My Father The Hero,” “102 Dalmatians” and especially “1492- Conquest of Paradise,” the thickness of his accent makes so much of his sincere delivery sound unintentionally funny.

At one point, Depardieu spews out a mouthful of unintelligible sentences and his co-star declares, “I do not understand you, Don Christopher.”

We know how he feels.

The supporting cast is just one thing that makes this feel like a try-out for later Scott epics like “Gladiator” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” Whereas Scott typically rounds out his ensembles with strong support, the casting here is hit and miss.

Presumably by a severe editing room trim, Fernando Rey, Frank Langhella, Tcheky Karyo (sporting an “Achy Breaky Heart”-era Billy Ray Cyrus haircut) Kevin Dunn and Armand Assante (who Scott should have cast as Columbus) try hard but get lost in the scenery. The best work comes from Sigourney Weaver, making a striking, playful Queen Isabella, and Michael Wincott, hungrily chewing the scenery as the central villain.

Pretty as a Picture

Adrian Biddle, the cinematographer who also shot “Aliens,” “The Princess Bride” and “V For Vendetta,” gives “1492” a majestic, painterly look. Every scene offers sumptuous visions and often-dream-like compositions. Taken strictly as a visual experience, this is easily one of Scott’s most ravishing works. Just seeing the Nina, Pinta and the Santa Maria sharing the same frame, as a golden sunset bathes the sky, is among the many moments here of cinematic rapture.

There’s also the score by Vangelis, which I prefer over his more famous, award-winning compositions for “Chariots of Fire” and “Blade Runner.” As splendid and exciting as the Vangelis music is, the soundtrack is best experienced on its own. As utilized in the film, it sometimes soars but often adds a heaviness to moments that are already working with the volume up to 11.

In Scott’s hand, Columbus isn’t a visionary hero or an all-out monster, but somewhere in between, which feels right. The only thing about Columbus this film celebrates is his moxie in getting his voyage to sea, his ability to navigate by the stars and touching down on a land unknown to him. Otherwise, we also see his terrible leadership skills, give outrageous and often blasphemous outbursts and fall prey to his ego, greed and self destructive tendencies.

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Some declared this the most historically accurate film ever made about Columbus. In spite of an obvious dedication to accuracy, as well as a collection of fantastic costumes and sets, Scott’s film always seems more about the idea of the man than a plainly realistic portrait.

My favorite work on the subject matter is Martin Dugard’s extensively researched, thrilling 2006 book, “The Last Voyage of Columbus.” Dugard, like Scott, doesn’t strictly demonize Columbus but takes on a decidedly balanced and altogether fascinating portrayal. As for how this movie holds up today as a history lesson, it reflects a need to deconstruct the Columbus legend as much as it checks off the Columbus movie standbys:

  • Repeatedly declaring the world is round? Check.
  • Intimate deal making with the Queen? Check.
  • Touching down on the new world in a slow-motion visual ecstasy not unlike Scott’s “1984”-themed Super Bowl ad? Check.

If the $40 million price tag doesn’t sound like much today for a gigantic historical epic, simply add a 1 in front of that number to adjust for inflation. Scott’s surprise critical and box office success of “Thelma & Louise” the year before was undoubtedly a major factor to getting this iffy undertaking made.

Nearly a decade ago, I taught a film class on the works of Ridley Scott and spent over a week covering both “1492 – Conquest of Paradise” and “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery [Blu-ray].” The latter film was made at the same time as Scott’s and beat it to theaters by two months.

Directed by John Glen (“Octopussy,” “For Your Eyes Only”) and produced by the powerhouse father/son team of Alexander and Ilya Salkind (the first four “Superman” films, “Supergirl” and “Santa Claus: The Movie”) it stars George Corraface as Columbus. Marlon Brando as Torquemada and Tom Selleck as King Ferdinand.

Far better are the more appropriately cast Catherine Zeta-Jones, Benicio Del Toro and Branscombe Richmond, who pop up in supporting turns. In addition to the sight of Selleck and Brando in roles that they never, ever, should have considered, Glen’s film portrays Columbus with alarming warmth as a rascally swashbuckler.

The final scene (which absurdly sets up a sequel) gives us Columbus atop a mountain, arms outstretched in a Christ-like pose, as the camera lovingly swoops around him.

Don’t Know Much About History

The film is as blatantly historically inaccurate as, well, “Superman.” Yet, oddly enough, Glen’s film, while an expensive flop, actually grossed more than Scott’s. It’s also worth noting that, while both films cost roughly the same, Glen’s film looks nowhere near as majestic as Scott’s. To say the least, my film class was relieved when we finally moved past the movie where Brando skulks around in a robe.

Long unavailable and out of print in this country for years, “1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992) [Blu-ray]” was finally released in High-Def this year and pops up occasionally on streaming services (as of this writing, you can watch it on Hulu).

With its miscast star and uneven, overly didactic screenplay, it’s a severely flawed work. It’s also, to my knowledge, the goriest, most intensely violent film to ever receive a PG-13 rating (making it an iffy bet for high school history classes).

Despite all of this, I’ve probably viewed it more than any other Scott film. It offers the director’s best and worst tendencies and wrestles with its subject matter in a way that is messy, exploratory and often engrossing. If only Scott had found a better fit for the role of Columbus and a leaner screenplay, this might have been his masterpiece.

One Saving Grace

While imperfect and not definitive, this is currently the only film about Columbus that mourns the deaths of the innocents slaughtered during his reign. Scott’s version also acknowledges that, overall, he was a pivotal figure in history but hardly a hero.

Scott’s film is awash in gorgeous spectacle and a symphony for the eyes and ears but is, finally, about a man who had potential for greatness and completely blew it.

If you watch one movie this Columbus Day, this is the one to see. It won’t be the last word on its subject but, at the very least, conveys the look of the world Columbus inhabited, enacts his early triumphs and horrible follies and is likely to inspire worthwhile discussions.

Scott’s film is as fittingly troubled as the man it portrays.

Photo credit: aelietzau5 via Foter.com / CC BY