Can Two Columbus Projects Stay Afloat? : Movies: Producers are touting rival films to be directed by Ridley Scott and George Cosmatos. The prize--international backing.


Christopher Columbus has discovered Cannes.

Half a millenium after bumbling onto the West Indies, the ancient mariner has landed on the shores of the French Riviera, as all adventuresome pop idols eventually must, for the Cannes Film Festival. Madonna, the first woman singer to explore herself on stage, was here all weekend.

As usual with Chris, there is confusion. There are two of him here, or two movies-in-the-making about him; “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery,” with George Cosmatos directing English actor Timothy Dalton, and “Christopher Columbus,” with Ridley Scott directing Frenchman Gerard Depardieu.

The first film is to be released in the United States by Universal Pictures in October, 1992, timed to the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America; so is the second movie, whose North American rights were picked up here Tuesday by Paramount.


Just as the race between Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox to get Robin Hood movies out comes to an end, the two Columbuses are setting sail, and both crews are skeptical.

“I doubt if their movie will ever be made,” says Patrick Wachsberger, president of Odyssey Distributor Ltd., the French company behind the Ridley Scott movie.

“Their film doesn’t exist as far as I’m concerned,” says Ilya Salkind, producer of the Cosmatos version.

The Columbus clash has suddenly become important because both Salkind and Wachsberger are competing for the best deals in the international markets. Salkind has brought in Dalton, writer Mario Puzo and representatives of the Spanish government. Ridley Scott, whose “Thelma & Louise” closes the festival Monday night, will be here later in the week to discuss both movies.

Salkind, who with his father Alexander Salkind co-produced the first three “Superman” movies, originally had a deal with Scott to make their picture, but they split up, according to Salkind, when Scott insisted that the movie be based on the life of Columbus. The Salkinds, who are betting much of their $50-million investment on the exclusive cooperation of the publicity-minded Spanish government, wanted to make a movie about the journey that led Columbus to his chance discovery.

“This is a great adventure story, the greatest adventure of all time,” says Salkind. “That’s the movie we wanted to make.”

Puzo, who co-wrote the “Godfather” movies with Francis Ford Coppola and the first two “Superman” movies for the Salkinds, is doing the script for “Christopher Columbus: The Discovery.” French political journalist Roselynn Bosch wrote the screenplay for the Odyssey film.

Although the two movies will be vying for the same audiences in the United States, it sounds like they’re portraying different legends. Salkind uses words like voyager , discoverer and visionary to describe Columbus, and says that whatever happened after the discovery, “Columbus didn’t set out to hurt anybody.”

Salkind’s picture will start in Spain, follow Columbus’ first journey and end with his triumphant return.

Bosch’s story, covering 23 years, is told from the point of view of an illegitimate son who sets out in 1510 to restore a forgotten Columbus to his former glory. By this account, Columbus had become to 1490s Spain what Madonna is to 1990s America.

Columbus has more in common with Madonna than you would think. He, too, was a wily manager of his image, he had run-ins with the Catholic Church, was outspoken and he was definitely a material guy.

“Columbus was a very contemporary man,” says Wachsberger. “He had religious and political problems--he was avoiding charges of heresy.”

Madonna is getting all her press for needling the Church about its narrow views on sexuality; Columbus, at a time when the Inquisition was unsheathing its blades, was of the opinion that the Church was so stupid it didn’t even know the Earth was round.

Wachsberger says his film will give a complete picture of a man who hustled his opportunities, lied to his men, fought off mutineers and cannibals, reveled in his celebrity and faded into obscurity before his death. This version will begin in Spain, follow Columbus on all three of his voyages West, and end at his deathbed.

“It will be very factual,” Wachsberger says, quickly adding that Columbus will ultimately be perceived as a hero. “Nobody goes to a movie to see anything but a hero,” he says.

Salkind says that Puzo, an Italian-American, was the “natural” choice to do the screenplay, and he picked action-director Cosmatos based on the tension he was able to create in “Rambo 2” and “Cassandra Crossing.”

The Puzo story, too, is accurate, insists Salkind. “Spanish historians have been following the development of the script,” he says. “They want it to be accurate.” Neither Salkind nor Wachsberger would say there will be enough quincentennial fever to support both movies when they are released and both seem to be hoping the other’s ship would sink before production starts up. Both movies are to begin shooting in Spain in September.

“It is never good to have two movies out on the same subject at the same time,” says Wachsberger, recalling the examples of the two Oscar Wilde biographical pictures released in 1960, and the two Jean Harlow movies in 1965.

Warner Bros. won the Robin Hood duel last year by signing Kevin Costner: “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” opens June 14. But Fox will win in Europe. Its version, “Robin Hood,” starring Patrick Bergin, aired Monday night on the Fox network, but it will be released theatrically in Europe before the Costner film.

In the case of Columbus, Salkind thinks he’s got the better man with Dalton, the reigning James Bond; Wachsberger thinks Depardieu, hot off an Oscar-nominated performance in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” is perfect timing.

Both producers acknowledge their concern over Columbus bashers who have already begun debunking the great man myth, and promising anti-Columbus actions next year. They both insist they’re making “serious” movies--think “The Lion in Winter,” says Salkind; think “Dances With Wolves”--combined with “Amadeus,” says Wachsberger.

We’ll discover the truth when the films open in about 17 months. In the meantime, if Columbus was the hustler many historians say he was, he has finally come to the right place.