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

Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

On a vacant stretch of black sand beach, on the western coast of Costa Rica, a small film crew has its camera set up just a few feet from the receding surf and aimed steadily at the horizon, above which hangs a preposterously orange sun.

In the camera's foreground, huge pelicans float inches above the water, circling back occasionally to scoop fish into their basket-sized beaks, and off to the right can be seen the masts of three wooden ships--exact replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.

Take away the film crew and the ships and you have a show that nature has been repeating for millions of years. Take away just the film crew and your view could be exactly that of a man standing on the beach in Spain, say 500 years ago, advancing the concept to his small son that the ships disappearing over the horizon were proof that the world was round.

That scene occurs at the beginning of Ridley Scott's "1492," one of two big-budget movies being readied for release during this, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage to America. Now, at the end of a long day, Scott's camera is pointed west, capturing the most rehearsed scene in history on film.

"The sun sets at exactly eight minutes past six," says Scott, a former TV commercial maker whose sleek images have driven films as diverse as "Blade Runner" and "Thelma & Louise," which earned him an Oscar nomination. "There's going to be a nice afterglow, a burn-back. I think it's going to be quite good."

The quiet at dusk here, 15 miles south of the resort town of Jaco, is deceiving. An hour earlier, the three ships were anchored just off shore and the film crew was smack in the midst of a 15th-Century Spanish army. Rows of overdressed soldiers lined the beach, while officers on horseback paced nervously between the ranks, and cannoneers stood over their ponderous weapons waiting for the order to fire.

In front of them all, his thick torso covered by a leather vest and his long hair blowing in the breeze, stood Columbus himself . . . or Danton, or Cyrano de Bergerac, whichever larger-than-life character you associate with Gerard Depardieu. Maybe you just know him as Andie MacDowell's shaggy French roommate in "Green Card."

All day long, Depardieu and the 400 Costa Rican extras repeated the scene, which will consume only seconds in the movie itself. Half the day, the extras lined up to the south of Scott's three cameras, and stood there while Columbus marched up from the surf to the sand, turned his head left and right, and ordered the cannoneers to fire. Then, they all moved up the beach, the cameras were turned around, and the scene was repeated with a northern exposure.

"Columbus had 1,500 men with him facing the Indians on the beach that day," Scott explained, as this scene from Columbus' second--and most violent--voyage to America was being set up. "I only have 400 extras, so I'm using them twice. I guarantee you it'll look like 1,500 men on the screen."

When the shadows became too long to continue, everyone left except Scott, cinematographer Adrian Biddle and a few other technicians who stayed to gather evidence for what many people, for many centuries, considered the main lesson of Columbus' adventures--that the world, son, is round.

But the question many people are raising during the quincentenary of Europe's discovery of America, as they ponder the flaws of our shrunken planet and attempt to fix blame, is which of those images best represents the truth of Columbus' deeds, the spirit of adventure felt by a man staring longingly at the horizon, or the spirit of conquest seen in the eyes of a man leading a modern army against Stone Age natives?

"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."

"For a long time there was the cliche of the hero," says Roselyne Bosch, the French journalist who wrote the screenplay, "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."

The 31-year-old Bosch says she became interested in Columbus while researching a 1987 article on Spain's long-range plans for celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage. It was a light feature compared to the kinds of stories she'd been doing for the French newsmagazine Le Point--reporting on baby smuggling in Sri Lanka, flooding in Bangladesh--but she became fascinated by the man and continued to pore through material written by and about him.

"What interested me was this rebel of the mind," says Bosch, over breakfast at her hotel in Jaco. "I always find completely remarkable a person who despite the pressure of environment or culture is capable of doing something other people consider either impossible or irrelevant."

During a dinner with friends in Paris the next year, Bosch says she turned a conversation about astronauts into a discourse on Columbus, who she thought was a far greater adventurer.

"People think, 'Ah, Columbus, a legend.' They don't think of him as a person. But he was obviously an extraordinary person, a complex person like all of us, who had faults and qualities."

At that dinner, Bosch's impressions of Columbus, the man, tumbled out and hung like a word picture over the table. His ambitiousness, the sense of a commoner driven by a desire to be a nobleman, a self-taught sailor with a mistress and an illegitimate son, an Italian with a thick accent trying to peddle an expensive fantasy to the monarchs of Portugal and Spain, of a captain trying to stave off a mutiny as he sails into the unknown, of a man whose triumphs were matched by personal humiliation.

One of Bosch's dinner companions that night was a literary agent who, the following week, sent her a letter urging her to prepare a synopsis for that story and submit it to film people. She did, and she quickly got to French producer Alain Goldman. Goldman paid her to develop a script, which was eventually submitted to Ridley Scott. Still, studios and investors remained skeptical.

"The reaction was, 'It's a history lesson, we might learn something, so let's not do it,' " Bosch says. "Everybody was against making this film."

Scott, who was then preparing to film "Thelma & Louise," said he liked Bosch's approach to Columbus as a character study. "I saw him initially as a man with a lot of flaws and weaknesses," Scott said. "But the bottom line was that he defined the age. I thought it was really worth examining."

With Scott aboard and the 500th anniversary coming up, investors began circling overhead.

"We didn't start out thinking we're making an anniversary film," says Goldman, the 30-year-old president of the French film company MK2. "But the anniversary became the catalyst. The anniversary equals 'it's OK to make a movie on Columbus."'

As Bosch continued rewriting her script, which covers the last 19 years of Columbus' life and is told from the point of view of his illegitimate son, Fernando, the major studios continued to find the story resistible, especially at a budget of $45 million.

Early last year, Goldman decided to gamble. He got Scott and Bosch to join him at the American Film Market in Los Angeles, where buyers from all over the world gather each year to bid on films for their territories. After three days of meetings, they came away with $16 million in commitments. Once Spain, France and England came in with money as co-producers, other markets fell in line.

"The only markets available on this planet are Pakistan, India and Indonesia," says Goldman, an expansive enthusiast who sees the movie as a symbol for the rebirth of Europe as a global economic power. "It is sold everywhere because everybody knows Columbus."

Goldman, Bosch and the others on "1492," which is the name its American distributor Paramount has chosen for it, can barely bring themselves to mention the "other Columbus movie," the one made simultaneously by "Superman" producers Ilya and Alexander Salkind.

The ill feeling transcends competition; the Salkinds, who had first approached Scott to direct, filed a lawsuit against their rivals, charging them with trademark infringement and misappropriation of ideas, and threatened to sue them again if they attempted to release a movie whose title referred to Christopher Columbus.

"I think they had Columbus mixed up with Clark Kent there for a while," sneered one "1492" crew member.

The suit was dropped and the threats ended once the movies went into simultaneous production in Spain last fall. Although the Salkinds claim an even bigger budget for their movie, which will be released by Warner Bros. in the United States in August, "1492" is regarded by most people as the more important film.

Where the Salkinds movie reportedly focuses on the first voyage and Columbus' triumphant return to Spain, "1492" covers all of Columbus' adventures in the New World (though four voyages are reduced to three), and depicts his confusion and brutality as well as his greatness.

"From day one, when Roslyne came to me with the idea, I felt we were making a human story about a man whose name everybody knows but whose character nobody knows," says Goldman. "What kind of father he was, what kind of lover he was, what was his motivation. People will be interested to know the answers to those questions."

Also, from day one, was the question of who could play Columbus and make him credible as a man. Fredric March embarrassed himself trying it in the 1949 film. Bosch says she thought of no one while writing her screenplay. Goldman didn't know the answer. There isn't even a portrait of Columbus to provide inspiration.

But Scott says he saw the face of his Columbus the first time he read the script. While there was talk of Anjelica Huston playing Queen Isabella before Sigourney Weaver got the part, and where there may have been other actresses besides Angela Molina who could play Columbus' mistress Beatrix, Scott says Depardieu is the only actor he felt was right for Columbus.

As everyone involved in "1492" soon learned, Depardieu is a character in his own right.

Gerard Depardieu is so angry he can hardly speak English. Stripped to the waist, exposing his barrel-shaped torso, he is stalking the tented lunch area of the "1492" set like an agitated bull. He has just checked out of his hotel and moved into a rented house because of a feud with the management.

"I pay 2,000 colones for a bottle of wine on Monday, on Tuesday the same bottle is 7,000," he tells a couple of Americans sitting at one of the tables. "I use the telephone, they make me pay double. I get my own line, I say, 'OK, I don't need you.' They still want my mo-nay!"

Suddenly, Depardieu is re-enacting the scene at the hotel, using a reporter just in from New York as the stand-in for the clerk who was trying to get him to pay his telephone surcharge.

"Look at me!" Depardieu screams, leaning over until his face--those intense deep-set eyes, that ship's prow of a nose, the lantern jaw--is less than an inch from the reporter's. "I will pay you never. Never !!!"

He steps back for a moment, mutters something in French, then returns.

"I can touch you, you see," he says, poking his stiffened fingers into the reporter's shoulder. "But you touch me and I explode your head!"

After Depardieu leaves, the other American says the mood and the move are both temporary. "Gerard will be back at the hotel tonight," he says. "He can't stand to be alone."

Sure enough, at the bar that night at the hotel's tropical outdoor restaurant sit Depardieu, actor Michael Wincott (who plays the fictional nobleman Moxica, Columbus' chief adversary in the New World) and several members of the film's crew.

"He's in here with the crew every night," says Ridley Scott, nodding toward Depardieu from a corner table. "He's one of the boys. I've never seen an actor hanging out with the crew for 17 weeks on a movie. That just doesn't happen. He has zero ego. Zero!"

Depardieu affects people differently. His disheveled non-actorly look--the stringy, unmanaged hair and rough-hewn features, his robust lived-in gut--make him an ample target for skewering by a critic like John Simon, who observed of one Depardieu movie, "If the script calls for a revolting slob, the performance is impeccable." But most critics and filmmakers agree with the New Republic's Stanley Kauffmann, who said that "force spills from (Depardieu) so easily that it almost hides his talent."

Scott quotes Fernando Rey, who plays a monk friendly to Columbus, as calling Depardieu "a fugitive from a Brueghel painting and a force of nature."

"There is a power to Gerard's face that is extraordinary," says Scott, "but it would be silly to say that's his screen presence, because he has incredible instincts as an actor. He does not want to discuss what he does much, he doesn't want to spend too much time rehearsing, but what he gives you is brilliant. I'm having the best time I've ever had with an actor."

Sitting on the beach during a break in shooting, Depardieu searches for the words to describe his take on Columbus, upshifting from broken English to passionate French as his mind races ahead.

"Both Roslyne and Ridley were very adamant to show Columbus was both a hero and an anti-hero," he says, pausing when necessary to allow his dialogue coach to translate. "He was an ordinary man who did good things and bad things, but he was not the monster some people say he was. The film will show that the New World did not change human nature. Wherever you are, you carry the best and worst you are."

Depardieu shares with Columbus the experience of being raised by an illiterate father and becoming a successful self-taught man. But he doesn't want to take the parallel any farther than that. While Columbus was driven from an early age to lead men to sea, Depardieu grew up an aimless truant, who drifted into acting when he followed a friend to Paris during his late teens.

Ever since then, acting and the movies have allowed him to satisfy a variety of large appetites, including one for knowledge.

"I love doing history in my films because I can learn what I didn't learn in school. It wasn't until I did 'Danton' that I understood the French Revolution."

Everyone on the "1492" set talks about Depardieu's outsize passions--for wine, for food, for laughter. It is his passion for life, Bosch says, that makes him so appealing to European audiences, and which mainstream Americans, with mixed response, got just a glimpse of in "Green Card."

If that film, and his Oscar nomination for "Cyrano de Bergerac," make him, after 80 films, a candidate for Hollywood stardom, he doesn't seem to care. "The ego problem and money and relishing the power, I don't care about that," he says. "I like work, that's all. I have a beautiful friend in the movies."

As for the reaction among Americans to his appearance and manners, he gives a variation of what you see is what you get.

"Everybody knows I love Gitanes (French cigarettes), I love meat, I love wine. Sometimes," he says, clutching his stomach like a beach ball, "I am very big. So I make an effort. For one month, I stop to eat and try to look human. To do more I am not interested."

The day before the beach landing scene, the "1492" crew was set up in a cleared area of private property in the forest near Jaco. There, they had built a replica of Isabel, the town that Columbus had built during his second stay in Hispaniola. In the script, a hurricane nearly destroys the town and is a precursor to violence between the restless Spaniards and the local natives.

Bosch acknowledges that there are many fictional inventions in her story--composite characters, condensed events--that were necessary in order to cover both Columbus' adventures and provide a historical backdrop for it.

"The Old World was a disaster," Bosch says. "Only nobility lived decently. There was 50% mortality for children under 2. There was no freedom, no hope."

Although Columbus is credited with uniting the old and new worlds, the invention of the printing press a half-century earlier was a more seminal moment in the creation of a global community. Knowledge drove people forward whether the church and governments liked it or not, Bosch says, and if it hadn't been Columbus running ashore in the West Indies, it would have been someone else.

Bosch's script addresses some of the issues that made a Christopher Columbus possible. It was, during the same year of 1492, that Queen Isabella expelled both the Moors and the Jews from Spain, creating tax losses that she hoped to overcome with the bounty of gold and spices Columbus promised to bring back from China.

With sets built in Seville and Granada, "1492" includes scenes of heretics, mostly Jews, being burned at the stake, and shows the final siege of the Moors in Granada. Far from a traditional high seas adventure, relatively little action was being shot aboard the ships that were built in Bristol, England, and powered--by diesel engines, not sails--to the Pacific side of Costa Rica.

Here, at various sites within miles of the tour buses and parasailors in Jaco, the film company has built the elaborate Isabel, as well as beach moorings, native villages and Beatrix's Spanish house.

On those days when the crew is working on the beach, the Costa Rican Coast Guard keeps the horizon clear of yachts and fishing boats. Surfers and sunbathers are routed to other beaches. And the cloudless sky is only occasionally slit by the white trails left by jets proving, from 40,000 feet, that the world is not only round, but pretty small.

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