It’s a good thing that Ridley Scott’s “1492" is coming out later this year, because the Columbus movie we’ve got now--John Glen’s “Christopher Columbus--The Discovery"--is nothing to build a national holiday around.
It’s not politically correct. It’s also not cinematically correct, humanly correct or historically correct. With one possible exception: The reconstructed versions of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria look pretty correct--more so at least than the actors who sail them. This is the kind of period film where Capt. Pinzon (Robert Davi) of the Pinta can talk about “a bitch of a wind” coming up and nobody thinks anything of it. Columbus may have discovered the New World but Pinzon was way ahead on slang.
Most of the dialogue, though, is anything but slangy. The actors are required to bend their mouths around quasi-Biblical locutions that summon up one’s worst experiences at films like “King of Kings” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” (The cauliflower-eared script is by Mario Puzo, John Briley of “Gandhi"--both Oscar winners--and Cary Bates.)
The Christ figure in this Passion(less) play is old C. C. himself. As George Corraface plays him, Columbus is a bit of a hothead, sure, but he’s definitely got the vision thing. Problem is, for the longest time no one else does. He crumples into a sobbing heap as he asks why God has forsaken him. But then he catches the eye of Queen Isabella (Rachel Ward, who looks fetching in armor)--and the rest is pseudo-history.
There’s no escaping it. If this film (citywide) is to be believed, Columbus nabbed his first voyage because Isabella had the hots for him. “You’ve got a way with women,” she says to him just before she breaks the good news that he can set sail. King Ferdinand (a badly wigged Tom Selleck) can see what’s going on but he needn’t worry. Columbus already has a mistress, who, in a sporty moment, he praises as “a bit top-heavy and narrow in the beam.” Just like the Santa Maria.
The shipboard scenes aren’t real big on yo-hee-ho camaraderie. Most of the sailors might as well be carrying a sign around their necks saying “Scurvy.” They have hearty, croaking laughs and really bad hygiene. Columbus keeps mistaking clouds for land and lightning for ship-to-shore signals; the crew gets so mutinous that he literally lays his head on the chopping block. But then a bitch of a squall kicks up and the voyagers are swept ashore for what turns out to be “National Geographic” time. Lots of bare-breasted native girls in this PG-13 movie.
Throughout it all, Columbus has, as one mate describes him, “the look of a man possessed.” At least that’s what we’re supposed to think. Corraface, who was powerful in Peter Brooks’ epic production of “Mahabharata,” seems more fatuous than possessed. This Columbus is altogether too decent. For example, he offers on behalf of the king and queen a huge financial reward to the first sailor who sights land. But we’re not filled in on the actual aftermath--how Columbus, back in Spain, successfully insisted on being awarded the prize instead. (The winning sailor subsequently defected to Morocco and became a renegade.)
The film’s goody-two-shoes approach to Columbus is nothing compared to what it does to Torquemada, the inquisitor general of the Spanish Inquisition. If you’re going to go soft on the guy, you should at least go all the way--like Mel Brooks did when he played Torquemada as the star of an all-screaming, all-wailing torture revue in “History of the World--Part 1.” Instead, Marlon Brando offers up his courtly, high-priced bulk for our brief delectation (maybe 10 minutes in all).
Brando reportedly fought to make Torquemada nastier but was vetoed by the producers. This is, after all, a family film (notwithstanding those New World breasts). Brando manages to suggest the man’s cruelty anyway, mostly with a series of sidelong, Charles Laughton-ish glances. Still, for us to glimpse our greatest actor in this mega-claptrap is a cruelty far worse than anything Torquemada could devise.
‘Christopher Columbus--The Discovery’
Marlon Brando: Torquemada
Tom Selleck: King Ferdinand
George Corraface: Christopher Columbus
Rachel Ward: Queen Isabella
An Alexander Salkind presentation of an Alexander and Ilya Salkind production, released by Warner Bros. Director John Glen. Producer Ilya Salkind. Executive producer Jane Chaplin. Screenplay by John Briley and Cary Bates and Mario Puzo. Cinematographer Alec Mills. Editor Matthew Glen. Costumes John Bloomfield. Music Cliff Eidelman. Production design Gil Parrondo. Art director Terry Pritchard. Running time: 2 hours.