What Could Have Been And What Was
1] In the 1991 film Cabeza de Vaca we are given an unconventional view of Spaniards in America during the 16th century. We do not see grand conquests, epic battles, or wealth beyond measure. Instead, we see an America stripped of all myth and portrayed in its crude truth. From the start the characters are not aiming at riches and glory but at simple survival. We follow this path of survival and coexistence for the duration of the film, and then, when we have almost forgotten that conquest existed, it is thrown back into plain view. We see riders in the desert and a return to a Spanish camp. In this camp we are given the campfire sequence and a speech that brings all the clouding of American myth right back. The film is very sparse in its use of dialogue, and Dorantes’ speech during this sequence is one of the most extensive dialogues in the film. Why would this sequence require the amount of attention that it receives in the film? On the surface this scene is just a series of lies, but the odd and extensive dialogue, working with the powerful visuals, reveals several important observations.
2] The scene opens with Dorantes and Castillo socializing with the other Spaniards around a campfire. Cabeza de Vaca and Estabanico do not join the group but, instead, sit on the edge of the fire’s glow. Instantly we see a reluctance of these two men to return to Spanish society. Dorantes and Castillo, on the other hand, have quickly returned to a state of full Spanish comfort. They wear pompous Spanish clothing; they drink wine from a Spanish cup and seem fully re-assimilated socially. Cabeza de Vaca and Estabanico not only decline to join in on the conversation but also have rejected the Spanish luxuries available to them. They remain in their simple native clothing, and instead of drinking wine with the others, they use water to bathe. Their bathing shows an appreciation of simple resources such as water, which they have come to appreciate during their journey. This bathing also seems to be an act of disgust at their Spanish reunion. The action implies that they feel a dirtiness that they wish to cleanse, and the source of this tarnish is the actions of the other Spaniards.
3] Dorantes and Castillo become the center of the Spaniards’ attention. Dorantes stands above the rest in a position of power. Even the Spanish captain sits at his feet and listens to him attentively. When a Spaniard asks about the sights they have seen in the eight-year journey, he goes silent. We expect him to relay some of the adventures that we have seen the men go through, but we are surprised by a series of extravagant lies. These lies center upon the common legends about the Americas from cities of gold to fountains of youth. Though Dorantes knows these things to be false, he decides to spread these rumors anyway. He feeds the men what they want to hear. We are confused by this action at first, but we are given a series of short images that seem to convey the reason for Dorantes’ actions. First, we are given a close-up shot of a Spanish man’s face. At the mention of the fountain of youth, we see the man’s gaze light up. His look shows signs of longing and desire, and this idea is expanded by the fire’s image flickering upon his face. Dorantes then holds out his hand to point towards imaginary cities of gold, and we see him in the stereotypical pose of the conquistadors. He at this moment resembles Columbus and the other conquerors after him, pointing towards the horizon at the head of a group of men who long for gold and riches. He is telling these lies because through them he is gaining followers, gaining power. This linguistic power he is gaining is the destructive power of the conquistadors who stand in stark contrast to Cabeza de Vaca who gained his followers through the power of healing. This further separates Cabeza de Vaca from his fellow countrymen.
4] The next series of lies that Dorantes tells are lies of sexual exoticism. He makes a variety of bizarre claims. These include being “forced to fuck women with three tits” and being given a potion that gave him “the fucking power of 20 mules.” In a film so stingy in its use of dialogue, these statements are more than just displays of Dorantes' despicable deceit. These statements are symbolic of the forces motivating the conquest in general. These sexual exploits are put forward in the same speech that promises riches, and the Spaniards seem enraptured by the promise of both. It is common when examining conquest to connect it to male desire. The act of conquest can be seen as stemming directly from the male sex drive, and again we see the persistent image of America as a native princess wanting to be taken. We are given a scene earlier in the film, however, which directly contrasts to these sexual descriptions. Instead of the wild and lusty sexual oddities described, we are given a scene in which Dorantes sleeps passionately with a native woman. The sequence shows Cabeza de Vaca and his companions in community with the natives. This scene is very idyllic and peaceful, and the fact that Dorantes replaces this experience for such disrespectful lies back in the Spanish camp is a sad reminder. The previous scene presents the ideal situation that could be, but shows how it will be warped by a lust for power. It is also ironic that Dorantes claims to have been sexually forced when, historically, in fact the Spaniards sexually forced native Americans.
5] Dorantes also makes an ironic reference to the Bible. In his list of fantastic things he has seen is “manna from God.” This is an allusion to the food that fell from the sky when the Jewish peoples were wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land. This statement likens their journey to the biblical quest for the Promised Land. This is a classical sentiment, as the Spaniards were fond of believing they were destined by God to conquer this new land. Nothing like manna was offered for these men on their journey, however, and instead of eating manna from God they are forced to eat each other at some points.
6] Watching all of this Cabeza de Vaca says, “Estabanico, Why don’t we tell the true story?” This statement is sadly futile, because we know that this truth will not affect the course of the future. Cabeza de Vaca here is sitting with a slave, and just as Estabanico was once free and now is back in slavery, so is Cabeza de Vaca back into the constraints of his society, and his words will not be able to move the masses like the lies of Dorantes have. We have his “truth,” written in The Account, but it serves only as a reminder of other paths the future might have taken, but sadly did not.
Copyright (c) 2002 by Timothy Guida, Undergraduate Student at Lehigh University.
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