Filmic Context:  Print -- Video/Audio -- Online

Print Resources

Ayala, Sergio Rivera, and Sonya Lipsett-Rivera.  "Columbus Takes On the Forces of Darkness, or Film and Historical Myth in 1492: The Conquest of Paradise."  Based on a True Story: Latin American History at the Movies.  Ed. Donald F. Stevens.  Willmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1997.  13-28.

Columbus is mainly represented in one of two ways in all pieces of fiction, film, and history: 1) the white legend, where a new and prosperous continent is born by Columbus's exploits, or 2) the black legend, where Columbus's actions led to the genocide of countless numbers of Native Americans and Africans.  Ridley Scott's film relies mainly on the white legend that has led to much historical error.  For example, barely anyone at the time believed that the earth was flat.  Columbus as the erudite, as Scott's film portrays him, is largely influenced by Washington Irving's similar, and fabricated, portrayal of Columbus the scholar addressing the ignorant scholars of the University of Salamanca.  The film also exemplifies Columbus's intelligence and foresight by the use of darkness and light.  Most of Spain in the film contains night shoots or dark interiors, implying that the country and its peoples were caught in regressive thinking.  Columbus, on the other hand, is many times filmed in bright exteriors where a halo of light surrounds him suggesting that he holds the true light of knowledge.  Another problem of the movie is the way it homogenizes all the Native Americans as if they were all part of the same group.  The article states, "The natives have no identity other than that of objects of Spanish cruelty or pity"  (22).  Even worse is the film's assumption that Columbus was a supporter of the natives, where in reality Columbus was only a supporter of their free labor and gold.  The article ends by saying, "For thousands of native peoples, Columbus, rather than the 'carrier of light,' was one of the harbingers of darkness"  (27).  A film that suggests otherwise is simply incorrect.

Ebel, Mark T.  Five Films of Pre-Columbian Culture, The Discovery of the New World, and the Spanish Conquest.  Diss. Florida State U, 1996.  Ann Arbor: UMI, 1997.

"This study focuses on five films from three continents that were produced and released around the time of the celebration of the quincentennial of Christopher Columbus in 1992.  The main focus of the book is on three Latin American films-- Jericho (Venezuela), Retorno a Aztlan (Mexico), and Cabeza de Vaca (Mexico-Spain).  The author also examines two films about Columbus-- 1492: Conquest of Paradise (Britain-France-Spain) and Christopher Columbus- the Discovery (U.S.).  Ebel notes that the three Latin American films are all first feature films of directors who were documentarians, and both Cabeza de Vaca and Jericho are films about first contact between European and Natives"  (Paul Galante).  The writer notes how the movie is full of vibrant cinematography and on-the-site locations.  "Columbus is presented as an enlightened leader, sympathetic to the indigenes but unable to control the base motives of his men which results in the wanton destruction of native people"  (7).  Furthermore, the movie offers a realistic portrayal of the natives by using non-professional actors who play themselves.  Unlike other Hollywood Columbus movies, the natives are given names, personalities, and speech that humanizes them and makes the viewer of the film relate to them and understand their struggle for survival.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn.  Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film.  Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.  130-34.

"Scott presents the Tainos as human as long as they are communicating and going along with the invaders, but when they strike back, they become less than human.  Perhaps this was the only way to make the hero of this film appear justified in killing thm, although the film's Columbus seems to kill more of his own men than Tainos."

Le Beau, Brian F.  "Of Hollywood and History:  The Columbus Movies of '92."  American Studies  34:1 (1993):  151-57.

Despite historians' questioning of Columbus's motives and goals in the New World, two out of every three Americans still view Columbus as a hero.  Hollywood reinforces such popular mythologies.  Christopher Columbus: The Discovery is the worst offender.  Director John Glenn claims he made "a picture for the public, for children.  Everything up, up at the end.  No politics.  Nothing heavy"  (152).  As a result, the film contains nothing but bad acting, writing, and directing. 1492: Conquest of Paradise  by Ridley Scott fares better but still is problematic.  The script is written in a corny fashion but has moments of complexity that show Columbus's mixed motives.  Two of the worst characteristics about the film are its historical inaccuracy and superfluous dealings with Columbus's voyages.  In regards to history, Scott (and screenwriter Bosch) omits that Columbus did capture and hang the villain Moxica, that Columbus was never confined to prison, and that he built the town of La Navidad because he crashed the Santa Maria.  Although the movie deals about an hour and a half with Columbus's first voyage, the second hour attempts to compress three of his other voyages into one; because of such an abridgment, the movie fails to address the complexities of Columbus adequately.

Stam, Robert.  "Cinema And The Columbus Debate." Cineaste  19:4 (1992): 66-71.

The Quincentenial of Columbus has provoked a large array of reactions: from sycophancy to repulsion.  Unfortunately, though, most American school children are still given the one-sided myth of Columbus as hero.  Mainstream cinema, for the most part, is an embellishment of such childhood myths.  Despite almost a half century separating David MacDonald's Christopher Columbus (1949) and Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992), both movies marginalize the natives as exotic objects for European eyes and portray Columbus as an Enlightenment persona amongst a crew of degenerates.  Although Ridley Scott's movie 1492: Conquest of Paradise makes some token gestures towards Spain's violence and the natives' subjectivity, it still tries to distance Columbus from such atrocities.  Stam explains how criticism of Columbus does not imply that a contemporary perspective must be foisted on the Columbus adventure but instead a different perspective must be utilized that existed in Columbus's own times-- such as the natives' various perspectives or Bartolome de Las Casas or Antonio de Montesinos.  The article ends with suggestions of alternative films and documentaries that offer the natives' perspectives and/or critiques of Spain's conquest.

Wollen, Peter.  "Cinema's Conquistadors." Sight and Sound  2.7 (1992): 21-23.

At the heart of Hollywood cinema lies the myth of the West-- an invention used to support American nationalism.  Columbus is the monumental hero of such a myth-- even bigger than the characters from the West itself-- since he represents "the first adventurer, the first immigrant, the first prospector, the first pacifier of savages."  The Columbus myth involves three periods: 1792, the advent of American independence; 1892, the expansion of the west and increased immigration; and 1992.  Although the 1992 celebration largely led to a re-evaluation of Columbus's, Spain's, and the natives' perspectives, Hollywood has largely fostered the old myth of Columbus as hero.  Ridley Scott's film 1492: Conquest of Paradise, though, does make a nod to Kirkpatrick Sale's "revisionist" book The Conquest of Paradise: Christopher Columbus and the Columbian Legacy where Columbus is portrayed as despoiler of civilized native peoples.  But Scott's film is unable to question Columbus's motives and character since it relies on the traditional bio-pic formula that pits the rugged individual against an intolerant society.  Because of the bio-pic's formula, Scott is allowed to obscure the events of history to the facts of Hollywood's demands.

Video/Audio Resources

Columbus Didn't Discover Us.  Massachusetts: Turning Tide Productions, 1992.

Chronicles the gathering of three hundred native peoples during the First Continental Congress Of Indigenous Peoples at Ecuador 1990.  All the speakers discuss the impact the Columbus legacy had on their lives and ways in which they can create better futures for themselves and humanity as a whole.  The indigenous people refuse to celebrate the Quincentenial of Columbus's landing in the New World since they feel that such celebrations legitimize the colonial past in the present.  It is a common concern among indigenous people that they become decolonialized not only physically but psychologically as well.

Columbus On Trial.  New York: Women Make Movies, 1993.

WorldCat states this movie is "a satire on the controversy surrounding Christopher Columbus as to whether he, indeed, did discover America and introduce European civilization and Christianity to the native populations there, or if he (from the Native American point of view) invaded their territories and began the systematic destruction of their cultures that has continued for the following 500 years.  Set in the context of a trial presided over by a woman judge of Hispano-American descent.  Performed by the comedy troupe, Culture Clash."

Dvorak, Antonin.  Symphony No. 9.  1892.

The "New World" symphony.  Written in the year of the Columbus Quadricentennial.

1492 Revisited.  San Diego: KPBS-TV, 1992.

Participants (many Spanish or Native American) in an art exhibit titled "Counter Colon-ialismo" talk about their work and the construction of history.  For example, imperial power is used to link "discovery" with the atomic bomb, and a gun in a chapel aimed at the Bible represents the history of forced christianity.  The language of counter-discourse predominates: for instance, Columbus inaugurates a "culture of death," and the "colonization of the minds is still going on."

Online Resources

Columbus and the Age of Discovery

An excellent source for links to other Columbus home pages and articles on discovery literature.  As well as offering countless sources on Columbus and how he was represented, the site also offers various other perspectives and cultures that help contextualize Columbus's exploits in the New World.

World's Columbian Exposition (1893)

Offers a virtual tour of the 1893 Chicago's World Fair and its Columbian exposition.  Not only is one able to see the sites that honor Columbus but also to read about both the positive and negative reactions to the championing of Columbus as a leader.  A great source to understand how Columbus was perceived by mainstream American cutlure during the late 1900's and how different ethnic groups reacted to the Columbus-as-hero myth.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Christopher Robe’, Graduate Student at Lehigh University.

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