Easily one of Ridley Scott’s most ambitious films, 1492: Conquest of Paradise is not without its flaws, but also, not without its merits, most of which stem from the enormity of the physical production; had the script been more historically accurate then we might have had one of the greatest epic adventures of all time. Instead, the finished form of this cinematic seafaring voyage feels caught in between trying to be something respectful and progressive, despite clearly being made from a place of true personal investment.
It’s also a staggering reminder of the power of REAL cinema: Actual ships, live extras, exotic locations, real fire, real water – this is how an epic action-adventure drama film should look and feel, and in terms of the sheer size and florid atmosphere that was conveyed, this is one of the most lush movies of its type. One of Scott’s grandest canvasses that he’s worked on, this was one of the last films he made before the beginning of the CGI/digital effects revolution, and it would certainly be interesting to see how he’d make the film if he attempted to re-tell the story today.
But, at times, the script feels like a mess, never giving you an accurate portrait of Columbus as a man, despite Scott and the rest of his team including some nice introspective beats and startling moments of violence which certainly pushed the edges of what the PG-13 rating allowed back in 1992. But where was the raping, and the murdering, and the pillaging, and the formation of the slave trade, and all of the stuff that we’ve come to learn that the real Columbus supervised and participated in? This film was written before some of the more controversial bits about Columbus were discovered, so in retrospect, with a fuller idea of who he was as a man, it’s a movie that feels at odds with itself in certain spots.
Clearly, being an attempt at blockbuster filmmaking, the thematic and story elements needed to be softened to appeal to the widest possible audience, but here, it feels especially glaring, given what we’ve come to know. At times, you can feel that the filmmaker’s were striving for something more complex than what the screenplay afforded them; Roselyne Bosch’s dialogue is occasionally hammy while the plotting lacks a certain level of grace that would bestow Scott’s future period epics, chiefly the masterful director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven.
But while this is a historically scrubbed effort, the technical details are astounding and the performances were solid all around. Gerard Depardieu was never less than excellent with what he was given, demonstrating gravitas and personal heft that helped to cut a convincing portrait of an impassioned explorer, even if speaking in English isn’t his strong suit. The supporting cast is diverse and odd in spots, but dominated by Michael Wincott in a genuinely nasty performance (his stock in trade), Sigourney Weaver, and Armand Assante.
The bravura musical score from Vangelis (Blade Runner, Alexander, Chariots of Fire) along with the stunning widescreen cinematography from Adrian Biddle (Thelma & Louise, Aliens, Reign of Fire) combined to create a fantastic sense of time and place, which is par for the course on a Scott film. And the director, as always, delivered on the visual front, crafting a film of enormous scope and polish; the final act has a hurricane sequence and gory battle that are two of the best set pieces he’s ever directed. Scott and Biddle found true beauty in their vision of the New World; the sumptuous and dreamy shot in which the ocean mist parts to reveal dry land for the first time is handled in such an operatic fashion as to induce goosebumps, while Columbus’ first steps on new soil register as an earth-shaking moment.
And the final moments are poetic in their sense of overall discovery and the loss of one’s ability to continue searching for the next challenge. I’ve just always taken exception to how noble they made Columbus out to be, considering all that we’ve learned from a revisionist perspective concerning his expeditions and attempts at conquering. Paramount released the film in time to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage back in 1992, and armed with a $50 million budget, Scott definitely pulled out all the visual stops you’d expect from him, but the public didn’t bite, and the film bombed in theaters, grossing less than $10 million domestic.
But it’s a work that deserves reconsideration, and thanks to Kino Lorber’s recently released Special Edition Blu-ray, the film looks and sounds considerably better than I remember, as some time ago I purchased a Region 4 DVD from Brazil/Portugal, where the image, while presented in anamorphic widescreen, seemed to have been smeared with dirt and grease or left out in the sun to bake. But Kino’s new transfer is better than anything I’ve previously seen, with solid colors and appropriate grit and grain, and always giving off that filmic look that’s become lost now that everything is shot digitally. And while only in 2.0 DTS-HD sound, the film sounds big and boisterous and all-encompassing while dialogue remains crisp and clean. Special features include a highly informative and excellent audio commentary from film historians Howard S. Berger and Nathaniel Thompson and various deleted scenes that showcase more graphic violence which were obviously trimmed to avoid an R-rating.