He was a visionary to some, an explorer to others and a genocidal tyrant to a growing wave of revisionists who have pursued his myth.
He was Christopher Columbus, the self-schooled mapmaker who five centuries ago discovered the New World while searching for a westerly route to Asia.
Shrouded by legend and historical distortion, he comes to the screen today in 1492: Conquest of Paradise. The movie portrays Columbus as a brilliant sailor, a failed governor and a victim of his times, when superstition, religious dogma and a corrupt nobility ruled Spain.
1492: Conquest of Paradise
is, at $45-million, the most expensive European movie ever made. It is directed by visual stylist Ridley Scott whose extraordinary images powered Blade Runner, Alien and Thelma & Louise.
It stars Gerard Depardieu, the fleshy, stringy-haired Frenchman whose Cyrano, Danton and Rodin are cinema classics. Sigourney Weaver co-stars as Queen Isabel, the tyrant who expelled all Jews and Moors from her territory. Armand Assante is Isabel's treasurer and chief adviser. Spanish screen actress Angela Molina is Columbus' mistress and mother of his second child, Fernando.
This brooding exploration owes its genesis to French journalist Roselyne Bosch, writer for the Paris weekly news magazine Le Point. Researching an article in 1987 on early preparations for the Columbus quincentenary, Bosch went to Seville, where she read letters written by Columbus from his New World settlement.
"When you see someone's handwriting, you begin wondering who that person was, why he was drawing in the margins of his letters and what the letters are actually saying," recounts Bosch, 32, who notes the missives _ written in quill pen in 15th-century Spanish _ required a historian to decipher them.
She was so moved by her discovery that she called the only person she knew in the movie business, Alain Goldman, the 30-year-old co-founder and president of the upstart French production-distribution company MK2.
"I didn't know Columbus had made four voyages (to the New World). I didn't know he had a family or the political problems he went through. I had no idea he had this kind of mystical mind, that he thought he was chosen and was going to find an earthly paradise," Bosch recounts telling Goldman. "This combination of pragmatism and an ambitious mind. . . . It was altogether so complex and so much more interesting than I had expected."
Goldman flew to Seville the next day and commissioned Bosch's script, which covers 19 years of Columbus' life, including three voyages to the New World, Columbus' failure to discover the mainland (that honor goes to Amerigo Vespucci) or find the gold that fired the Spanish crown's interest in Columbus' exploration.
What emerged from Columbus' and his associates' letters and the biography by Columbus' son Fernando was a portrait of a brilliant, passionate, flawed man whose dream of utopia was defeated by natural disaster, poor planning and an inability to reckon with the political forces around him.
"I think he was a visionary. I don't think he was a tyrant. Most of all, I think he was an adventurer," says the barrel-chested, thick-pawed Depardieu who, like Columbus, is the self-taught son of an illiterate father. Depardieu, 43, doesn't belabor the parallels.
The Genoa-born Columbus spoke four or five languages, knew mathematics, astronomy and cartography, had traveled throughout western Europe and was married to a Spanish aristocrat when he sought Spain's backing for his Atlantic venture.
Depardieu was a teenage truant and a thief when he drifted from his central France hometown of Chateauroux to Paris some 20 years ago. He discovered acting, married a psychoanalyst, had a daughter (she accompanied him on this trip to Los Angeles) and struggled to learn English. With 80 movies to his credit, including Jean de Florette, Cyrano de Bergerac, Danton and Green Card, Depardieu is considered France's leading actor.
"I just knew that Columbus crossed the ocean," Depardieu recounts thinking when he first heard of the project. "I didn't know the complexity. I discovered a very complex man; very modern and as near to what an artist can be."
With seed money from France, Spain and Great Britain, 1492 was filmed in Spain and Costa Rica. Very little was shot at sea aboard the replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria that were built in Bristol, England and powered by diesel engines instead of sails.
The emphasis of the movie was always social and political: Columbus' sparring with the intellectual and religious powers of the day and his courtship of the Spanish crown that needed gold and spices to compensate for the loss of tax revenue caused by the expulsion of the Jews and Moors.
Central to the movie was Columbus' responsibility for the destruction of the Indian population. While thousands died from the flu and other ailments brought by the Europeans, Bosch contends "the systematic persecution of the Indians started after Columbus' legacy was over. Saying Columbus was responsible for genocide is like saying Jesus Christ is responsible for the Inquisition."
Director Scott concurs, saying, "Columbus is being blamed for every genocidal act of colonization for the past 500 years. It's ludicrous.
"For me, Columbus was like an astronaut. He was sailing into uncharted waters, a frontier as frightening as the darkness of space," the red-haired director explains.
Scott, 53, is a director often praised for his painter's eye and criticized for his failure to develop storylines. In 1492,
he worked with Bosch to incorporate as much texture and historical detail as possible. Their film is densely packed and moves with deliberate European pacing.
The settings are sumptuous. Scott obtained permission to film at such renowned Spanish monuments as the Alcazar and Cada de Pilatos in Seville and the Old Cathedral of Salamanca. In Costa Rica, production designer Norris Spencer built three Indian villages, a gold mine and a 20-acre city of Isabel, where Columbus erected a cathedral, barracks and a two-story governor's mansion.
Scott hired 170 Costa Rican Indians to play the indigenous people encountered on the islands. Six Waunana Indians from Colombia who starred in 1986's The Mission were flown to Costa Rica to play tribal leaders.
Some 3,000 period costumes were designed. Among them, a complete wardrobe for Queen Isabel, including a gold brocade gown accented by a gem-encrusted headdress and crown.
The movie's pageantry and visual grandeur are its most impressive elements, along with Depardieu's command as Columbus.
Rather than concentrate on nuances of the character, the French-speaking actor says he tried to understand the historical period and to give the English text an honest reading.
"When you have 300 naked Indians waiting for an actor to say his lines _ and he can't say his lines _ well, I try to do my best for everybody," he says with humbleness.
Bosch glances at the towering actor, who who is lighting yet another Gitane. She talks of Columbus, although she could just as easily be referring to Depardieu: "He's one of those people that when you meet them, you feel they don't want a life. They want a destiny."
That is what 1492: Conquest of Paradise is all about.