Deconstructing 1492: Conquest of Paradise
Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise is a dramatized film about Christopher Columbus’s journey to the “New World”. This film serves as an appropriate teaching tool for students because it presents a tangible representation of the myths of the Spanish and Portuguese Conquest. In order to deconstruct these myths, the film must be viewed in its entirety to witness the complete depiction of Columbus as an “exceptional” man. This is evident in the characterization of Columbus as idealistic and heroic and how that heroism compares to the concept of the Portuguese bandeirantes. The myth of exceptional men and the myth of the bandeirante are the foremost misconceptions that perpetuate a false view of the Conquest because they depict conquistadors and explorers as legendary, larger-than-life figures, which minimizes the significance of the historical process in the Conquest.
“The Myth of Exceptional Men” underscores that only certain, “special” men were able to use innovation, intelligence, and courage as a means of effective conquest. The danger of this myth is that men like Columbus are depicted as legends, which greatly exaggerates their feats from a historical standpoint. Scott’s film portrays Columbus as “exceptional” in the very first scene by regurgitating the myth that Columbus was the only one who believed the Earth was not flat. “It’s round, like this!” Columbus tells his son, Fernando, while holding an orange[i]. This immediately distinguishes Columbus from the rest of the Salamanca sages in the film and firmly establishes the idea that only Columbus is unique in his rationale. This myth is toxic considering all educated Europeans at the time already knew the Earth was not flat, and ignoring this vital fact perpetuates the idea that Columbus was ahead of his time[ii]. The film also portrays Columbus as independent and obstinate (“I will not give up!”) in achieving his dream, which is extensively dramatized in the scene where Columbus appeals to the University of Salamanca[iii]. The scene utilizes frequent close-ups and low-angle shots to portray the dominance of Columbus’s presence and his courage as he is surrounded by skeptics from the University. Similarly, when Columbus finds out that the University has rejected his appeal, he exclaims that he is tired of being fed lies, suggesting that he is the only one capable of discovering the truth, which emphasizes his individuality. To the film’s credit, the portrayal of Columbus as a lone outsider was a myth Columbus himself perpetuated, but the film continues to propagate this falsehood by ignoring the overwhelming Portuguese connections Columbus had, which, if included, would effectively deconstruct this myth[iv]. Furthermore, Columbus is portrayed as the creator of the expansion process rather than the more appropriate notion that he merely integrated himself into the process. This is evident when considering the historical context of Columbus, as the Vivaldi brothers had already sailed west across the Atlantic in 1291, the Cape Verde Islands had already been charted in the 1460’s, and the Canary Islands had been settled fifteen years before Columbus even went on his first voyage[v]. Thus, Columbus’s vision was not entirely unique nor were his actions heroic.
That, however, is not what the film depicts. In fact, 1492 extends the idea that Columbus and other explorers were, in a sense, heroes. Admittedly, the film does not portray Columbus as an ideal hero but as a flawed yet determined individual. This makes his heroism “rugged” in the sense that his flaws are symbolic of the constant challenges to prove himself to everyone else. In addition, Columbus’s “heroic” accomplishments are far more dramatized and emphasized than his non-heroic ones in the film. For example, the scene where Columbus is completing the tower with the town bell in La Isabela is played over an epic, inspiring soundtrack. While the creation of La Isabela was a significant achievement, its completion is drawn out over a long period of time in the film and ends with a frame zooming out with Columbus walking away from the magnificent tower while the bell is swaying and ringing vibrantly. Another aspect of Columbus’s “heroism” is that he is portrayed as the only fair individual, telling Moxica “There will be no revenge” when he finds out the men left behind from the first expedition to San Salvador had been killed and also persistently insisting to his brothers that everyone must work, including the nobility[vi]. Moxica’s characterization is further inflated, as the film shows him cutting off the right hand of a native who is unable to present the Spaniards with gold when in reality this was a practice more closely associated with Columbus[vii]. There is even little mention as to how Columbus effectively conquered the natives and instead more focus on the initial cooperation and humane treatment of the natives. After witnessing these positive aspects of Columbus, the audience empathizes with him at the end of the film under false conditions. 1492 correctly shows Columbus lamenting the fact that he will not be given credit for discovering the “New World”, but wrongly depicts Amerigo Vespucci receiving the credit instead[viii]. The film again isolates Columbus from others, this time ignoring the friendship of Vespucci and Columbus as colleagues. Columbus actually mentioned Vespucci when expressing his disappointment for not receiving his due credit, stating that Vespucci’s “labors had not brought him the benefits they deserve”[ix]. It is true that Vespucci would eventually receive fame, but that would come after Columbus’s death, which the film does not include[x]. Instead, by highlighting how Columbus was able to persevere through his challenges and still not receive credit for “discovering” the New World, the film shows another heroic aspect of Columbus as someone who had the courage to work against the social establishment, accomplish his dreams, but remain isolated from everyone else. In the first half of the film, Pinzon appropriately tells Columbus “There is a price to pay for every victory”, foreshadowing that Columbus will not receive the credit he thinks he deserves while simultaneously categorizing Columbus’s voyage as a victory[xi]. In the end, Columbus is wrongly depicted as an “unjustly mocked heroic dreamer”[xii].
The mythical, legendary, and heroic qualities assigned to Columbus are quite similar to the portrayal of the bandeirantes in Brazil. Bandeirantes were Portuguese settlers who undertook expeditions to reveal the vast territories encompassed by Brazil[xiii]. They also had a heroic and courageous quality to them of trying to accomplish their goals, even if went against authority[xiv]. These “noble” explorers were considered heroic enough that Brazil celebrates the fourteenth of November as the “Day of the Bandeirante”[xv]. However, like Columbus, the “exceptional” bandierantes were not the only ones responsible for the expansion of territory in Brazil nor were they as heroic as they have been depicted. Many of the bandeirante entradas, or explorations, were meant to pursue and force natives away from the interior to the coastal areas in order to work for the Portuguese[xvi]. This included the use of deception and manipulation to persuade the natives that life would be better on the coast, even though in reality it was not[xvii]. Therefore, the myth of few exceptional men and the myth of the bandeirante are parallels as they both wrongly over exemplify the exceptionalism of a handful of individuals.
The main take away from Ridley Scott’s 1492: Conquest of Paradise is that the blatant removal of historical evidence from any medium raises the same few individuals to a higher pedestal. This ignores the significant importance of other factors, such as companions and the historical context of the event, in favor of simplifying history to be the result of a few extraordinary people. A simplification to this extent can be satisfactory in fiction, but in history it does not provide a complete or coherent picture of how the Conquest occurred.
[i] 1492: Conquest of Paradise. DVD. Directed by Ridley Scott. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1992.
[ii] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2003), 7.
[iii] 1492: Conquest of Paradise. DVD. Directed by Ridley Scott. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1992.
[iv] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2003), 8.
[vi] 1492: Conquest of Paradise. DVD. Directed by Ridley Scott. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1992.
[vii] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2003), 24.
[viii] Ibid, 10.
[xi] 1492: Conquest of Paradise. DVD. Directed by Ridley Scott. Los Angeles: Paramount Pictures, 1992.
[xii] Matthew Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest (Oxford University Press, 2003), 10.
[xiii] Lecture, September 20, 2016.