"Please don't go. I hate it when you go away," says Mrs. Christopher Columbus. Boy, did she marry the wrong guy! Unfortunately for her, but fortunately for history, Columbus did go away. He had bigger fish to fry. He hitched his wagon to a star. He might even have hitched his wagon to a fish, but, we digress.
Digression may be preferable in this case to facing the awful truth: a slugabed six-hour CBS mini-series called "Christopher Columbus" in which the Italian-born, Spanish-financed explorer runs smack into America, more or less, and doesn't even know it; nor does he find out before the end of the tale, which airs Sunday and Monday, at 8 each night on Channel 9, and on which about the most extravagant adjective that can reasonably be lavished is "restful."
Christopher Columbus, whom most of the characters in this muddle-headed fuddle refer to as "Kristoffro Columbo," which may be authentic but sounds darn silly, still thinks he has just found a western route to the Indies. "What I discovered are the Indies. Beyond lies the coast of Asia," says the brave man with the short sight. By this time, most viewers really won't care if he thinks he discovered penicillin or Michael Jackson. "Christopher Columbus" is dead in the water.
Another of those attractively photographed but dramatically inert international coproductions (Italian-German-Lorimarian) full of actors one has never heard of and a few, in tiny roles, one has, "Columbus" may be the show that sends the mini-series to the bottom as a proliferating programming form. Even ABC's panting and slavering attractions, "Lace II" and "A Death in California," performed below expectations in the ratings. A pretty but failed historical epic hardly seems the stuff of rejuvenation, either commercially or creatively.
So groggily motionless that it all but sinks from sight as you watch it, "Christopher Columbus" robs what you'd have to call a fairly important oceanic adventure of its romance and adventure, and even forgets to mention its importance until the last reel. It scales Columbus down to the dimensions of a peripatetic real estate agent.
In reducing the heroes of history to TV cartoons, TV movies and mini-series risk cheating us of legend even as they supposedly offer the lowdown. "Columbus," sponsored in a sense of high corporate beneficence by IBM, tells us that while Columbus was a good and persistent scout and abhorred slavery, he was also preoccupied with the profit he stood to realize from his voyage and with the titles -- viceroy, admiral of the ocean sea -- he wanted bestowed upon himself as rewards. It's sort of "Chris Columbus, Superstar." Perhaps the greatest disservice is in making Columbus not greedy, but boring. He hardly seems capable of galvanizing a parrot, much less queen and country.
The queen is Isabella of Spain, played by Faye Dunaway in a peekaboo performance that amounts to very little screen time but includes an armor fashion show. As network promos have it, Isabella was one of the three women in Columbus' life. His wife dies soon after childbirth. Then Chris takes up with a mistress (Anne Canovas) who gives him another son. Some people may take offense at the bedroom scenes, but there's nothing wrong with being reminded that Columbus was a flesh-and-blood man. The trouble is that here he is flesh, blood and wood.
Gabriel Byrne, who plays Columbus, is not a very expressive actor. At times he seems a cross between Stewart Granger and Farley Granger, if you catch my drift. He drifts a lot. The first half of the mini-series has him wrangling and finagling to get his expedition underwritten, first at the court of that old snoot King John of Portugal (a justifiably disinterested Max Von Sydow), then off to Isabella's, where King Ferdinand (Nicol Williamson) is skeptical, in a wimpy sort of way.
On Aug. 3, 1492, the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria set sail across a bathtub meant to be the Atlantic Ocean -- surely the calmest Atlantic ever conjured for a film. The director, Alberto Lattuada, and the writer, Laurence Heath, don't work very hard to impart what must have been the terrors and rigors of that journey. We just see a few sailors in a snit about sea monsters and briefly contemplating a whiny mutiny.
To remind us that these explorers did not have lofty aims -- as if there were any hint of loftiness among any of them -- the shout of "land ahoy!" near the end of part one is followed by a sailor jubilantly chanting, "I'm rich! I'm rich!" In Part 2, Columbus makes a couple more trips back and forth, and the Inquisition-minded Spanish Christians wreak massacre on the innocent natives of what Columbus still thinks are the Indies but which are really the Bahamas and other Caribbean islands. Among the unlikelier lines is a sailor's appraisal of the natives: "They are very nice people." Gee, somehow that just doesn't sound very 15th century.
The stock villain of the piece is Oliver Reed as Martin Pinzon, captain of the Pinta. We know Pinzon is a bad guy because Oliver Reed only plays bad guys. The new wrinkle is that it now sounds as if Reed's voice has receded still further into his being, like down between the toes of his left foot. Soon he will be completely inaudible. The only fun in "Christopher Columbus" is in trying to tell Reed and Raf Vallone apart; they are becoming the same person. They can play each other's heavies, wear each other's armor, and so on.
The tropical photography is pretty, and the natives are kind of cute in their colorful designer undies (though the females do not go topless, so even that touch of fun is suppressed). Like "Marco Polo," this is a historical saga too heavy on sog and too given to sag.
Near the end, Columbus thinks himself a big flop. Isabella says "Your whole life has been a triumph," and that's that. Because the film is narrated by the voice of Columbus -- instead of the sensible thing, a narrator looking back from the present -- there's little chance at historical perspective, and no one around to tell young viewers what's really happening and where Columbus really is. The mini-series is a CBS "Read More About It" project; you have to read more about it even to know why we have a Columbus Day every October.
What you may want to say after two or three hours of this seagoing slumber party is, "All right, all right, I'll read more about it, just so I don't have to watch another minute!"