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‘1492: Conquest of Paradise’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 09, 1992


Ridley Scott
Gerard Depardieu;
Armand Assante;
Sigourney Weaver;
Angela Molina;
Fernando Rey;
Tcheky Karyo;
Frank Langella;
Michael Wincott;
Loren Dean;
Kevin Dunn
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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When Christopher Columbus set out for the New World, he knew there was danger ahead. But he could never have foreseen the ultimate horror. I don't mean lurking sea monsters, or the abyss at the edge of the world. I'm talking about the movies that would be made about him in 1992.

You heard about "Christopher Columbus: The Discovery," which Nina'ed, Pinta'ed and floundered its way through neighborhood theaters some weeks ago. Now comes "1492: Conquest of Paradise," a film not quite as ridiculous but twice as disappointing.

The first movie was produced by the makers of "Superman." Tom Selleck was King Ferdinand, Rachel Ward was his queen and Marlon "Muttering Sea Whale" Brando was Inquisitor Torquemada. You knew it was waterlogged from the start. But "1492" was directed by Ridley Scott, who gave us "Blade Runner," "Alien" and "Thelma & Louise." With Gerard Depardieu as Columbus, this should have been a class voyage -- even with Sigourney "Alien Killer" Weaver as Queen Isabel.

Wrong! Despite Scott's trademark, spectacular imagery, the story's dead in the water. Actually, there's no story. It's all eye-dizzying hyperbole, with astounding camerawork, fancy editing and a moody flamenco guitar-meets-synthesizer soundtrack by avant-garde musician Vangelis.

The explorer's ships pose themselves against a red sky. His sailors suffer picturesque exhaustion in Rembrandtian light. That omnipresent Spanish guitar strrrums. And when Depardieu first sets foot in the Americas (I'm not giving anything away here, am I?), you'd think Neil Armstrong's famous landing was just a stumble through the moon dust.

As for Depardieu, he's no Christopher Columbus. His Gallic tongue has served him beautifully in such historic-drama roles as French Revolution leader Danton, big-nosed soldier/poet Cyrano de Bergerac and sculptor Rodin. But here, Depardieu's tentative English impedes him. He's simply unable to take command. He's just a guy with a funny accent dressed in even funnier clothes, trying to convince his near-mutinous men that land is at hand: "De lan iz zere," he insists. "De lan iz cloze."

Where is the Monty Python crew when you really need them?

As the title implies, the movie shows the difficulty of Paradise management. Depardieu finds more brutality and treachery than gold. Even the weather (with a symbolically obliging lightning bolt) seems hostile. In addition to the Indians, he has cloak-and-dagger run-ins with Spaniards such as courtly schemer Armand Assante, baldheaded priest Mark Margolis and Michael Wincott as a sort of preening rock star/nobleman called de Moxica.

Both Scott and screenwriter Roselyne Bosch provide absorbing period detail. You learn about garrotings and massacres, Indian hairstyles and Spanish royal gowns. But this cinematic scrapbook of Columbian highlights is as beautiful as it is empty.

Perhaps the most wondrous image in the movie comes during Depardieu's first land sighting. At first he sees only mist. Then, as if on cue, the fog curtain parts to reveal a lush landscape of trees and sand. It's a momentary glimpse of the paradise the Italian voyager has been dreaming of all his life. But that enchanting vision is also emblematic of the movie this never was -- a fleeting image viewed through the swirling mist.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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