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Using a letter of introduction from Queen Isabella's former confessor, Christopher Columbus gains access to the Spanish court where he tries to convince authorities of the practicality of his proposed voyage to reach to Far East by sailing west. Court intrigue and the efforts of Francisco de Bobadilla, whose financial interests would be hurt by Columbus' success, are roadblocks to the voyage, but the navigator perseveres and ultimately prevails. Written by
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It is very odd that this prestigious 1949 Technicolor production should emanate from Britain dealing as it does with the Italian explorer who discovered America, a nation which had to fight the very British monarchy to attain its independence! Perhaps it was bankrolled as a token of appreciation towards the U.S. for having joined the Allied Forces in WWII; if so, I cannot say that it was particularly appreciated at the time as it was a resounding box-office flop. In fact the film is often dismissed as a tedious costumer but, while no classic for sure, I found it to be a well-crafted and engrossing picture buoyed by a good cast and fine production values.
Since Columbus was 41 when he set sail for The New World, the casting of 52-year old Fredric March to portray him here may seem to have been a strange choice; indeed he is fitted with a most unbecoming white-haired wig for the film's entire duration but one cannot deny the fact that he gives the role his utmost in stature and dignity after all, Columbus was firstly an inspired cartographer then a swaggering adventurer. Indeed, March's real-life wife Florence Eldridge is also present here as Queen Isabella of Spain who, after the initial but long-winded skepticism, lends a sympathetic ear to Columbus' pleas for funding his exploratory marine enterprise (though what ultimately propels this is pure movie fabrication!). The rest of the cast list is peppered with familiar faces from post-WWII British cinema: Francis L. Sullivan and Linden Travers (as Columbus' major opponent in the Spanish court and his attractive scandalous cousin who tries to ensnare the former); Derek Bond and Niall McGinnis (as Columbus' companion and navigator his major allies during his tumultuous sea voyage); Felix Aylmer and Abraham Sofaer (as the Queen's former confessor and Chancellor Columbus' first champions who were instrumental in obtaining him royal favour); James Robertson Justice and Edward Rigby (as the ambitious and ultimately treacherous Captain Pinzon and a perennially grumpy mutineering sailor).
Needless to say, the producers' aim here was less to instruct than to entertain and, as such it may seem surprising today to find that half of the film's relatively trim 104-minute length is spent in court intrigues that dissipate Columbus' energy but not his spirit. The initial sea voyage that almost ended in mutiny and failure takes up the next quarter of the film while the arrival on land, the meeting with and subsequent colonization of the natives, Columbus' first triumphant return to Spain and his disgraceful second one in chains (at the behest of incoming governor Sullivan) and eventual disillusionment and abandonment by the Spanish crown are crammed into the last quarter of an hour! Although the TCM-sourced print (which cut off rather too abruptly during the end credits!) I watched was hardly pristine, with the colour looking especially insipid, I still managed to enjoy Stephen Dade's cinematography and Arthur Bliss' rousing score.
For the record, this is the fifth movie about the Italian explorer I have gotten under my belt, following the star-studded eponymous 1985 partly-shot-in-Malta Italian TV mini-series and the 3 disparate but simultaneous cinematic renditions made in time for the 500th anniversary of the historical event: George Pan Cosmatos' CHRISTOPER COLUMBUS: THE DISCOVERY (also partly shot on our shores), Ridley Scott's 1492: THE CONQUEST OF PARADISE and the spoof CARRY ON COLUMBUS (a one-off revival of the popular comedy franchise). Apparently, Anthony Dexter also played him in Irwin Allen's infamous historical charade THE STORY OF MANKIND (1957) and I also have a four-part Italian TV mini-series from 1968 directed by Vittorio Cottafavi and starring Spanish actor Francisco Rabal in my unwatched pile.
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