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Genoan navigator Christopher Columbus has a dream to find an alternative route to sail to the Indies, by traveling west instead of east, across the unchartered Ocean sea. After failing to find backing from the Portugese, he goes to the Spanish court to ask Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand for help. After surviving a grilling from the Head of the Spanish Inquisition Tomas de Torquemada, he eventually gets the blessing from Queen Isabella and sets sail in three ships to travel into the unknown. Along the way he must deal with sabotage from Portugese spies and mutiny from a rebellious crew. Written by
"Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet...?"
Christopher Columbus: The Discovery a swashbuckler? Is it a revisionist history? A celebration? Condemnation? All or none of the above? Well, yes it is, and that's just part of the problem.
To be honest, it's not really THAT bad. It's not that good, but it's not that bad. Aspiring to Warner Bros. in the 30s to evoke the spirit of Errol Flynn, but only making it to Fox in the 50s and their Richard Conte Deluxe-CinemaScope costumers, the Salkinds' much ridiculed version is not quite as moronic as its reputation would imply.
Many of the key incidents Ridley Scott omitted are to be found here: the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Colon's ineptitude leading to the wrecking of one of his ships, with the relationship between him and the Spanish Court much more convincingly essayed. To Ferdinand, the New World means finance, to Isabella, converts. Both are allowed more depth than in 1492: Conquest of Paradise; Isabella in particular is penned in far more detail than Sigourney Weaver's conspiratorial flirt. Sadly, this high-point of the script brings the low point of the casting, to hysterical effect.
Isabella may have been a gung-ho Catholic zealot not averse to having a few hundred heretics tortured to death, but it's hard to believe she was quite as jolly hockey sticks as Rachel Ward's head girl of the chalet school incarnation here. On the other hand, as the king, Tom Selleck, the poor deer, wanders through it all like a man emerging from a serious road accident, aware of his wounds but too numb to take it all in. You just can't help feeling sorry for him.
Other casting is similarly erratic. Although hardly memorable, Marlon Brando's Torquemada is at least allowed a motive and rationale for his cruelty that is very much of the time. Robert Davi and Oliver Cotton are both very good in drastically underwritten roles, but Nigel Terry, whose ham acting has near-ruined many a good film, makes the most of the opportunity to ruin a naff one by undermining many of their scenes. A young Catherine Zeta Jones here seems dead set on being the next Rachel Ward: with her disturbing tendency to stare at the ceiling in moments of high emotion as if waiting for a song cue, she is just part of the scenery.
Yet the odd thing about The Discovery is that while critics were quick to sneer in anticipation of Ridley Scott's version, it actually comes down much harder on its hero. George Corraface's Columbus has a much nastier side to him than Depardieu's victim of snobbery and class warfare; whereas Scott constantly found or invented excuses, here the explorer has the kind of contradictory fanaticism that sees no need of them, as capable of exploitation and cruelty as of great dreams, and certainly more mercenary in his motives. If Depardieu's incarnation fails his dream for all the right reasons, Corraface's succeeds for all the wrong ones, and he is good enough in these later scenes to dispel at least some of the memory of his incessant would-be dashing grinning of the first half.
But the darker side is never tapped by either the confused script or John Glen's painting by numbers direction (at one point Timothy Dalton was set to star but pulled out three days before filming after reportedly falling out with his former Bond director). The photography is distinctly available light - there is no vision or style here, and despite the higher budget it looks cheaper than its main rival. The New World seems to be little more than a stretch of highly desirable beachfront property ripe for timeshare development, making it hard to see what all the fuss was about. Only Cliff Eidelman's rich and sweepingly romantic score attains the epic status the film aspires to.
Too old-fashioned (or not old-fashioned enough) for its own good, this may have made marginally more than 1492 at the US box-office, but it's no surprise that it's now no more than a footnote to Scott's film (which itself is no more than a footnote to Scott's career these days).
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