Ridley Scott's "1492: Conquest of Paradise" portrays Christopher Columbus less as the admiral of the ocean seas than as the world's first James Rouse. He wanted to build the new town of Columbia on Santo Domingo, rather than in a Howard County cow pasture. He just couldn't get the zoning changed for a mall, or the brotherhood of man.
The movie is so much better than the recent "Columbus: The Discovery" that it's almost sacrilegious to mention them in the same breath and anyone who does should be burned at the stake. So let's forget that one. "1492" is a real movie, not a marketing concept dressed up to cash in on a boom that refused to go bang. It's dense, convoluted, painterly and visually astonishing, every last square inch the work of the visionary who unleashed "Blade Runner" and "Thelma and Louise" upon the earth.
Thank God, Scott isn't terribly interested in the least fascinating aspect of the story, that long time on the boat with all those burly sailors. Really, how do you make a movie out of a story whose salient points are summed up in a nursery rhyme: "In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue." Scott skates through that, summing up the first trip in a wonderful shot: the parting of mists to reveal a whole new world, green and mud-luscious with possibility.
That shot is the emotional core of the movie far more than the great seaman's earlier conceptual breakthrough to the idea that you could go east by sailing west. From it springs Columbus' zeal: He sees in the New World a chance to escape Europe's smoky and death-haunted pyres, its fractious politics, its debauched upper classes, its entrenched system of oppression. Political correctness, anyone? Nevertheless, in the hulking Frenchman Gerard Depardieu, Scott has found the perfect vessel for his revisionist version: Columbus as brawny saint, dreamer of the maddest dreams and ready to punch the teeth out of anyone who disagrees with him. Depardieu manifests an exquisite balance between otherworldly radiance and neanderthalic brutality, although of course you can't understand word he says.
Still, Scott has some fun with bad old Europe and its excesses, such as the paranoia of inquisition-haunted Spain; he manages to turn a mass burning of heretics into a kind festival of lights. Weenies and marshmallows, anyone? He loves the past almost as much as he loved the future in "Blade Runner" and imagines it whole; the rooms are drafty, the light gray and non-electric, the winters cold and the aristocrats, particularly a glossy, practical and shrewd Sigourney Weaver as Isabella, both powerful and somehow real. They embody the threat of naked force that underlay the aristocratic ideal. No, Tom Selleck isn't around to play Ferdinand; in fact, Ferd doesn't make an appearance except briefly, in a celebratory revel after the big discovery.
The puppet-master in all this is Armand Assante as an equally shrewd power broker behind the throne who sees in the Columbus proposal exactly what capitalists the world over have seen in the prospects of new markets: lots o' pesos. It's only that Columbus himself was never clued in on this program: He thought he was there to expand the boundaries of man.
Thus the best and most gripping part of "1492" is set in 1493, although a movie called "1493" probably wouldn't have worked at the box office, not that one called "1492" will, either. The movie comes finally to most resemble Roland Joffe's "The Mission," turning into an account of rebellion in the New World. On Santo Domingo, Columbus decides to build a new city, infused with notions of brotherhood and justice under God. The aristocrats, lead by wiley Michael Wincott, who looks like one of the punk villains in "Superman II," try to take over the New Town and reconvert it to the old principles of death and domination; Columbus and his brothers rally the Indians and their own followers and the movie turns into a surprisingly vivid and brutal account of war in the flintlock and arrow age, easily as blood-drenched as "Last of the Mohicans."
If "1492" has a significant flaw, it's in an ending that labors mightily to find an appropriate tone and somehow squanders what has come before. Scott's boat has sprung a leak. The story materials are sad: Defrocked of his post as governor of the New World, Columbus returns to a jail sentence and his riches are reclaimed by the throne. He seems to end up a haunted old man, a ghostly visage that lurked on the outskirts of a court culture in the excited throes of turning itself from a realm into an empire with all undue posthaste and savagery. Columbus finds the New World, finds his own soul but then loses all sense of direction.
Starring Gerard Depardieu and Sigourney Weaver.
Directed by Ridley Scott.
Released by Paramount.