In the late fifteenth century, Christopher Columbus persuades the Queen of Spain to fund his latest expedition to the East by searching out new trade routes on the way. Inadvertently arriving in the Americas, Columbus attempts to civilize the natives and live in harmony with them, but his efforts are sabotaged by a crew intent on plundering all the New World has to offer.
"The New World is a disaster."
"And the old one, an achievement?"
1992 was the year of Christopher Columbus - or at least Hollywood thought it was. To coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus getting lost and discovering the Americas, the race was on to get competing Columbus biopic projects greenlit, shot, edited, and in movie screens in time to celebrate the auspicious moment. One of those projects was Ridley Scott's 1492 Conquest of Paradise starring Gérard Depardieu as the famed navigator. While arguably the better of two Columbus films to come out that year, the film is a lavish, impeccably produced venture with a terrific performance from its lead actor. However, the film struggles to pack in over a decade of history in a relatively short runtime making the final result feel ungainly while glossing over the central character's treatment of native peoples.
Some men have dreams, other men have destinies. Explorer Christopher Columbus (Gérard Depardieu) is a man with a destiny. Deep within his bones, within his spirit, he knows he's destined to chart a course west across the Atlantic Ocean to the Asian continent. To scholars and the religious magistrates, this path across the infinite ocean is an impossibility. For Columbus, it's merely an inevitability. All he needs to do is convince the right people to fund his voyage and riches will flow into Spain. With the magistrate Sanchez (Armand Assante) on his side, Columbus is granted an audience with Queen Isabel (Sigourney Weaver). With his expedition funded, Columbus must leave his wife Beatrix (Ángela Molina) and his family to fulfill his destiny. Little does he know that his discovery will change the course of human history.
Considering the size and scale of the undertaking, one must tip their hat to Ridley Scott for giving it the college try. 1492 Conquest of Paradise often feels like a film that is about to spiral out of control. With so much story to work through, it's difficult to know when and where things are happening. Little time is given to introduce many of the major players or the distinct tribes of native peoples Columbus encountered to fully know and wholly appreciate their relationship to the man. 1492 Conquest of Paradise feels like a six-hour miniseries event compressed into the space of a two and a half hour film. That lack of breathing room often undercuts the thematic importance of certain moments and also forces a glossed-over approach to the numerous genocidal acts and the enslavement of native people committed under Columbus' command.
Because the film tries to do so much in such a short amount of time, 1492 Conquest of Paradise is a Cliffs Notes version of Columbus' discovery of the Americas and his following voyages. The first act allows plenty of time for Columbus to try, fail, and try again at gaining funding for his expedition west to discover a new shorter route to the Asian continent. In this time we get to know his family, wife, sons, and the players within the church and court of Spain who oppose and support his voyage. It's the front end that works best allowing Gérard Depardieu time to portray his Columbus as a man who has numerous motivations to make the voyage and who knows how to turn people over to his cause. It's in these moments that Depardieu along with Weaver as Queen Isabel and Armand Assante's Sanchez where the film finds the most satisfying moments culminating in the beautifully executed sequence of the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria setting sail.
What follows are such compressed pieces of historical moments and events that they're covered in quick narration before we're speedily tossed into the second act that covers the building of colonies, his antagonistic relationship with Don Moxica (Michael Wincott) over the treatment of native people, and culminates in a native uprising and hurricane that destroys his colony. Simply put, everything happens just too damn fast to be comfortable. We're given plenty of time to see Depardieu command the screen and deliver a passionate performance as Columbus, but few of the side characters are given any true depth beyond surface motivations. Simply because he wears black and has a gravely voice, we know Wincott's Moxica is the duly appointed bad guy of the film, but his reasons for being aren't fully explained or explored.
At the same time, most of Columbus' own actions are explained away as a man powerless under the heels of necessity. The natives are enslaved because they need a workforce. The film gives him plenty of wiggle room to convey his displeasure of the moment but never condemns him putting the film in a sort of moral quagmire. How do you show all the dirt about your lead character and still have him come off as a hero? Suggestions and allusions are made to acts committed by Columbus, but like everything else within this film, his worst qualities are barely scratched at.
Ever since I was a kid and saw that impressively cryptic teaser trailer that juxtaposes Columbus's landfall with the moon landing, I've been fascinated by 1492 Conquest of Paradise. As one of the most expensive independent productions made, the film was a disastrous flop taking in barely $7,000,000 against a $47,000,000 budget being soundly beaten on opening weekend by Under Siege of all films. Considering the pedigree involved, I can see how critics weren't exactly won over by the final product.
Far from being a terrible film, it's hardly the epic masterpiece Scott envisioned. The flaring of greatness peppered throughout the film only makes its shortfalls that much more painful. While many fall on the sword that the film is too long, I suggest the opposite that it isn't nearly long enough for what it sets out to achieve. More time is needed to fill those gaps and help the themes resonate. Scott's penchant for beautiful visuals and action sequences are fully on display, but they're not enough to salvage his mission to produce the definitive Christopher Columbus film.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
1492 Conquest of Paradise makes its Blu-ray debut courtesy of Kino Lorber and their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc. The disc is housed in a standard sturdy Blu-ray case and comes with a booklet featuring the Studio Classics library of titles. The disc loads directly to a static image main menu with traditional navigation options while the Vangelis score plays in the background.
After years of waiting, 1492 Conquest of Paradise finally arrives on Blu-ray (and DVD) for the first time in North America. For fans of the film, this is a long day coming. Sadly, this Columbus film doesn't sail in the glory that it should have. Clearly minted from a dated master, this 2.35:1 1080p transfer isn't a complete tragedy, but it doesn't live up to expectations that naturally comes from a Ridley Scott film shot by someone with cinematographer Adrian Biddle's record. While colors are relatively strong and detail levels provide enough clarity to get the job done, the real problem comes from inconsistent black levels and shadow separation. During several darkened indoor scenes and some night sequences, blacks solidify and flatten removing any sense of depth to the image. The film looks its best during open daylight scenes where details are allowed to come through and there is a genuine sense of depth. Occasionally reds are pushed a tad strong - fire often has a red glow rather than a brighter yellow or orange hue. The source for this transfer is in good shape, only very slight speckling appears. Again, this isn't a total travesty as it is leagues better than the Laserdisc transfer and the one supplied to various streaming services over the years, but fans may be left wanting better.
Armed with a DTS-HD MA 2.0 mix, 1492 Conquest of Paradise sounds fine. I wish I could give it better praise than that, but this is a very serviceable audio mix. Dialogue and accents come through perfectly clear - which is important considering the immense amount of politicking in the front half of the film. Sound effects and atmospherics work well enough to convey a sense of scenery, but any amount of depth or dimension is lost as this track sounds like a very front/center affair without a lot of imaging to the mix. Thankfully Vangelis' terrific score comes through beautifully and accents the key moments of the story perfectly. Some sound effects have a tinny quality to them and when the action kicks up can sound a bit distorted, but otherwise, this is a problem free mix that gets the job done.
Taken as a whole, this isn't a half bad assortment of bonus features, even though some of the more interesting material such as behind the scenes or a retrospective would have been great. The commentary is a great listen and the deleted scenes show how this was originally going to be a much bloodier film. Sadly the impressive teaser trailer that I knew so well from my Wayne's World VHS tape isn't to be found here.
Audio Commentary: Featuring film historians Howard S. Berger and Nethaniel Thompson, this is a solid and informative commentary. However, considering this is a Ridley Scott film, it would have been great to have him provide a commentary on his own in his traditionally exceptional style.
Deleted Scenes (HD 8:30) Most of what is here are simple scene extensions that featured a lot more blood and gore during the battle sequences, the Inquisition burnings, as well as some bits during the revolt. There are a few character moments here and there, but nothing to be missed from the film itself.
The Rosemary Murders (SD 2:18)
The House on Carroll Street (SD 2:00)
Mulholland Falls (HD 2:00)
Needful Things (SD 2:01)
Wild at Heart (SD 1:50)
Hidden Agenda (HD 2:03)
1492 Conquest of Paradise is far from being a total and complete disaster, nor is it the grand success that it set out to be. It rests somewhere in the middle land of mediocrity which is a shame considering the historical figures and the pedigree involved in making the film. Ridley Scott's visual stylings are on display but aside from a commanding performance from lead Gerard Depardieu and a great score by Vangelis, there's little working in the film's favor. After being absent from the disc-based home video market for so long, 1492 Conquest of Paradise finally makes landfall on Blu-ray. The video transfer is dated but not terrible and the audio mix is generally a good experience. That said, I truly wish this film had been given the full restoration it deserves. Bonus features are slim but the commentary is a good listen and the deleted scenes show that a harder more intense film had originally been envisioned. As a whole 1492 Conquest of Paradise is worth a look while fans should be happy to finally have it in their personal collections.