I’m a big fan of Ridley Scott. Right the way from The Duellists to Robin Hood, I think some of his stuff has been unfairly maligned. I was frustrated but intrigued by Prometheus, wanting more rather than less. Kingdom of Heaven in particular I think is a stunning film (as long as you’re watching the Director’s Cut): an overlooked masterpiece discounted just because people decided Orlando Bloom was nothing more than a pretty boy (hey, I liked Elizabethtown too, so sue me). With that in mind, I was interested to see what Conquest of Paradise had in store. A mid-career disappointment coming after the early successes of Alien and Blade Runner, and before the resurrection of Gladiator, it’s fair to say the film doesn’t come with a glowing reputation.
Gerard Depardieu plays Christopher Columbus, a plebian upstart with ideas beyond his station to discover trade routes to Asia and find glory in the process. Instead, they land upon the outlying islands of the Americas, finding a utopian land with peaceful natives and lush vegetation. After a few months of frolicking, they return to Spain to raise more money and recruit a larger army of men to populate this paradise. By the time they return, the few men left behind have been slaughtered, and it all starts to go horribly wrong.
It took a while to acclimatise to Gerard Depardieu as the decent actor he used to be, rather than the pissing-in-the-aisles, tax-dodging parody of recent months. Once that was overcome, however, he puts in a strikingly good performance, carrying the film in amongst a huge amount of facial hair. It has grandeur, gravity and a substantial number of garrottings as the execution of choice. Perhaps it dragged a little, and was a little too portentous for its own good, but this wasn’t the disaster I was expecting it to be. Adding in a deeper performance from Michael Wincott than his scripts usually allowed, the results are solid, if unspectacular.
It had certain similarities to Kingdom of Heaven – including the (relatively) lower class protagonist. the sympathetic queen, the political machinations conspiring behind the scenes, plus the central point about the culpability of the conqueror. 1492 felt more disjointed and not as coherent in its storytelling, relying perhaps a little too much on a soundtrack which transcends the film in its timeless class.
I first heard the main track during an evening snow event in Switzerland when I was about 15. It was dark, and the crowds of people had just watched a number of ski instructors showing off their skills in synchronised sledging. Then the music kicked in and a procession of 50 skiers carrying flaming torches started snaking down from the top of the mountain. Bearing in mind it was pitch dark, the effect was spectacular, and atmospheric, and reminiscent of a scene from The 13th Warrior. We managed to catch it on film, which, 16 years later, just shows a indistinguishable orange blob. Shame.