VCI Home Video // 1949 // 99 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // September 24th, 2011
"The greatest adventure man ever lived!"
Back in 1992, Christopher Columbus appeared on movie screens twice. But both Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise are considered poor films. This 1949 film is the only straight adaptation of his famous story. Let's see how this offering from VCI's Rank Collection stacks up to its descendants.
Christopher Columbus (Fredric March, The Best Years of Our Lives) has one ambition: to sail to the East Indies by going west across the Ocean Sea. He is convinced by various historical sources, the bible, and mathematics the earth is round and this route is much shorter and lest costly. Unfortunately, he has yet to convince any of the world powers to finance this potentially lucrative voyage.
But Chris will not back down, and soon finds himself in Spain using his charisma and headstrong nature to get an audience with Queen Isabella (Florence Eldridge, Inherit the Wind), while also making enemies with the rotund Francisco de Bobadilla (Francis L. Sullivan, Great Expectations). Eventually Columbus is able to convince the Spanish court to finance his journey, but that's only the beginning of his adventure.
Christopher Columbus is one of those historical figures nearly everyone is familiar with. From grade school onward, his name pops up in history classes. These days he's not looked at with as much awe as he was back in my childhood. Seems that time and history have tarnished his reputation.
What's interesting is that Christopher Columbus actually addresses this. While it isn't a biographical film, the movie's main focus is on Columbus the man. March is more than up to the task, presenting us with a driven protagonist who's passionate about his beliefs and the objectives of his quest. He knows he'll find a shortcut to the East Indies, he knows Spain can profit, and he knows he's the man to do it. It's this willpower that drives him and propels the rest of the players in the game. But March and the screenwriters make sure to show us these same qualities make Columbus a difficult man to work with. Yes, he is courageous to a fault, but he has no problem lying and cheating to get what he wants. These same personality flaws end up ruining him later in life. March manages to bring all of this across and the movie is worth checking out if only for his performance.
The supporting cast does a nice job in their roles, mostly serving as foils for March to work with and against. Plus, Sullivan makes for a great villain, so smug and snide you can't wait for Columbus to prove him wrong.
Christopher Columbus goes for old fashioned epic in just about every way, showing off some impressive scope not only in the Spanish court, but also in the ship and island sequences. The pace moves fairly briskly, with the first half of the film covering the court intrigue and Columbus using his wits and pushiness to get what he wants. The second half covers his first voyage and all the hardships he encounters. The film ends with a bit of an epilogue, as Columbus is removed from his post as Governor of the Spanish colony and brought before the King and Queen to answer for his actions.
VCI's restoration is pretty impressive. The technicolor visuals aren't quite as rich as I was expecting, but the clarity and detail of the images are excellent. There is a bit of softness here and there, but these appear to be the result of stock footage use or some composite shots. The sound has been been remastered in surround, and you mostly hear it Arthur Bliss' full bodied, bombastic score from the rear speakers. It's clear and well balanced in both the surround and mono versions, but there are times when it seems a bit inappropriate and maybe even tracked to the film in the wrong place. Sadly, the only extra is a photo gallery of production stills and poster art. I was hoping to find out more about the production, the set design, where they shot the island scenes, and the longs shots of the ships (which didn't look like models).
The problem with making a film about such a legendary historical figure is that everybody already knows the outcome of the story, making the voyage sequence seem anticlimactic. We know Chris is going to find the New World, it's just a matter of time. So all the antics with the twitchy crew and the exhausting sea voyage don't really generate a lot of tension. Admittedly, this was also a problem with two Columbus films from the '90s. Here, it's mostly mitigated by March's performance, as we watch him manipulate the truth and push his men as hard as he can. But the moments when they reach the New World don't deliver the punch they should.
The final ten minutes of the film jump from the end of Columbus' his first voyage, to his time as Governor, and his disgrace before the Spanish court. It all happens so quickly the movie is over before you can really ground yourself. In many ways, this is one of the most interesting elements of Columbus' life, but it almost feels like the production team didn't want to delve too deeply into this dark chapter of life. The result left this reviewer dissatisfied.
Christopher Columbus is a classic costume picture in every sense of the word. Fredric March is the main draw here and fans of his work should check this out. It's more of a character study than an adventure film, but still makes for a fine evenings entertainment.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: VCI Home Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 1949
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Wikipedia: Christopher Columbus