Notes on films about colonialism in the Americas
In 15th century, when spices were worth more than gold, Venice and Constantinople controlled spice trade via land route to India. While Spain and Portugal were eager to find alternative maritime routes to be able to compete in spice trade. This situation initiated the Age of Discovery.
In British produced Christopher Columbus (1949)* [watch], the Italian explorer spent half of the film's runtime tried to convince Spanish Crown to fund his expedition to India via west route across Atlantic ocean where no man had ever achieved. When Santa Maria, Columbus' flagship, finally reached Bahamas in year 1492, island natives marched out to welcome the crews and immediately accepted their authorities and Christianity. (In fact, the first natives they met needed their helps to fight with another tribe. But Columbus took some of them prisoners to guild him to the source of the gold.) Ridiculously naive from imperialist perspective, this film was like a bland biography of a (inter)national hero that tried hard not to offend Western audience, although Columbus' vision and bravery should be admired.
There were two Hollywood films about Christopher Columbus released in 1992 which was 500 years anniversary of Columbus' discovery of America.
Written by Mario Puzo, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery (1992, John Glen)** was a bit better than 1949 film when it slightly addressed Columbus' dark side of imperialism, cruelties of the crews, slavery and rebellion of natives. Apart from this, it's cliché story about heroism and also looked more like a TV movie. This might be the darkest Columbus story ever (allowed to be) made, but still not dark enough. Marlon Brando who performed as villain in this story, was disappointed that the film failed to portray Columbus' complicity in the genocide of Native Americans.
At highest quality of productions, Ridley Scott's 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992)** was far less dramatic than those two previous films, it left out many details from Columbus' journals. With helps from Vangelis' outstanding music scores and Adrian Biddle's poetic cinematography, this film was more like visual homage to Columbus' achievement and the unknown world. Sometimes reminded me of Terrence Malick's The New World (2005). It presented Columbus as intellectual and even poet with soft, kind and opened mind, which of course betrayed the real history. 1492 unashamedly put all the blames on Moxica character and kept Columbus clean. Beautiful but too distorted - even worse than two previous films considering history.
O Descobrimento do Brasil (1936, Humberto Mauro, Brazil)* plainly reenacted the historical event of discovery of Brazil. Like other films from early 20th century, native peoples in this film were quite tame and easily accepted colonizers' superiority and Christianity without conflict.
A Mayan village was attacked by another Mayan tribe. They were enslaved and taken to the heart of the city. Told from natives' perspective, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006)*** is very good portrayal of pre-colonial mindsets and realistic brutalities of Mayan kingdom. This is no paradise. And that ending anticipates the fall of this bloody civilization.
One of the most interesting part in human history began when Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and his small army landed in Mayan territory (present-day Mexico) in 1519. He conquered the coastal Indians and made alliances with indigenous tribes to join forces for invading Tenochtitlán, capital of Aztec Empire (present-day Mexico City). His army killed thousands of unarmed people gathered at the central plaza in Cholula, and took Aztec Emperor Moctezuma as a hostage in his palace. On May 22, 1520 during the Feast of Toxcatl festival which including human sacrifice, one of Cortés' lieutenants Pedro de Alvarado committed the massacre in the Great Temple, triggering a local rebellion.
Spanish series Hernán (2019)** may be the most complete story of Cortés' expedition ever made, it could be an epic sequel to Apocalypto. Hernán humanizes Hernán Cortés from the day he landed in Mexico. It depicts politics of the Spaniards, tensions between Mayans and Aztecs (Mexica), and Cortés' romantic relationship with his translator/slave Malintzin/Marina. While Moctezuma and his Tenochtitlán are fairly represented (a bit too polished), Hernán goes too easy on Cortés, and even ties every loose ends in history to benefit his images - including those two massacres of Aztecs, which it puts the blames on a vengeful Mayan woman - not a clever move but understandable as it is Spanish series for Spanish audience. With unflinching brutalities and a bit too melodramatic, this is excellent portrayal of the world that lost in time, though not very good series, but it's the best we've got right now.
Captain from Castile (1947)* is trickier. This is the life of a Spanish nobility who fled the inquisitors and join Cortés' army to the New World. In here, native peoples are just decorations to support silly plot of betrayal and revenge of the Spaniards. And of course there is no any massacre happened in this imperialist film - to be fair there is no human sacrifice ritual too, just a trail of blood. Beautifully made, Captain from Castile did not age well.
Year 1520 after the massacre of the Aztecs at the Great Temple of Tenochtitlan, friar Diego was responsible for conversion of Topiltzin, an illegitimate son of Aztec Emperor Moctezuma, to be a good Christian. In this fictional story we witnessed Topiltzin's passage via changes of clothes, hair, language, faith and even his name into new identity, or we could say, into present-day Latin Americans. The title of The Other Conquest (1998, Salvador Carrasco, Mexico)*** might mean triumph of European Christianity over natives' Paganism. This is very difficult subject to translate into movie - how can you present one's change of faith in spiritual level, or not, when conversion was the only way to survive. The Other Conquest is a good attempt to show dissolution of Paganism into supernatural part of Christianity - and vice versa. It also hinted that Christianity, along with racism, was responsible for prejudiced hierarchy in the Americas.
Cabeza de Vaca, a survivor from shipwreck in 1528, was taken as slave by native sorcerers. After witnessed many magic, he magically became a new sorcerer. This was just the beginning of his journey from pre-colonial Florida to Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca (1991, Nicolás Echevarría, Mexico)*** could be categorized as fantasy/surrealist film though it was inspired by a journal of real Spanish explorer. It creates otherness by leaving natives' dialogues untranslated, while the protagonist was gradually blending into this otherness. This mesmerizing film inevitably ends like Lord of the Files, when Cabeza de Vaca finally reached Mexico in 1536 facing cruel reality of Spanish conquistadors' army.
In 1532, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro led an expedition into the heart of the Inca Empire, captured the Incan Emperor Atahualpa and claimed Peru for Spain. The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969)*** twisted some part of history and made it into a really good film. It humanized both Pizarro and Atahualpa - arrogant White man and god-like emperor in mysterious kingdom - with post-colonial mindsets. As their relationship grew stronger with time, this British film cleverly questioned hypocrisy of Christianity and White man's burden. The weak point of the film is that it was presented like a stage play with all Caucasian actors which would be ridiculous for native audience (thinking about The King and I (1956)). But with that massacre scene in upbeat music, and that heartbreaking end of the empire, The Royal Hunt of the Sun is superb in almost every ways, though not a good historical film.
Peru 1560, after the fall of Incan Empire, there was rumour among natives about El Dorado, the land of gold, deep in the Andes. Under command of Gonzalo Pizarro, Don Lope de Aguirre was sent on rafts to survey along Amazon River. In struggling condition they desperately settled Empire of El Dorado in a jungle of nothing. Werner Herzog's acclaimed Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972, West Germany)*** is obviously very difficult to make. It shows off exoticness of the Andes in contrast to civilized European explorers who would finally face meaninglessness of God, Christianity, empires and life itself, while their rafts (=lives) drifting pointlessly in river of madness and hopelessness. In the end it's just story about narcissistic obsessions of a white man. Decent film, not great. The story behind the making of this film sounds more interesting.
Adapting from the same source as Aguirre, the Wrath of God - but with more details, clearer storyline, realistic circumstances and bigger production, Carlos Saura's El Dorado (1988, Spain)** is typical tale about journey to the golden city that destined to be disastrous. Herzog's film is much more intriguing but El Dorado is far more consistent.
In 1594 Brazil, there were disputes between two cannibal tribes: Tupinambas (supported by French army) and Tupiniquins (supported by Portuguese army). A Frenchman was captured by Tupinambas tribe who mistaken him for a Portuguese. They treated him as slave and provided him a wife, until the day of ceremony that he would be eaten. Based on real story of German explorer, How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Brazil)**** [watch] is unusual comedy that sometimes I need to remind myself that it is a comedy. Watching natives through the lens of European realist perspective, you (and the protagonist) would realize that these people had different mindset in different time, and it's very cruel. The filmmaker, the grandfather of Cinema Novo, was so brave to use costumes as real as in history which couldn't cover anything at all.
Brazil 1554, Hans Staden, a German sailor employed by Portuguese army, was caught by Tupinambas tribe. In order to survive, he tried to convince them that he was a Frenchman. Hans Staden (1999, Luís Alberto Pereira, Brazil)* was obviously inspired by bravery of How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman (1971). Its story might be more faithful to the book, but the film was not as groundbreaking as How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman. This time the German was very religious Christian and the film made fun of his superstitious vision of God, while natives were not unique and charismatic but cliché and very annoying. Hans Staden is unfunny and awkward in bad way. Its different ending, which is true to the book, also shows how great the ending of How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman is.
There were some films depicting how bad white peoples/authorities treated other white peoples in colonial era, such as Desmundo (2002, Brazil)** and The Holy Inquisition (1974, Mexico)***. These stories usually happened with indigenous natives as slaves in faraway backgrounds. They always distracted me from main storylines since I couldn't help feeling more pity for them than those white protagonists.
Rapa Nui (1994, Kevin Reynolds)** is pure speculations of how Easter Island faced societal collapse, by itself. It follows popular anthropologists' suggestions of extreme deforestation, social uprising and cannibalism. The film tries to condense all those speculations in very short period of time and makes this film a bit preachy. Rapa Nui, which set around 1600s, is beautiful to look at, but the story is not very convincing. The incident in the film should happen way before the first recorded European contact in 1722. In reality, Easter Island was later attacked by Peruvian slave raiders in 1862, half of the island's population were enslaved to work as servants in Peru.
Since 1585 several attempts of England to settled in North America had failed, until its first permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. Terrence Malick's The New World (2005)**** follows Captain John Smith through his struggles to survive and establish Virginia Colony, and his relationship with native princess Pocahontas. Malick's distinctive approach to the subject is like how John Smith (in this film) approached natives: calm, quiet, patient and intimate. The film starts from Smith's perspective with his voice-over, as Pocahontas slowly learned English language she gradually takes over the narrative with her voice-over. Sometimes The New World stops being narrative film and becomes a kind of prose dedicating to beauty of the lost world. As film goes on, Smith and Pocahontas are turning from human characters to metaphors for civilization and nature, Old World (Europe) and New World (America), and later in the film, John Rolfe character as metaphor for American colonizer. Romantic relationship between these three symbolic worlds is the core of this poetic film about the spiritual birth of America, but it's not a good historical film. In fact, Pocahontas was merely twelve years old when Smith landed in the New World.
The colony of Canada was claimed by France in 1535, but not until 1608 when the first official settlement of Canada was established in Québec. Bruce Beresford's Black Robe (1991)*** tells story of Father Laforgue who was sent on mission to help convert Huron tribe to Christianity through wilderness and coldness of Canada in 1634. This is very powerful film told from French Jesuit priest's perspective, viewing savageness of natives with extreme tolerance, in the land where kindness equals weakness. Beresford skillfully shows harsh reality about misunderstanding of each other's religion that usually led to violence. At its ending, audience couldn't help but admires this stubborn priest who was absolutely faithful to his God and mission.
Spanish Jesuits tried to protect a native tribe from pro-slavery Portugal in 1750 South America, when the matter of life and death of natives was still decided in Europe. The Mission (1986, Roland Joffé, UK)*** is heartbreaking story of how European politics, including the Church, caused genocide on another side of the globe. Beautiful, straightforward and effective.
Zama (2017, Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)** is existentialist film about Spanish colonial officer in Argentina who awaited his transfer to Buenos Aires. But his waiting was extended from days to years and might never come. Zama realistically describes exhausted and ineffective colonial system, and the protagonist who refused to blend in, with the land or natives. The film shifts to unexpected feverish dream in the end which emphasizes how alienated he was in land of the others.
Hawkeye, white adopted son of Chingachgook, tried to protect daughters of British Colonel from Huron tribe, ally of the French (Canada), during French and Indian War. Michael Mann's The Last of the Mohicans (1992)*** is perfect Old-Hollywood epic updating with fair representation of every sides in the war. British and French colonizers defended their empires, while natives defended their families. Alliances worked when these purposes were compatible, but what happened when they contradicted.
Year 1797 a Cheyenne patriarch comes back to life to fight with rival tribe. In flashback, one of his two twin sons was kidnapped by Crow tribe, now the lost son returns as enemy to his own family. Windwalker (1980, Kieth Merrill)** is very unique, at least at the time it was released. This is a Native American film that has only Native American characters talking mostly with Native American languages with some English narration. It performs like a fairy tale as if its characters had never been affected by colonialism. A pure native fairy-tale that empowers next generation. On the other hand, the intention to make this film was absolutely driven by awareness of colonialism and its consequences.
Year 1778 Portuguese cartographer Dom Diogo travelled into Guaicuru Indian territory who considered themselves as "noble warriors" - they were first Indian tribe who could tame horses Europeans brought to the New World. While Portuguese authority tried to make peace with natives, his guide Pedro carelessly raped and killed many of them. In the meantime, Dom Diogo gradually falls in love with native girl he raped, as the Indians plan for vengeance. Based on true story, Brave New Land (2000, Lúcia Murat, Brazil)*** focuses on how different two cultures defined what is human and what is animal/monkey. This is a good narrative film but very good anthropological one.
Simon Bolivar was a wealthy Spanish descendant born in Venezuela. He united people from every classes and races as army for revolution. Bolívar and his allies defeated the Spanish in New Granada in 1819, Venezuela and Panama in 1821, Ecuador in 1822, Peru in 1824, and Bolivia in 1825. He is famously known as The Liberator (2013, Venezuela)*. But the story of this expensive film is not well-developed, more like series of powerful mottos with some battle scenes. I don't feel engaging with its story at all. Bolivar's hope to unite all South American countries into one nation would fail. He died from tuberculosis in 1830, but in this film he was killed by traitors - this was suggested by late President Hugo Chávez in 2008. That makes The Liberator a kind of propaganda film.
In 1825, an English aristocrat was captured by Native Americans as slave and started learning about their nomadic way of life. Based on the tale of Cabeza de Vaca in 1528, about White people living among natives, A Man Called Horse (1970)** is not a typical Western film but almost like ethnographic tale of Sioux tribe. It takes good amount of time intensively focusing on impressive Sun Dance ritual. Unfortunately, though very realistic portrayal, most native characters in the film weren't played by Native Americans, and in the end A Man Called Horse couldn't escape ridiculous white-savior theme.
During American Civil War (1861-1865) a lieutenant was sent to remote outpost at frontier to Indian territory. He accidentally befriended with Sioux tribe and developed relationship with them. Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990)** is cheesy epic film that works. With good intentions, it superbly humanizes Lakota Sioux tribe with humour and passion, but still stereotypes savage Pawnee tribe and despicable US soldiers. Though this film is about understanding, Dances with Wolves ends with hatred toward US army.
Star-studded epic film How the West Was Won (1962)*** roughly sketches American history about the expansion of white settlers into the West, with a journey of the Prescott family from 1839 to 1889 through the Gold Rush, the Civil War, building of the railroad that would bring more settlers to Indian territories (led to battles with Indians), and finally the lawless Wild West (robbery, corruption and revenge among white settlers). This ambitious movie was filmed in unique Cinerama's three-strip process and directed by three directors (Henry Hathaway, John Ford and George Marshall) resulted in beautiful panoramic pictures. However, How the West Was Won is not deep, rather superficial for most of the time, but still decent for grand-scale history under three hours. And of course the West was eventually won in the end - by the Whites.
A White boy raised by Sioux tribe, returned to town in Arthur Penn's Little Big Man (1970)***. The revisionist Western film deliberately puts Dustin Hoffman in various historical events involving Native Americans and the West from 1859 to 1876, and twists them with wicked humour along series of disturbing tragedies - to the end at the famous Battle of the Little Big Horn. This is pessimistic view on Westward expansion of White Americans, contrasting to optimism of How the West Was Won - this might be because Little Big Man was made during the height of Vietnam War and demonstrations against it.
Year 1870, an ex-soldier saved Apache boy's life, and saw human side of Indians. He wondered if he could make peace between Americans and the Apaches. Broken Arrow (1950)** was one of the first Hollywood films that humanized Indians. It explores how difficult the peace treaty could happen, with tolerance over prejudices from both sides. Well-intentioned film with very good ending but far from authentic. Broken Arrow also features the birth of vengeful Geronimo.
Geronimo was leader of Chiricahua Apache, the last Indian tribe that US tried to contain in Indian Reservation. Walter Hill's Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)**** opens when Geronimo voluntarily gave himself up to US army. Two officers escorted him to military base, while angry white settlers tried to avenge him. In the reservation, Apaches had to adapt themselves and became corn farmers trying to survive on infertile land. But tension arises and battle starts again. Geronimo is like spiritual sequel to Broken Arrow, where peace is not easy to achieve. Slow, steady and full of confidence, this film is extraordinary and quite strange for Western genre, since its main focus is peace. Western is usually not my type of film, most of them are shallow to me. Geronimo is my most favourite so far. It deals with complicate issue those shallow cowboys avoid - both in films and in real life. And Jason Patric is super-charismatic.
A Polynesian sailor and his girlfriend lived on a fictional island of Manukura, a French colony in the South Seas. The sailor was later jailed in colonial Tahiti for assaulting a white man. But he couldn't understand concept of European justice system and why he was here. So he tried to escape and was caught on and on. John Ford's early film, The Hurricane (1937)*** [watch] is very entertaining with colonial justice system as villain. Its arguments are also interesting. And that hurricane is spectacular.
Sugar had been a major export from Hawaii since Captain James Cook arrived in 1778. Most of plantations were leased and controlled by Americans. In 1887, the United States began leasing Pearl Harbor from Hawaiian Kingdom. In the same year, small group of non-Hawaiians started rebellion and forced the monarchy to accept their own constitution. Year 1893, the monarchy was overthrown and US annexation of Hawaii completed.
Princess Kaiulani (2009)* tells story of the next in line to the Hawaiian throne, who was sent to study in England in 1889 when she was 13 years old. Her fictional romantic plotline is unnecessary, and the whole film is so cliché. This story needs better treat.
Post-colonial Brazil, dam construction started destroying Amazon forest, when a son of white engineer was kidnapped by indigenous natives. Ten years later in deep Amazon, the boy is now in rite of passage to become a man, when his father finally meets him. This particular tribe might be too idealistic to be true, almost like in a fantasy world, but John Boorman's The Emerald Forest (1985)*** is still fascinating and beautifully made. Clash of civilizations will be harsh and cruel. Sometimes The Emerald Forest feels like post-apocalyptic film from indigenous tribe's point of view. Not perfect but really haunting.
Adapting from 1965 novel, Hector Babenco's At Play in the Fields of the Lord (1991)** is hard to describe. There are two main storylines. An American Protestant family arrives in South America to help converting Indians in Amazon after former priest was killed. In another storyline, one Cheyenne Indian from US meets remote South American Indian tribe, and becomes their god. While authority wants this tribe to move out of their land and build a gold mine. At Play in the Fields of the Lord explores faith, both Christian and indigenous, and the lack of it. The first hour is very promising, but this inconsistent film could be better. Maybe three hours are not enough.
White lawyer just loses a case in court, so the logging company continues destroying forest in Indian territory. One angry indian plans to kidnap head of the company. Clearcut (1991, Ryszard Bugajski, Canada)** is a bit unconvincing but that's the point. This angry little film has no answer but is a bang in the head that forces audience to start thinking about the issue.
Victor's father just died. He and Thomas leaves Indian Reservation on a trip to collect his father's stuff in Phoenix. Smoke Signals (1998, Chris Eyre)** is the first movie to be written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans. This bittersweet comedy breaks the mold of how Native American was perceived by media, and paves the way for new generation of Native American movies to follow. A bit forced but still enjoyable.
Museo (2018, Alonso Ruizpalacios, Mexico)*** fictionalized an actual 1985 heist at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. The filmmaker manages to make this robbery resembling the loots Hernán Cortés did to Aztec empire. Surprisingly complex metaphors about stolen relics, lost heritages, greedy traitors, ungrateful children, wounded history and traumatized country. Excellent film.
Year 2000, international film production about arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, began in Bolivia. While water conflicts in the area turned to violence, the film's crews, mostly white, reenacted humiliations and oppressions of colonizers to native actors and to present-day Latin Americans. Even the Rain (2010, Icíar Bollaín)*** is a political film that is not so subtle, sometimes too straight to the face, but still very effective. Comparisons between actors and their roles give deeper meanings. As protest against privatization of natural resources to foreign companies escalates into riots (real events in Bolivia), the film production faces troubles. Even the Rain concludes that five hundred years later nothing has changed.
Posted: January 2023