Monday, October 27, 2014

Discovering Flops

When Christopher Columbus flopped at the Box Office...Twice
Scott Mendelson
10/13/14
Forbes.com

Yes, today is Columbus Day, when government offices and many schools are closed to celebrate the Italian explorer who allegedly discovered America. I’m not going to get into the historical accuracy or moral difficulties of the previous sentence, but if you need a refresher go HERE. No, what I am here to discuss today is a bit of forgotten box office history involving the “reason for the season.” I am speaking of course about movies revolving around Christopher Columbus. As the old song goes, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue!” So, since 1992 was in fact the 500-year anniversary of the year Columbus allegedly discovered America, Hollywood set out to “honor” the occasion with not one, but two big-budget big-screen adventures featuring the explorer. There have been any number of occasions in the last few decades of very similar films opening within a short period of each other and usually they had varying levels of success. But rare is the occasion of the dueling Christopher Columbus movies from the fall of 1992. Both Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise sank like a stone at the box office.

As is often the case with “dueling” movies, there was one unofficial “small” movie and one unofficial “big movie.” And as is usually the case, such as with Antz, Olympus Has Fallen, and Deep Impact, the would-be “smaller” movie came out first. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery was directed by John Glen, the man best known for directing a record five (consecutive) 007 adventures between 1981 and 1989 (For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, and License to Kill). It was produced by the legendary (and infamous?) father/son duo Alexander and Ilya Salkind, who are best known for the 1978-1987 Superman franchise. While I discussed last Christmas how the Salkinds tried to morph Santa Claus: The Movie into a Superman-type superhero story, they were a bit subtler with their Christopher Columbus film.

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Yes there are early scenes of heroic sword fighting and the film did its best to somewhat shield Chris Columbus from the whole “genocide” business, but the film neither followed the Superman: The Movie template nor did it try to turn the Christopher Columbus story into a kind of would-be action/fantasy franchise. While Conquest of Paradise had a genuine movie star in the lead role (Gérard Depardieu), Christopher Columbus: The Discovery had to settle for Georges Corraface who filled in just three days from the start of filming after original pick Timothy Dalton exited the picture. Like Superman: The Movie, the Salkinds production brought in Marlon Brando in a cameo (as Tomás de Torquemada) for the low price of $5 million while Tom Selleck played the king of Spain. In the “before they were famous” category, Benicio del Toro (who had played the main henchman in License to Kill) had a small supporting role while Catherine Zeta Jones made her big-screen debut as Beatriz Enriquez de Arana.

The film was filled with such financial strife during its production that it ended up being the last picture that the Salkinds would ever produce. Sadly it was all for naught. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery opened on August 21st, 1992. The film earned just $3.1 million over its opening weekend, ending its domestic run with just $8.2m on a $40m budget. I actually saw the film on opening weekend, and I was among the only people in the theater. Even when I was twelve, it was obvious that the picture was both very bad and completely confused about attempting to somewhat realistically acknowledge the darker overtones of the Columbus story while also serving as an epic that theoretically honored the man in the title. Distributor Warner Bros. (Time Warner TWX +0.74% Inc.) was certainly not happy with said $8.1m domestic gross, although the successful launches of Under Siege (Steven Seagal in Die Hard on a Battleship!) in October and Passenger 57 (Wesley Snipes in Die Hard on an Airplane!) in November probably eased much of the sting.

So, the first Columbus movie of 1992 was a flop, surely the next one, the “big” one would do better right? The would-be “big” movie in this two-film race was Ridley Scott’s Conquest of Paradise. The film starred Gérard Depardieu during that very brief period when Mr. Depardieu was somewhat of a “name” to in-the-know moviegoers. Ridley Scott was allegedly the Salkands’ first choice to direct The Discovery, and there was threatened litigation when Scott said no and ended up directing this rival production. This $47 million movie starred Sigourney Weaver as Queen Isabella and co-starred the likes of Michael Wincott, Frank Langella, and Armand Assante. If The Discovery presented Columbus as somewhat of a dashing adventurer (one who was willing to be beheaded by his own restless crew if land was not sighted on a certain time), then Conquest of Paradise played their Columbus as a somewhat soulful and enlightened explorer, one who saw the natives as his equal if not superior to the aristocracy he had to contend with back home.

The film is a more visually-spectacular picture than The Discovery, as befits the fact that it is a Ridley Scott movie. It arguably spends less time on the voyage itself and more on the disruptive effects of the so-called discovery. There is plenty of carnage over the film’s 154-minute running time (the VHS box, which housed the film on two tapes, trumpets – paraphrasing – ‘an entire evening’s adventure, in just over two hours!’), as Ridley Scott’s films don’t tend to whitewash the whole “history is written in blood” notion. But frankly this film like the one before it goes out of its way to shield the title character from the blood that should arguably be on his hands. It is, by default, the better of the two big-budget Christopher Columbus films although I wouldn’t quite call it “good.” But then, I’m the weirdo who thinks Ridley Scott’s best film is Kingdom of Heaven, so make of that what you will.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures (now a subsidiary of Viacom VIAB +0.2% Corp.), the picture was actually released the weekend before Columbus day, October 9th of 1992. Despite being the more anticipated film centering around Christopher Columbus, 1492: Conquest of Paradise opened with just $3 million over its debut weekend. The film, which received somewhat better but still mostly negative reviews, ended its domestic run with $7.1m. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery ended up on many a “worst-of-year” list. Tom Selleck won a Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor while the film received nominations (from the admittedly dubious association) for Worst Picture, Worst Supporting Actor (Marlon Brando) Worst New Star (Georges Corraface), Worst Screenplay (Mario Puzo), and Worst Director (John Glen). 1492: Conquest of Paradise was mostly forgotten and is merely a footnote in Ridley Scott’s long career in between his groundbreaking debuts (Alien and Blade Runner) and his comeback in 2000 with Gladiator (Thelma and Louise was the artistic and commercial bright spot during the 80′s and 90′s, and Black Rain is now barely remembered despite earning $134m worldwide in 1989).



If I must make a grander point beyond “look at this bit of forgotten box office history,” it is that both Columbus films debuted in the shadow of Dances with Wolves and Unforgiven. Kevin Costner’s $424m million-grossing and Oscar-winning triumph was not the first film to view American history with a sympathetic eye towards those we arguably stepped on, but its impact was so large that it was now arguably impossible to craft the kind of “cowboys and Indians” nationalistic narrative that was generally the status quo. You couldn’t make a western after Unforgiven that didn’t at least comment on the inherent violence. Once deconstruction is out of the bag and accepted by mainstream audiences, it is challenging to go back to the old-style “hear no evil/see no evil” style of historical films. The two Christopher Columbus films happened to debut during a time when we as a country were starting to become comfortable with acknowledging that the history books weren’t quite telling the whole story about the the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria.

Both films attempt to straddle an uncomfortable and challenging line, as they both attempt to acknowledge the blood-drenched history of Columbus’s ultimate legacy while still crafting a film that justifies championing its title character. Like any number of films dealing with people from long ago, there is a token attempt to bring at least their protagonists’ ideologies and philosophies up to modern times. Think Mel Gibson paying his black workers in The Patriot or Brad Pitt in Troy falling in love with a captured prisoner as opposed to her being what amounts to a sexual conquest. Now a full-blown deconstruction of Columbus may not have worked either, as John Goodman’s terrific Babe Ruth biopic The Babe was savaged by critics and ignored by audiences in April of 1992 ($19m worldwide) mostly for the crime of presenting the iconic baseball player in his true-life “glory.” There may not have been a “right” way to craft a financially successful Christopher Columbus film in 1992 and there may still not be one today.

The dueling Christopher Columbus films, presumably destined for box office glory on the 500th anniversary of his most famous voyage yet both doomed to box office failure and cultural irrelevancy, are fascinating examples of a box office match-up when both participants lost and when Hollywood vastly overestimated audience interest in a specific kind of film. In 1992 we were both unwilling to embrace a whitewashed Christopher Columbus biopic yet arguably not ready for a completely warts-and-all portrait. 22 years later, I’d argue we’re sadly still not ready for the latter.

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