Campy 'Columbus' could be any silly old costume movie

MOVIE REVIEW

August 22, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

In "Christopher Columbus The Discovery" they find America but they lose the colon that belongs between "Christopher Columbus" and "The Discovery." It's a run-on title in a run-on movie.

Of course it turns out to be every bit as hopeless as one would expect: a big, dopey, sloppy, campy "tribute" to the Italian captain who, under the financial sponsorship of the Spanish crown, found the New World. It was lost? It was new?

Perhaps Ilya and Alexander Salkind, the father-son team that once cooked up the "Superman" films, have slipped into dotage on this production: Everything about "Christopher Columbus The Discovery" is enfeebled and unsure; it seems to lose its own memory as to what it's about now and then.

The director, ex-Bondmaster John Glen, can't bring any sense of uniqueness or style to his vision of the past. His Spain of 1492 could be the generic yesterday of a thousand threadbare historical epics like "The Saracen Blade" or "Quentin Durward." The staging feels flat, and Glen continually resorts to the banal and impoverished vocabulary of the costume flick: sword fights, people swinging on ropes, chanting priests by candlelight. For this, Marlon Brando came out of retirement?

But he did. It's one of those jobs where big movie stars have been paid great amounts of money to lend their names and prestige but only a shred of their talent and a morsel of their time to the show; you will be disappointed, as I was, to discover that Brando does not play Christopher Columbus. Now there was a notion to conjure with! That once beautiful aquiline profile now sunk into an encapsulation of flab that all but buries it up to the nose, as its owner muses bitterly over his failure to find Cathay: "I couldda been a contendah."

But no. And Tom Selleck doesn't play Columbus, either. That might have been a hoot. Nor does Rachel Ward play Columbus. That definitely would have been a hoot. Selleck, looking embarrassed as all get-out, plays Ferdinand -- the King, not the bull. Ward, who seems to be turning into a bird before our very eyes, plays a chirpy, loonily radiant Isabella. She's the only one in the picture with any energy, although it's crazed energy.

Columbus is played by an unknown (to me) actor called George Corraface. The performance -- indeed, much of the movie -- is derived from old pirate movies. Corraface's Columbus was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world is mad. He's forever throwing back his handsome head and laughing bountifully at the madness of it all. Ho ho ho ho. In fact the movie is full of handsome men who throw back their heads and have a good har-di-har-har at the madness of it all or at the humorously sorry state of their careers. It's like a department store Santa Claus audition.

As you might guess, much of the movie takes place on threlittle boats in the middle of a big empty sea. This is not so very interesting. The screenplay, invented and co-written by Mario Puzo, invents some exceedingly uninteresting melodramatic subplots to eat up the ship board time. One involves a Portuguese spy and the other a father-son disagreement and still a third, the presence of a young Jewish boy on the Santa Maria.

But not much can be done about the fact that this is basically movie about a bunch of guys sitting in boats and waiting . . . and waiting . . . and waiting.

Waiting for what? It's not exactly suspenseful: you have only to look down at what's under your shoes to see what it takes them 2 1/2 hours to see: a little piece of America. Since that's you sitting in the theater and the theater is in America, it's reasonable to assume they make it.

'Christopher Columbus The Discovery'

Starring Marlon Brando and Tom Selleck.

Directed by John Glen.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated PG-13.

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