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Discovering Columbus

Ridley Scott, Cohiba in hand, directs Gérard Depardieu in 1492.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Premier Issue, Autumn 92

(continued from page 2)

In the two cities, like countless historians before her, she found some 40 million parchments, many never deciphered, and she found scores of letters handwritten by Columbus. Leafing through some of Columbus's books, she sometimes found notes and little drawings penned in the margins. The more she looked through his books and papers, the more real Columbus became to her; all the mythological haze surrounding the man started to clear.

Bosch: "I was deeply moved just by seeing his handwriting and signature. Suddenly, instead of being like Santa Claus, Columbus was a human being .... Sometimes in the margin of a book, he would draw a little hand pointing to a certain passage. It was very moving, and I thought, 'This ought to be a movie."'

Indeed it seemed a natural, especially with all the hoopla planned for the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage. And no one, up to then, had ever brought Columbus convincingly to the screen. In 1949, Hollywood brought out a Christopher Columbus, with Frederic March in the title role, but the general assessment was that the movie was an embarrassment and certainly not what Columbus deserved. In fact, with all the renewed interest in him, it has now become clear what a fascinating man Columbus was, no matter how disputed is the legend that he discovered America.

While historians disagree about many aspects of his life and travels, there now seems to be a consensus that while Columbus hoped to return from The New World with gold, silk and spices, he returned with something that proved to be as valuable: tobacco. Most accounts, from historians from America to Cuba, now maintain that when Columbus visited Indian villages in the Caribbean, he found the natives smoking enormous leaves fashioned into tight rolls, an aboriginal cigar. According to some Cuban accounts, two of Columbus's crew members, Rodrigo de Jerez and Luis de Torres, were sent on a mission into the interior of what Columbus thought was the Asian mainland but was probably Cuba. There, in a peaceful village, they made what was probably Europe's first sighting of tobacco.

By some historical accounts, Columbus himself was indifferent to the appeal of tobacco, so preoccupied was he by his quest for the Grand Khan and the source of Solomon's riches. But tobacco was among the curiosities and riches Columbus's ships brought back from The New World, thus introducing the pungent leaves to Europe and laying the groundwork for the tobacco industry and popular subculture that would develop over the next 500 years. In subsequent voyages, European explorers and traders bartered their silks and cinnamon and other spices for bales of tobacco, until the leaves themselves became a focal point of the growing transatlantic commerce.

Bosch came to see Columbus as an ideal subject for a film, a movie showing him not as a cartoon character but as a real man fueled by intellectual fervor and messianic zeal. She called a friend of hers in Paris, Alain Goldman, a French film distributor. He flew to Seville for a firsthand appraisal of the Columbus material and a visit to the cathedral in Seville, where Columbus is buried. (Though there are historians who doubt the remains are actually his.) Excited by what he saw, Goldman encouraged Bosch to pursue her research, and she stayed on in Spain. Soon the two of them became partners in a fledgling film venture: he as producer and Bosch plunging into research and a conversion from journalism to screenwriting.

Initially, they envisioned doing the entire film as a French project, but they found no support among French producers. It would be too big a budget for France, the producers said, try Hollywood. Rank amateurs though they were, neophytes with little idea how Hollywood worked and French to boot, Bosch and Goldman nonetheless started knocking on the doors of American studios. And they found no encouragement. And understandably so: they had no director, no star and no track record in screenwriting or movie production. You can almost hear Hollywood executives chortling: "No star, no script; kids, kids, get real."

Bosch became very disconcerted, but then for Le Point she did a profile of the American writer Tom Wolfe. He told her about how he had come to write The Right Stuff, and of his admiration for the NASA astronauts. Bosch was inspired: " 'Listen,' I told him, `the astronauts are nothing next to Columbus.' It was talking with Wolfe that I started to believe....And the more I read, the more I worked, the more convinced I became that Columbus was somebody people think they know, but really nobody knew. And so I felt I had to tell them."

Finally, Bosch knocked on the right door: Ridley Scott. He had ideal credentials for directing Columbus: he was a European with artistic merit, commercial success and excellent connections in Hollywood. He was just coming off Thelma & Louise and it would soon bring him an Oscar nomination as best director. By chance, Scott on his own had been exploring the idea of doing a film on Columbus, and when Bosch set forth her vision and a synopsis of a script, he had one immediate reaction: "Yes, if Gérard Depardieu would agree to be Columbus."

This took Bosch by complete surprise; oddly, Depardieu had not even occurred to her. With their sights set on finding U.S. financing, she and Goldman had been focusing on American stars like Kevin Costner and Michael Douglas, big names they figured would be the only way they could secure the necessary funding. But as soon as Scott said it, Bosch knew Depardieu would be perfect. The star of Cyrano de Bergerac, Danton, Jean de Florette and The Last Metro was now the biggest star in Europe, and with Peter Weir's Green Card, he had made an impressive debut in the English-language market. Distributed by Disney, Green Card grossed over $40 million in America alone. Bosch was sure he would be perfect for Columbus. "Right away I knew there would be no problem with energy; Gérard would burst the screen," she said. "And from that moment on, thinking of him in the role gave me a big push. Instead of having an abstract idea of Columbus, I knew it was Gérard. It was a liberation."

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