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Christopher Columbus (1949)

Four hundred and fifty seven years in the making, The Rank Organization finally brings the story of explorer Christopher Columbus to the screen. 

When it comes to historical drama’s and what I deemed as an adventure of some sort, I must admit that casting Frederic March in the title role isn’t someone who I would think of. Errol Flynn? Maybe though by this time he was a bit rough around the edges or how about Tyrone Power? Either way it’s Mr. March and his real life wife Florence Eldridge portraying the Queen of Spain that took on the lead roles.

“We shall be the laughing stock of the civilized world.”

This statement from members of the royal court surrounding the Queen when March approaches about his fantastical idea that the world is round. He believes that if one sets out to the west he should circle the globe and arrive in the far east. That is unless there are new lands to plunder and turn new found heathens into converts for the church. The Queen takes an interest in his daring ideas after he’s been turned away but the Portuguese Courts. Still she’s worried about the price of ships and the unknown which may return nothing for her investment.

March’s main adversary is court member Francis L. Sullivan who has little faith in March’s assertions. It’s a total of seven years before March gives up and sets to leave Spain. When the Queen fears she may lose out on any riches from a new world she gives in to the adventurers demands for ships and men. Fast forward to the trio of ships on sea and heading into the unknown. It doesn’t sit well with many of the crewmen who fear sea monsters and the edge of the world. There’s mutiny in the air.

Has anyone stopping in here seen the Bugs Bunny short “Hare We Go” where the wascally wabbit finds himself sailing with Columbus and a mutiny is underway? I couldn’t help but think of it because like the cartoon, this version of the story has a mutiny seeking to turn the ships around and March defending himself when someone hollers, “LAND HO!” Yup, that’s the way I remember Bugs and old Chris on their journey to the new world.

The balance of the film is glossed over when it comes to the new world. There’s little focus on the people that March will encounter and the movie is more concerned on how the court of Spain judges Columbus. He still has enemies in Spain and will be dragged back to the court in chains. I have no idea how closely this story sticks to what the history books tell us but won’t be surprised if someone points out to me the facts differ from this interpretation by director David MacDonald.

At 95 minutes in length, this is very much the Coles Notes version of the Columbus story and aside from the two time Oscar winner, March, it’s lacking in star power and adventure. Maybe the writers did stick to the truth because there’s little in the way of big sea adventure. Yes I’ll admit to pining away for Flynn’s The Sea Hawk or Power’s The Black Swan after watching the credits roll here.

One name that did grab me in the credits was the Production Manager being Anthony Nelson Keys. Hammer Film fans will recognize him as the producer of many of the studios thrillers including their original trio of terrors, The Curse of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula and The Mummy. Character players that did show up in this color production that begs for Hollywood glamour are Niall MacGinnis and James Robertson Justice.   I also spotted Felix Aylmer in here as well who played Peter Cushing’s father in The Mummy.

Star player March and wife Eldridge acted sporadically together throughout their nearly 50 year marriage which ended upon his death in 1975. They teamed together in The Studio Murder Mystery (1929), Les Miserables (1935), Mary of Scotland (1936), Another Part of the Forest (1948), An Act of Murder (1948), Columbus(49) and Inherit the Wind (1960).

Looking to see this one? It was released on DVD by VCI of which a copy now sits on my shelf here in the library of titles at Mike’s Take.

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