A bit solemn, perhaps, but with a great march. Just don't think about what happened to the Aztecs
Aug 28, 2011
If The Captain from Castile is remembered much today it probably is because of one of the most rousing marches a Hollywood composer ever wrote. The "Conquest" theme is heard only three times, and the first two are brief but effective scene setters. We have to wait until the movie is almost over and Hernan Cortez is setting out on his march to the Aztec capital of Tenochititlan for the full treatment. The music, by Alfred Newman, embraces the moment. Hundreds of soldiers, the priests, the natives, the hangers-on, horses and carts spread out before us. Then we’re on a crest overlooking Tenochititian. The horizon lightens and a few volcanos smoke in the distance. Cortez, his captains and his troops gaze down on the city. The music rises and the movie ends.
Newman’s theme is inspiring, martial, emotional, uplifting and memorable. It's enough to make most movie goers want to sign up with Cortez and most historians queasy. In less than a generation a civilization of between 2 million and 6 million people was obliterated, ground into quickly fading memories under the heels of Spanish soldiers, landowners and priests, with nearly all Aztec records burned, nearly all Aztec structures torn down, and nearly all natives, allies and enemies of the Spanish alike, turned into ignorant serfs under slave conditions that would make most American slave owners either blanche or be envious.
But enough about reality, a foolish expectation when Hollywood deals with history. The Captain from Castile is a Tyrone Power swashbuckler made under the shrewd eye of Darryl F. Zanuck. Considering that the book by Samuel Shellabarger was a huge best seller, well written and stuffed full of history, the movie seems to me to be almost as dull at times as a Spanish onion, especially during the first half hour. Here, in Spain, we learn about how noble is young Pedro de Varga (Power), how noble his father and mother are, how noble the serving wench Catana (Jean Peters) is, how noble Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb) is...and what a piece of self-serving vomit is the local head of the Inquisition, Diego de Silva (John Sutton). Once we're in the prison with Pedro, his family and Juan, where de Silva has put them for heresy, things pick up. After Pedro and Juan escape with Catana's help and when the three reach Cuba, things pick up even more. And after an hour, when we finally reach the coast of Mexico along with Cortez and his raggedy army of about 600 soldiers, the movie actually starts. Pedro may be fleeing the Inquisition, but now he has a chance to prove himself, to help Cortez conquer an empire, to realize his growing love for Catana even though he is of aristocratic birth and she is but a peasant, and finally to ride along side Cortez for the fateful meeting with Moctezuma II. His friend Juan is with him. His new wife Catana, carrying their baby son, is in the crowd, and he has his friend and confessor, the wise and understanding Father Bartolomeo (Thomas Gomez), to nag about human rights. Pedro has survived false accusations, sword thrusts and knife wounds. He has proven his worth to Cortez, has foiled plots and, finally, has been promoted in Cortez' army to captain. The captain from Castile is on his way to being a contented conquerer of the Aztecs.
Two first-rate performances are worth mentioning. One is by Lee J. Cobb. After seeing Cobb so powerful in movies like Thieves' Highway, On the Waterfront and Twelve Angry Men, it's a jolt to see him in this earlier costume caper. Still, he manages to give a strong performance in spite of the tights he has to wear. The other outstanding performance is by Cesar Romero as Cortez. Romero roars through the movie with charisma, high spirits and shrewdness. It's an expert job with no hamminess, and is one of the few performances in the movie that has energy. We pay attention whenever Romero shows up.
Captain from Castile is a great example of a big Hollywood spectacle from the Forties, and I don't mean that as a criticism. On many levels it's fun to watch. At the same time, it seems to me to be a film which is too solemn for its own good.
For those who enjoy a good historical read, Shellabarger's novel still has its merits. For an engrossing, exciting and often gruesome picaresque novel about the Aztecs just before, during and just after the Spanish conquest, try Gary Jenning's Aztec.