One of the best Hollywood historical epics takes Technicolor to Mexico for a Production Code version of La conquista: the Inquisition is still bad, but the Church is exonerated. Likewise with the invasion — Cesar Romero embodies a marvelous Hernán Cortés, substantially less murderous than the one we now know from accurate history books. Tyrone Power is the heartthrob hero and newcomer Jean Peters the lowborn girl who loves him. The magnificent scenery is matched by the music score of Alfred Newman.
Captain from Castile
1947 / Color / 137 Academy / 141 min. / Street Date October 17, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Tyrone Power, Jean Peters, Cesar Romero, Lee J. Cobb, John Sutton, Antonio Moreno, Thomas Gomez, Alan Mowbray, Barbara Lawrence, George Zucco, Roy Roberts, Marc Lawrence, Reed Hadley, Robert Karnes, Estela Inda, Chris-Pin Martin, Jay Silverheels, Gilberto González.
Cinematography: Arthur Arling, Charles G. Clarke, Joseph LaShelle
Film Editor: Barbara McLean
Visual Effects: Fred Sersen
Original Music: Alfred Newman
From the novel by Samuel Shellabarger
Written and produced by Lamar Trotti
Directed by Henry King
Some films have a mogul’s ambition written all over them. With the war won, Darryl Zanuck crowned his control of production at 20th Fox by ramming through two ultra expensive epics, even though he’d already lost plenty of Fox’s cash with his personal wartime production of Wilson. The lavish Forever Amber was undertaken on the Fox back lot; Zanuck arm-twisted director Otto Preminger into directing. Zanuck interrupted Amber to replace its leading lady with Linda Darnell. That left an opening for a new pretty face to star in the other super-epic, Captain from Castile, to be filmed partly on an unheard-of distant location shoot in Mexico.
Captain from Castile was a popular novel from 1945; Lamar Trotti’s adaptation only takes in about two- thirds of its 503 pages, collapsing some events. It’s a great movie simply for its ambition — it gives a grim, emotional picture of the Inquisition (El Santo Oficio) and presents the conquest of the Aztecs for exactly what it was, brilliantly executed European piracy against an ancient civilization. Fox’s leading star Tyrone Power is the central character in nothing less than the Conquest of a New World.
The episodic story is compelling, even if it seems like only the first half of an imagined longer show. Screenwriter Lamar Trotti and director Henry King paint a refreshingly non- PC view of La Conquista — they show its greed and ruthlessness, and properly do not re-interpret the 16th-century to give the Spanish characters modern attitudes — just the religious characters.
The first hour of the story takes place in Spain. Young Pedro de Vargas (Power) helps the New World Indian Coatl (Jay Silverheels of The Lone Ranger) to escape from slavery, and also aids a poor serving girl, Catana Perez (Jean Peters, in her first movie). Betrayed by the opportunistic Diego De Silva (John Hutton), Pedro’s family and finally Pedro himself is seized by the Inquisition. With Catana and the rogue Juan Garcia (Lee J. Cobb), Diego flees and heads across the Atlantic to Santo Domingo. There they hook up with the gold-hungry expedition of Hernán Cortés (Cesar Romero). The charismatic Cortés hijacks the expedition from its lawful leaders and alters its purpose: by will alone he bullies his few troops into establishing a Mexican beachhead, form where he can aim straight for the Emperor Moctezuma’s fabled City of Gold. Aztec interpreter Doña Marina (Estela Inda) gives Cortés a linguistic advantage over Moctezuma’s advance guards and ambassadors, enabling him to bluff, bribe and smile his way toward the capital.
Captain from Castile is perhaps the only Hollywood film to capture the full spirit of the Spanish conquest, even as it neutralizes the constant atrocities they visited upon the indigenous Americans they encountered. The Conquistadores were ruthless opportunists and bold adventurers, risking all in a wild quest. Life is short and death can come from almost anything, even a bellyache. Why not go for the big prizes of honor and riches as well as the blessings of God and country? Cortés laughs as he burns his own ships, forcing his men to trust in his grandiose promises of glory. One man’s personality motivates an entire army.
This is surely Cesar Romero’s best role ever — he personifies the smiling, shark-like Cortés to a ‘T’. The ultimate seducer smooth-talks Doña Marina into doing half the work for him. The Aztec ambassadors are buffaloed, fearing that a larger army may be on the way. The Aztecs thought the Spanish horses might be magical creatures, and that the Spaniards’ cannon made thunder from heaven. Cortés’s bluff never showed weakness.
Tyrone Power is also a fine fit, although the script unnecessarily bogs him down with two separate wound recoveries. These make Pedro seem the wet blanket blocking the film’s forward momentum. Jean Peters is fine in her big break — she’s both sexy and soulful. When the script requires Catana to do a Spanish dance, she’s not bad, if not as marvelous as Linda Darnell in The Mark of Zorro. In the book Catana is a prostitute plain and simple. She gives herself to a policeman to make the escape from Spain a possibility. The movie makes her into a New Hemisphere Madonna, having Pedro’s child and becoming a camp follower on the long trek to Mexico City. I forget, are they even married?
The film benefits from terrific Mexican location work to evoke both Spain and the New World. The costumes and sets are superb; the only expectation not delivered is an elaborate battle scene. The ending will surprise some, as the story reaches its climax just as the wonders of victory lie within reach of the conquerors, the capital city floating on a lake. The big ‘money shot’ at the climax is not Fred Sersen’s matte with ‘the Halls of Montezuma’ on the horizon, but the reverse angle with the full army advancing before a smoking volcano. This real volcano is seen erupting behind many grand shots of marching armies — no mattes, no fakery. As a volcano was said to be erupting back during Cortés invasion as well, these shots are some of the luckiest in distant-location history.
Adding immensely to the picture is one of the best music scores Hollywood ever turned out. Alfred Newman starts with appropriate themes for Spain, and once in Mexico adapts to native rhythms. For the Jean Peters character he also comes up with a weird theme that adds a feeling of uncertainty, making us think something bad will happen to Catana. Held for an appropriate moment is Newman’s exultant Spanish march cue ‘Conquest,’ which gathers up the whole notion of colonial adventurism, and its grand opportunities for poor soldiers of fortune to get rich and make a mark in history. The theme makes one want to jump in the saddle and cabalgar alongside Power and Romero. In 1954 the USC marching band adopted ‘Conquest’ as the school’s official tune. They once played it all the time, but I’m not sure that they do now.
Repeat viewings generate new respect for the production, while making us wish that Zanuck and Trotti had found better solutions for the story problems. Changes from the book leave the second half of the show with a slightly weak finish; I believe things shifted so that the movie wouldn’t have to depict what was essentially the piratical rape and destruction of the Aztec Empire by colonial pirates.
Grand ironies from the novel do not play out the same way. The show instead steers towards Pedro’s personal problems. Pedro’s romance with Catana blooms, because, the priest Bartolome Romero (Thomas Gomez) says, class distinctions should be set aside in the New World (!!). In the book, Cortés divides up Montezuma’s gold as if it were loot in a robbery. Pedro’s deliverance from certain death elevates the Indian Coatl to a more noble function.
The book doesn’t have a big battle either. Instead, it ellipses / skips the actual conquest of Mexico City while Pedro and company are separated from Cortés’s main force and imprisoned by Indians. The book then continues to a final chapter back in Spain, which is where Pedro settles his accounts with Diego De Silva and a happy ending awaits.
Captain from Castile is a couple of years too early to have been inspired by the happenings at HUAC, but its vision of the Inquisition certainly raises some parallels — suspicion equaling guilt, and people falsely denounced for ulterior motives. The film provides a complex look at class differences and the cruelty of the Inquisition. Some viewers may also be surprised that the show does not portray the Aztecs as wholly innocent victims. The bloodstained pyramids stand as evidence that the new Christian religion as preferable; the movie shows no sacrifices in progress but doesn’t hide the bloody pyramid steps. Cortés successfully conquered a land that could easily have annihilated him, had it not been intimidated by his horses and his utter self-confidence. If Cesar Romero’s Joker in TV’s Batman was half the genius of Cortés, he’d have taken over Gotham City in a weekend. I’m trying to think of a modern parallel for this hoodwinking of an entire nation, but it’s not coming to mind.
John Sutton is the hiss-able villain, Antonio Moreno is Pablo’s noble father and Barbara Lawrence (Kronos) is Luisa, Pablo’s high-toned Castilian girlfriend. When the Inquisition arrests Pablo, her only worry is that she might be tainted by association. Other notable faces include Alan Mowbray (a sawbones-astrologer), Thomas Gomez (the humanist priest), Marc Lawrence, and Chris-Pin Martin. Roy Roberts, familiar from several fine noirs as cops and gangsters, is almost unrecognizable as a burly, red-bearded Conquistador. Mexican actress Estela Inda later played a key role that viewers of Luis Buñuel never forget — in Los Olvidados she’s the young mother, who in a surreal slow-motion nightmare sequence suddenly turns demonic-sensual and offers her young son an enormous slice of beefsteak.
Zanuck’s giant production is the state of the art for Hollywood in 1948; it reportedly did well in release. Yet its only Oscar nomination was for Alfred Newman’s superlative music. Miklos Rozsa’s score for A Double Life won, over both Newman and David Raksin’s great music score for Forever Amber. Why? All I know is that some critics thought Zanuck’s epics were overblown and overrated. And it was already a chilly year for Hollywood, politically speaking. A friend had the movie section of a Los Angeles paper framed on his wall, from February 1948. Castile was the big feature being promoted, but on the same page were two separate, equally incensed editorials demanding that the ‘communist’ Charles Chaplin be deported for his disloyalty to his adopted country.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Captain from Castile is a happy surprise. 20th Fox lugged a giant 3-Strip camera over rural Mexico to make the movie, and viewers in 1948 saw glorious Technicolor prints. UCLA screened the studio print several times back in film school but I never caught a showing, so have only seen what everyone else has seen on television, which is presumably a photochemical print from an Eastmancolor composite negative made for re-issues. The show always looked good, even if it couldn’t approach the splendor of Technicolor. As so many composite negatives of Technicolor films have glaring flaws, I’d think that special care must have been taken with this one. Fox issued a DVD in 2007 that wasn’t bad at all.
Please note that the illustrations here are random harvests from the web and don’t represent the transfer quality — the disc looks far better.
I’m doing a bit of guessing, but I think that Fox threw the entire digital toolbox at Castile, for the HD Blu-ray looks much better than the older DVD. Most of the time the image is bright and sharp. Certain highlights capture the glint from the 3-way splitter prism, leaving a slight color rainbow effect that I remember from original Tech prints. Only a couple of passages are just a bit duller — some night scenes in Spain clog up a bit, and elsewhere the colors might be on the weak side for a scene or two. But I’ve never seen this picture look this good. For the final shots of the army marching across the valley buried in volcano cinders, the sharpness brings out more textures in the landscape. And that real volcano in the background beats any special effect. Fox would return to this volcanic area with CinemaScope cameras seven years later, to film Garden of Evil.
Twilight Time carries over the extras from the earlier Fox disc. A chatty commentary combines the observations of critic Rudy Behlmer and music expert Jon Burlingame with moderator Nick Redman; they discuss all of the actors as well as the film’s status as one of the biggest productions of its day. The entire Alfred Newman score is provided on an Isolated Music Track, synchronized with cue IDs and conductor comments intact. Although the music on the feature is often in the clear, the isolated score is a great listen — Newman’s music becomes the subject, and the movie becomes a visual accompaniment.
A Biography docu tells the Tyrone Power story, treading lightly on his personal problems. An older interview featurette gathers Patricia Neal, Colleen Gray, Terry Moore and Jayne Meadows to comment about their co-star. The ladies are terrific but the chat sticks mainly to how handsome and nice Power was — I guess Power was every woman’s answer for what an attractive man should be. A B&W trailer finishes the package.
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes were welcome, as I’ve never read the full story on this picture. As Julie points out, the main villain was once a corrupt Catholic priest, which explains the non-Church torture session in the final film. That Production Code that too many web articles are now defending, required the revisionism so as not to reflect badly on the Catholics. Julie also reminds us that the film’s cheerful Hernán Cortés was in actuality a genocidal butcher — the part of the conquest not shown in the movie. And Julie quotes the rumors that add up to what the documentary call Tyrone Power’s ‘personal trouble.’ And I agree whole-heartedly with the liner notes’ assertion that Captain from Castile is pure entertainment — this is one big, exciting historical adventure.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Captain from Castile
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, audio commentary with Rudy Behlmer, Jon Burlingame, and Nick Redman; Tyrone Power: The Last Idol Biography show; fetaurette Tyrone Power and His Leading Ladies, trailer, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 26, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson