Christopher Columbus remains a fascinating yet habitually underexplored figure of history, famously celebrated for his “discovery,” but also frequently whispered about as only the figurehead explorer of a larger group. He wanted to reach the Far East by sailing west, an innovative idea for its time. But instead of reaching the Indies, as he expected, he bumped into another continent, and changed the course of civilization. In the process, Columbus became a mythic figure and a powerful symbol of both exploration and exploitation — his voyage a metaphor for the process of discovery, but also inevitably linked to the widespread massacre of Native Americans that would follow.
An interesting documentary undertaking, The Magnificent Voyage of Christopher Columbus focuses on the explorer’s historic first voyage, re-created with replicas of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. It tells the timeless story of Columbus’ Atlantic crossing, his fateful initial encounter with native people, his eventual passage through the Bahamas to Cuba and Hispaniola, and his dramatic return to Europe, bringing with him news of a beautiful land and gentle people.
As detailed and intriguing as some of the nautical plottings get (sailing into modern-day Cuba without benefit of radio, for instance), the most interesting aspects of this endeavor often have to do with recreated ship duties and routines, like the morning call to prayer. Also given a lot of narrative run is the role of Martin Alonso Pinzon, the captain of the Pinta who is sometimes noted as the “co-discoverer of America.” Pinzon, whose brothers also accompanied him on the trip (one was the commander of the Nina), is an interesting figure, and this movie shows the weight and value of his legacy today, with townsfolk engaging in a celebratory fandango in his honor.
Some of these digressions are a bit of a yawn, to be honest. But the manner in which the past is interwoven with the present is, for the most part, an exhilarating way to capture the tenseness and uncertainty of the trip, and how its effects reverberate still today. Though his journey changed the world, setting in motion a transformation of Europe and the Americas that dramatically impacted the rest of the globe, Columbus went to his grave without realizing that he had in fact discovered two new continents. The Magnificent Voyage of Christopher Columbus, though, shines a new light on a tale too often given only a small, cursory chapter in history school books.
Housed in a regular plastic Amray case, The Magnificent Voyage of Christopher Columbus is presented in anamorphic widescreen, and runs around one hour and 50 minutes. There are no supplemental features, save a separate, selectable screen touting other WGBH releases like Walking the Bible and Vikings: Journey to the New World. The audio-visual particulars of its presentation are fine, but more accompanying detail would certainly have been welcome. To purchase the title via Amazon, click here. B (Movie) D (Disc)