I’m about to finish “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created” by Charles C. Mann, the 2011 bestseller that explored just how much the Columbian Exchange changed the world and how globalization began. A followup to “1491”, which portrayed the Americas prior to Columbus’s “discovery”, the book takes us through the grim and often surprising realities of slavery, the unexpectedly large role that Africans have played in changing the Americas, the astounding impact of malaria, smallpox and yellow fever on the two continents, how the razing of forests changed the climate, and how potatoes and sweet potatoes rescued millions of starving Chinese and Europeans. It is also the fascinating history of rubber and guano (I’m not kidding). Along the journey through time and continents, we learn historical tidbits such as that smoking used to be called “drinking” tobacco in the 17th century. The book made me think of how this famed Exchange is most commonly portrayed on screen.
Christopher Columbus had been played by Fredric March and Gabriel Byrne in a movie and a miniseries prior to 1992. That was the year when two ill-fared films about the Genoese explorer were released. Christopher Columbus: The Discovery and 1492: Conquest of Paradise both bombed horribly, although the latter wasn’t bad. Perhaps that is a major reason why there aren’t that many films about this period in time; there’s something about dressed-up white actors facing half-naked brown actors in fake-looking settings that just screams box-office failure. Still, none other than Terrence Malick gave it a go in 2005 with The New World, attempting to capture this mysterious encounter between two very different cultures. He was inspired by the story about the English captain John Smith and his relationship with Pocahontas, who was the daughter of a powerful tribal chief near Jamestown, Virginia, in the early 1600s. Not even the mighty Malick turned water into wine; the movie got mixed reviews and barely broke even. There are however exceptions. Disney’s animated Pocahontas (1995) reportedly made a $200 million profit, and Mel Gibson’s ambitious Apocalypto (2006), which portrayed the end of the Mayan civilization, was also a hit at the box office. In the latter case, that’s a surprise because Gibson’s and writer Farhad Safinia’s approach was likely the most serious attempt so far in Hollywood to get this period right.
I’m sure I’ve left something vital out. But the lasting impression is that Hollywood’s take on the Columbian Exchange usually suffices to portray the initial excitement of colliding cultures, often staged in a dreamy, romantic way with darkness lurking underneath. What the films are missing though is the overwhelming consequences of the Exchange, something Mann’s book depicts to great effect. That remains to be explored, even though the occasional attempt is made. For instance, I did like how tobacco was introduced to Pope Alexander VI (Jeremy Irons) on The Borgias, not as a big deal but as a detail showing how the Columbian Exchange changed the world.