Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Coming of Columbus - October 12, 2019

Moving Picture World, 04-May-1912
Happy Columbus Day, everyone. In 1912, the Selig Polyscope company released "The Coming of Columbus."

Moving Picture World, 04-May-1912
"The Coming of Columbus."

Reviewed by James S. McQuade.

I RECOLLECT that, in his essay on "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," Macaulay compared the author, in his undertaking of the gigantic task, to a lone axeman chopping his way through a primeval forest of unknown extent and difficulties. And, somehow, in beginning this review of "The Coming of Columbus," I am impressed that when William N. Selig first dreamt of filming this tremendous subject he must have felt somewhat like Macaulay 's lone axeman, because of the bewildering barriers in his path. The great historian Gibbons struggled amid the abundance of myths and legends from which he had to sift the wheat of historical data ; the filmer of "The Coming of Columbus" was puzzled what course to pursue, because of the great wealth of historical data right at hand. The difficulty lay in selecting the incidents that would best serve to portray the life and character of the Great Discoverer in a worthy manner, and on a scale that would fully measure up to the heights of his renown.

There is a halo around Columbus that is clearly seen by the great eye of civilized humanity, and his lifework will inspire the human race as long as it will endure and I am strong in the belief that his life, as revealed in the Selig pictures, is the greatest achievement yet wrought by cinematography. "The Coming of Columbus" is destined to win millions of new patrons for the moving picture; for the interest in it will be world wide, and it will clearly demonstrate the value and serviceability of the moving picture in the narration of notable historical and epochal themes.

To have undertaken the production of these films without careful research, well laid plans, the necessary facilities and abundant resources, would have resulted in regrettable failure. And, in addition to all these, the exact counterparts of the three caravels — the Santa Maria, the Pinta and the Nina — were required to give due realism to the story. Mr. Selig was especially fortunate in this respect ; for, anchored in Yacht cove, in Jackson Park, the three vessels referred to have been in the care of the South Park Commissioners since the World's Columbian Exposition, in 1893. As is known, the Santa Maria was built in Spain and presented to the Exposition by the Queen Regent, Christina of Spain, being an exact reproduction of the flagship of Columbus. The Pinta and the Nina were reproduced in Spain, according to the most reliable records, by W. McCarty Little, of the United States Navy. These vessels crossed the Atlantic under their own sails, following as closely as possible the original course taken by Columbus. After reaching these shores the caravels were brought north, and passed up the St. Lawrence, through the Welland Canal, across Lakes Erie, Huron and Michigan, and into Chicago harbor.

Moving Picture World, 04-May-1912
These invaluable vessels were secured by Mr. Selig for use in the production, a bond of $100,000 being given for their safe return. The Knights of Columbus cooperated earnestly to secure the caravels from the Park Commissioners, the negotiations taking nearly three years before arrangements were made.

In this connection it may be stated that Mr. Selig's forces spent several weeks in docking the caravels and making them seaworthy. Their seams were recaulked, the bottoms painted and the upper works thoroughly overhauled. The rudder of one of the vessels was replaced and new sails were made for all three, at a heavy outlay. The manning of the caravels was another difficult task, as over 120 deep sea water sailors were required to handle them. When the men were secured, it took several weeks to familiarize them with the old style sails. so as to maneuver the vessels as required by the camera man.

It is worthy of note that Mr. Selig succeeded in securing the original log book of Columbus as a property for the Santa Maria. This was done through the kind offices of the Spanish Consul in Chicago, a bond of $10,000 being given for its return. Although this log book in the Santa Maria's cabin will catch but few eyes, its being there is an evidence of the great care taken in the matter of details.

The scenario was written by C. E. Nixon, a well known newspaper man, author, critic and playwright. Mr. Nixon spent three years in study and research for his material, and his completed work was afterwards carefully reviewed by the producing staff of the Selig Polyscope Company. The account left by Columbus of his voyages, and those of his associates, have been faithfully followed in the Selig production. Some of the incidents have been found in official documents and in the Spanish archives, and others have been taken from testimony given in the law suit brought against the Crown of Spain by Diego, the son of Columbus, after the death of his father. The aim throughout has been to give a moving, living picture of Columbus as he was and to keep close to historical accuracy and the atmosphere of fee times.

Mr. Selig states that $50,000 has been expended on the three films in "The Coming of Columbus." Over 350 acting people were engaged in the production in addition to a host of supernumeraries and skilled workmen.

"The Coming of Columbus" will be released May 6, by special arrangement with, and under the exclusive control of the General Film Company. Harry J. Cohen, of the Selig Polyscope Co., left Chicago on a flying tour of the country, April 18, in the interests of these films. He will visit all the branch offices of the General Film Co., and private exhibitions will be given licensed exhibitors in the leading cities. Mr. Cohen left for the East and will next visit the South and far West and then the Middle West. His campaign will last 20 days, during which time he will never sleep in a hotel.

The publicity department of the Selig Polyscope has completed arrangements for an extensive advertising campaign for "The Coming of Columbus." Exhibitors can be furnished with all varieties of aids to boom the films by applying to the Chicago office. A special Columbus circular will be mailed them giving all particulars as to prices, etc., of the various aids. A special musical program for the presentation of the films is being pre- pared for Mr. Selig by S. L. Rothapfel, the widely known manager of the Lyceum theatre, Minneapolis.


As is known, Columbus visited nearly every Court in Europe for assistance to carry out his great project. The Selig films introduce him to us in Portugal, where he sought the favor of John II. We see him visit a quaint votive shrine in Portugal accompanied by his son Diego, who is seen leading the lone donkey, which carried their scanty effects. They are on the way to Spain, where the mariner hopes to gain an audience with the good Queen Isabella.

We next see the little party at an old mission in Spain, where Columbus stops and explains his plans and theories to the pious fathers. Most of the latter, we can see, are astounded at his views on geography and shake their heads gravely as they ponder. However, he interests Fra Antonio, one of the Queen's confessors, who succeeds in getting him an audience with her Majesty. The meeting takes place in the royal tent on the field of Granada, where at the time, a conflict rages between the royal troops and the Moors. Just as Columbus has won the Queen's ear and he has spread his charts on the table, messengers arrive from the battlefield and announce the surrender of the Moors, putting an end to the interview.

Moving Picture World, 04-May-1912

Isabella turns Columbus over to the wise men of Salamanca to test his sanity, and one can easily see that they look on him as a mad theorist. But Fra Antonio persuades the Queen to grant Columbus another audience, and we are treated to a splendid Court scene, where Isabella and Ferdinand listen to the great mariner. The Queen offers to sell her jewels to support Columbus on his quest, but she is spared the sacrifice by the generosity of Fernandez, the Court physician, who finances the undertaking. Next we see Columbus made an admiral by King Ferdinand, in presence of the Court, and a great procession of ecclesiastics, a vestal choir, famous dignitaries and other members of the laity as they march past the royal stand. This is one of the most imposing scenes in the three films and forms a fitting close to the first reel.

And now the three caravels pass before us in order; first the flagship Santa Maria, next the Pinta and then the Nina. They are first seen anchored in the quiet harbor of Palos, from which they set sail on an epoch- making voyage. We catch a glimpse of Sunday mass on board the Santa Maria as the little vessels plow their ways further into unknown seas. And soon we notice discontent and disaffection among the sailors. The captains of the smaller craft see it and, half in accord with the spirit, try to influence Columbus to turn back to Spain. They visit him again as mutiny flaunts its face, and we see the intrepid Commander quelling the turbulent spirits by his presence and cheering words of hope.

Shortly afterwards we see the faces of Columbus and others raised aloft in ecstasy, as the lookout cries, "Land Ho!" "Away to the West," he further cries in answer to the Admiral. And then, with hearts full of thankfulness to the Giver of all Good, we see the worn out sailors join with their Commander in offering thanksgiving. Then a bird is caught in the rigging by a sailor, and every eye is strained to catch a glimpse of the shore from which it has flown. Next we view the fleet at anchor and the landing on the island, on the coast of which a body of natives watches the strange white men from the clouds. The standard of Spain is reared on the new soil on which Columbus had first planted the emblem of the cross.

Moving Picture World, 04-May-1912
The third reel opens with a magnificent scene showing the welcome extended Columbus and his men at the Court of Ferdinand and Isabella. It is one fully befitting the occasion, and fairly flashes with royal and courtly splendor. In the midst of the great assemblage, where even stoical grandees applaud the success of Columbus, he is knighted by King Ferdinand.

A fine interior scene is devoted to the "egg" incident. We see the insulting courtier, who had tried to belittle the feat of Columbus, humbled by the simple problem of standing an egg on end. This scene is artistically posed and is worthy of being ranked with a great painting. The third voyage is undertaken by Columbus and we see him mourning over the destruction of his colony, La Navidad. Insolent and avaricious Spanish nobles had wrought the ruin, and already they had planned the ruin of the Great Discoverer. While he is endeavoring to rebuild the colony and the fortunes of the natives who love him, Francisco de Boabdilla arrives to take him back in chains to Spain. As the arrest is being made the following proclamation is read:

"Whereas, one Christopher Columbus, governor of the Antilles, has been found guilty of malfeasance in office and has not accounted for much gold promised the Crown, the Commissioner of the Crown, Boabdilla, will cause his arrest and conduct him to Spain for trial.

We see the natives determined to set Columbus free; but we also see him dissuading them from their purpose. Then our blood boils as we watch them riveting the cruel chains on his ankles, and witness the further shame of Spain as he sails away, bound and alone, in the vessel's hold.

The final sub-title in the third reel, "Sic transit gloria virum," is scarcely fitting in this case. True, the honors heaped on a man by the world may pass away, but the glory of great deeds performed by him for the human race cannot pass away. The glory of Columbus is greater now than ever before. While cheated of his right to have the great continent, discovered by him, named after him, the story of his life is known to all, while one is obliged to refer to an encyclopedia for information about Amerigo.

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