The conquest texts from Spanish and Portuguese colonizers utilize the rhetoric of division of peoples by color, geography, and Christian status. The thesis’s first part discusses how these approaches are manipulated in the subsequent film adaptations. The second part discusses how the adaptations introduce new narratives such as a colonial possession and the self-justifying success of the conquest. Overall, the rhetoric of division in the conquest descriptions is used to present indigenous peoples as sub-human and thus justify colonizing their land.
Conquest Texts and Film Adaptations
The Four Voyages of Columbus, The Chronicle of The Discovery and Conquest of Guinea, and the first two letters in Letters from Mexico describe the colonial exploits reported back to the Portuguese and Spanish royalty (Columbus; Azurara; Cortés). All the texts clearly separate the indigenous groups from the ‘conquistadores’ along the racial, geographical, and religious lines. For instance, Azurara contrasts “white enough” and “well-proportioned” captive locals with those “black as Ethiops” and “ugly in features” (81). Moreover, Columbus condescendingly refers to the locals as “no more malformed than the others,” potentially suitable “savages” for accepting Christianity and “servicing” the superior colonizers (16; 8). Lastly, Cortés adamantly insists on erasing the indigenous political and geographical order and renaming the land as “New Spain” (158). Overall, each text engages with the core conquest principle of separating and dehumanizing the ‘other’ to justify the colonial exploits.
The first film adaptation of the conquest texts is Apocalypto (Gibson), which presents a pro-imperialist view of colonialism as equivalent to the Mayan civilization’s salvation. The rhetoric of the flawed political order suggested by Cortés and savagery mentioned by Azurara and Columbus are upheld by presenting the corrupted, blood-soaked, slavery-reliant Maya government. Such a portrayal was arguably used to justify the subsequent colonization by the Spanish, stating that “[those] who are vile” will die when “the sacred time” comes (Gibson). The final scene of the Spaniards appearing on the horizon to offer a new beginning only further reinforces the division and portrays the European part as inherently superior.
The second film adaptation is The New World (Malick), which reimagines a romance between an indigenous girl, Pocahontas, and a colonizer. With the voice-over of Smith declaring that locals are “gentle, loving, faithful” and “lacking in all guile and trickery,” the visuals show their brutality and resistance (Malick). Despite the intended message of indigenous independence and resistance, the film still perpetuates the division between the colonizers and uncultured ‘others,’ thus only upholding Columbus’s rhetoric of Christian superiority over ‘noble savages.’
The next adaptation is The Last of the Mohicans, filmed in the French and Indian war setting, reinforcing the original texts’ legacy of presenting indigenous people’s fate and history as predetermined by the French (Mann). The Native Americans are presented to the viewers through colonizers’ eyes as unruly, exotic, and destined for disappearance from their land, which becomes a “place for people like my white son” (Mann). The narrative thus brings forward Columbus, Azurara, and Cortés’ rhetoric of racial division, highlighting the view that indigenous communities were destined to be replaced by the ‘superior’ race since coexisting would be impossible.
The last film adaptation discussed is Far and Away (Howard), which describes poor Irish farmers rebelling against farm owners and eventually fleeing for the unclaimed lands in Oklahoma. America in the narrative is described as a “distant world,” full of opportunity for the daring ones (Howard). The story revises the language of portraying the ‘others’ as inferior and transcends geographical division; however, it may be due to the Irish immigrants being not as ‘exotic,’ akin to the larger American population.
The adaptations generate new conquest tropes, the first one being the success of the conquest justifying itself. Far and Away (Howard) vividly pictures Irish tenant farmers’ hardships. Before the father of the protagonist passes, he tells his son that “[a] land is a man’s very own soul” (Howard). Therefore, by the time the main characters begin the Oklahoma venture, the narrative has justified their conquest’s success. The message that the original conquest texts send differs from the film’s in that Columbus, Azurara, and Cortés all sought to present concrete outcomes of their quests to their royal superiors.
The second introduced trope is the principle of a colonial possession. It is especially apparent in The New World, with Smith walking through the forests and idyllically talking about the locals having “no sense of possession” (Malick). Similarly, The Last of the Mohicans‘ initial portrayal of the landscape as uninhabited justifies the imperialist take-over of the land and its resources, wholly disregarding the “vanishing people” (Mann). Both these examples introduce the rhetoric of indigenous people as having no claim to their land, thus making it ‘available’ for colonization.
To conclude, the original conquest texts highlight the division and discuss the superiority of colonists’ race, religion, and political structure, presenting locals as savage, uncultured, and disorderly, to rationalize exploiting the land. This rhetoric has been echoed in various film adaptations: Gibson presented indigenous government as deeply inferior and inherently doomed, while Malick accentuated perceived bloodthirst and savagery. Moreover, Mann implied that the indigenous communities only temporarily occupied their land, destined to make way for the colonizers. However, Howard’s contribution is bi-fold, given a less apparent difference between sides. The geographic division in Far and Away gives rise to new rhetoric of the conquest success being self-validating. Another trope introduces the issue of possession, with Malick and Mann downplaying indigenous peoples’ contention to their land. The original colonialist rhetoric of indigenous people being sub-human stems persists from reducing indigenous communities to their ‘exotic’ stereotypes. It may profoundly impact the modern dynamic in international relations, land conservation, and indigenous independence. Overall, investigating the historic roots of the colonialist prejudice warns against falling into the same mindset in the future.
Azurara, Gomes Eannes. The Chronicle of The Discovery and Conquest of Guinea. Translated by Charles Raymond Beazley and Edgar Prestage, vol. I, Burt Franklin, 2011, pp. 1–127, Web.
Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages of Columbus: A History in Eight Documents, Including Five by Christopher Columbus, in the Original Spanish, With English Translations. Edited & translated by Jane Cecil, Dover Publications, Inc., 1988, pp. 1-19.
Cortés, Hernán. “The First Letter.” Letters from Mexico, edited & translated by Anthony Pagden, Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 3–46.
Cortés, Hernán. “The Second Letter.” Letters from Mexico, edited & translated by Anthony Pagden, Yale University Press, 2001, pp. 47–159.
Gibson, Mel. Apocalypto. Icon Productions, Mayan Ruins, Touchstone Pictures, 2006.
Howard, Ron. Far and Away. Imagine Films Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 1992.
Malick, Terrence. The New World. New Line Cinema, Sunflower Productions, Sarah Green Film, 2006.
Mann, Michael. The Last of the Mohicans. Morgan Creek Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox, 1992.