Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Captain from Castile

I’ve always enjoyed “Captain from Castile” (1947) even while recognizing its faults. It’s lavish, yet kind of slow-moving, and lacking in physical action. On the plus side, it’s never boring, gorgeous to look and the score is to die for.

“Captain from Castile” was a big production for 20th Century Fox. Reportedly in production for more than three years, it tells the tale of Cortez’s conquest of Mexico. But he really doesn’t conquer it in the movie. After two hours and 20 minutes, the movie ends with the Spanish army massed to conquer the Aztec nation. So no big battle scenes here, unfortunately.

Tyrone Power stars as Pedro de Vargas, a Castilian nobleman who runs afoul of the Spanish Inquisition, must leave Spain and heads to the New World to seek fame and fortune. He brings along a peasant girl, Catana, played in her film debut by Jean Peters, who is hopelessly in love with him. He joins the Cortez expedition, and Cesar Romero gives probably his best-ever performance as the fortune-hunting Cortez. With his mischievous grin, you can understand why men were willing to travel halfway around the world to a mysterious new world to stake their fortunes.

Fox shot the movie in Mexico, and the Technicolor cameras do a splendid job of capturing the magnificence of the country. In two scenes we can see in the background volcanoes belching huge whorls of black smoke in the air.

And then there’s the score. Sometimes a musical score for a movie can be so grand it becomes foreground music, not background music, and becomes the guiding force of a film, moreso than the actor, director, cinematography, etc.

Anyone who has ever seen “Captain from Castile” knows what I’m talking about.

Alfred Newman’s score for “Captain” is one of the jewels in film music, a symphonic masterpiece brimming with passion, excitement, romance and adventure.

The score’s most famous piece, the “Conquest March”, is heard in all its glory in the final five minutes. The USC marching band adopted the piece as its signature tune, so thousands of people are familiar with it even though they may not associate it with the film. I’ve heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform the piece live and it gave me goosebumps.

Catana’s melody is an inspired creation, and covers the romantic scenes with a fine sheen. Glenn Erickson, a critic I greatly respect (, also loves the score save for Catana’s theme, which he describes as “weird.” I think weird is too harsh a word, but I think I know what he means. It’s not a traditional love theme, and when it’s played in the high registers of the strings, as here, it has an ethereal quality, as if Catana is a ghost or a memory, instead of a simple peasant girl. But the melody is so gorgeous we don’t mind. It’s almost as if Newman was placing her on a higher plane, like a Castilian Virgin Mary, a la his vision scenes for “The Song of Bernadette” for which Newman won a well-deserved Oscar in 1943.

My favorite part of the film is the first 45 minutes set in Spain. Most of action takes place here, what with the Inquisition, a prison escape and a horseback chase through the countryside. Thrilling stuff.

The DVD transfer is fine, though these first 45 minutes seem a little dark to me. I’m not familiar with how the film originally looked, and though many of the scenes take place at night or in prison cells, I think it could be brightened up a bit.

Enamored of the movie as a mere youth after seeing it on television, I went to the library to read the book on which it was based. Samuel Shellabarger was a very popular writer of historical fiction decades ago, though his work is rarely revived today. It’s too bad, because the man had a God-given gift for story telling.

The second half of the book is full of marvelous, blood-thirsty action. If memory serves, all the battle scenes fall in the second half, and at one point Catana is captured by the Aztecs and strapped naked atop a temple ready for a human sacrifice. The Spanish attack and Pedro rescues Catana and carries her naked self down the temple steps, arrows flying about and Pedro and his comrades slashing their way through the enemy. That scene made quite an impression on me, and I would love to see that on screen someday. Perhaps a remake is in order? But please, keep Hans Zimmer away.

Despite its flaws, “Captain from Castile” remains splendid entertainment. I look forward to seeing - and hearing it - again.

Rating for “Captain from Castile”: Three stars.

1 comment:

Scott B said...

I think another fine example of a score that almost becomes a character in a movie is Anton Karas' haunting zither-based score in "The Third Man".