Marlon Brando’s salary these days is about as inflated as his physique — for Christopher Columbus: The Discovery he reportedly received $5 million, which works out to about $500,000 per minute of screen time — but he usually brings something to his roles, even if it’s just sophisticated self-mockery. In A Dry White Season (1989), he dramatized the courtly comic disgust of a veteran antiapartheid lawyer by highlighting his own blase attitude toward acting. In The Freshman (1990), he did a wicked parody of Don Corleone, stretching out the pauses between words until he had you giggling at the Godfather’s preternatural ease. So it says much about Christopher Columbus that this logy $47 million epic isn’t even worth seeing as a lark for Brando’s performance.
For the first time since Superman (1978), Brando has been lured into working for the megaschlock producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind. Once again, his motivation — apart from the money, of course — seems to have been to do a movie so transparently unworthy of his gifts that it serves as further justification for retirement. Sporting a skullcap and enormous cassock, his flat white hair giving him the look of someone who has just been soaked by a bucket of water, he appears in a few brief scenes as Torquemada, the Grand Inquisitor. The role is little more than a series of reaction shots, and Brando seems to know it. Even when he gets to deliver a howler like ”To be a true believer and unjustly condemned to death — that is the way to glory!” he fails to invest it with his usual hammy twinkle. He just looks depressed.
Directed by John Glen, who has steered the James Bond series through its stunt-driven, late-Roger Moore phase, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery lacks even the misplaced energy of a camp folly. It’s limp and exhausted — a bloodless swashbuckler. As Columbus, George Corraface, the French-born actor who was chosen for the role just three days before filming began, shows off his dark mane, lady-killer stare, and pearly smile; he’s like the young Al Pacino impersonating Errol Flynn. Corraface isn’t a bad actor, but he has nothing to play. Nearly half the movie is devoted to the drab spectacle of Columbus trying to get backing for his expedition. Even a long-haired Tom Selleck as King Ferdinand is more yawny than funny.
Then, after a sea voyage that successfully dramatizes the concept of ”endless,” Columbus and his crew of ruffians wash up on a beach in the West Indies. The film suddenly turns high and mighty: The men steal the Indians’ gold and carouse with their young women — who, despite a PG-13 rating, walk around topless (proof that where the ratings board is concerned, Third World breasts still count less than Sharon Stone’s). Of course, the actors playing Indians don’t really get any lines, but at least they’re allowed to look plenty upset. The tone of enlightened outrage ends, however, as abruptly as it arrived. When Columbus gets back to Spain, he is suddenly a heroic crusader again, a visionary poised atop sunlit cliffs. The Salkinds give us the bland, schoolbook version of Columbus, then undercut it, then serve it up again. In their hands, even historical revisionism is just a new mode of trash.