Now, Columbus: The Miniseries
WGBH Boston embarks on a seven-part journey through the admiral's legacy
WASHINGTON — TELEVISION viewers will discover a different Columbus, and a sometimes disconcerting one, with the new PBS mega-series "Columbus and the Age of Discovery" which starts this Sunday night.The seven-part epic is a production of Boston's WGBH-TV in conjunction with the United Kingdom, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany, and Japan. It airs through next Wednesday on PBS stations across the United States. On Saturday, there will be a Columbus Day encore with all seven hours running consecutively. It will also, like Christopher Columbus, travel widely: to Europe, the U.K., Japan, and South America, airing concurrently with their quincentenary programs on the 500th anniversary of Columbus encountering America. This look at Columbus shows as many facets of the famous admiral as do the various historical paintings of him which flicker by, none done in his lifetime. In one he has blond hair and gold eyes, in another he is a brunette with brown eyes. In some he is tired and beaten looking, in some authoritative and full of life, in others petulant or sad. Even his nose varies. In short, he could be several men. It is history's chameleon that the Columbus programs focus on in this exciting, colloquial, and often beautiful series filled with the sea and its waves, sunsets, sunrises, billowing sails, intrigue, adventure, and splashes of humor. When I saw parts of four episodes in the series at a Smithsonian preview it reminded me of one of my favorite movies: Joseph Losey's "The Go-Between," with its poetic transitions between a man's Edwardian childhood and his contemporary present. This series cuts effectively between the past, the 15th century, and the immediate present, a reenactment of what used to be called the Columbus Discovers America voyage in 1492 under the flag of Queen Isabella of Spain with the ships the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria. As the series points out, native Indians do not consider a country in which they were living when Columbus arrived "discovered" by him, nor do they consider the destruction of much of their civilization a cause for celebration. Footage from Mexico City today, in which Columbus Day is being celebrated traditionally with parades, flowers, etc., is braided with footage on the same plaza where Native Americans, fierce in red-and-white feather tribal costumes, demonstrate against Columbus Day and mourn his ar rival. Other footage shows us relics of the African slave trade on this continent which followed in Columbus' wake, and of African-Americans' legacy of bondage in the new world. This literate series was compellingly done in episodes by three teams: Producer/writer Thomas Friedman and director Stephen Segaller; by producer/director/writer Zvi Dor-Ner; and producer/writer/director Graham Chedd. The seven episodes include: "Columbus's World,An Idea Takes Shape,The Crossing,Worlds Found and Lost,The Sword and the Cross,The Columbian Exchange," and "In Search of Columbus." If I had only one night to view, I'd choose episodes three and four, in which the series' executive producer Dor-Ner takes a crew on board real-live reproductions of the three Columbus ships to follow his first transatlantic crossing; then Dor-Ner and the crew of a modern sailboat trace Columbus's first voyage around the Caribbean starting with his landfall at San Salvador. For the series, WGBH producers took more than three years to film in 27 countries, among them: Argentina, China, Egypt, Ireland, Malaysia, Nigeria, Portugal, Spain, the US and Venezuela. Dor-Ner said at the preview that the travel for the series was more costly than Christopher Columbus's original, history-shaking voyage. He also told a story that helps explain the paradoxes in the character of Columbus, who has been viewed as both hero (traditionally) and villain (recently). Dor-Ner said "Columbus had been at sea for about three weeks when he discovered a difference between his compass and the north star [used by sailors for navigation]. He stated 'It is the star which is wandering and the compass which is right.' It would take another 12 days to bring him to this continent and change history." In Dor-Ner's program titled "Stormy Waters - Or Can a Series about Columbus Be 'Politically Correct' (And Does It Need to be?)" he suggests: "The most common attitude in North America is still jubilation and admiration. This is firmly held by many, especially the Italian-American community which has adopted Columbus as its symbol and patron saint, and by most Chambers of Commerce. In this view, Columbus is transformed into the archetypal American - a successful entrepreneur and a magnificent salesman whose wit and knowledge overcomes ignorance and inertia.... "[The show] 'Columbus and the Age of Discovery' has never intended to choose among these attitudes. We do not endorse one at the expense of another. The series tells its stories in many voices and from many points of view, as befits a history that has affected so many in many different ways."