Turning Legend into Fact, Myth into History
In 1519, Hernan Cortes sailed from Cuba, landed in Mexico and made his way to the Aztec capital. Along the way, he founded the city of Veracruz, defeating several local, coastal tribes, as he and his soldiers made their way inland. From these tribes he reportedly learned of King Moctezuma and rumors of a “City of Gold.” Whether these stories were the origins of the famous legend of El Dorado is unknown, but it is likely that, on hearing them, Cortes and his men expected to find plentiful treasures when they reached the Aztec capital.
Drawing on both the myth of the “City of Gold” and the historical Cortes’ arrival in Mexico, The Road to El Dorado, the newest animated feature from Dreamworks who brought us The Prince of Egypt last year is a fast and furious tale of two Spanish con men who are unwitting stowaways on Cortes’ ship and end up locating the mythical city of El Dorado, defeating its villainous high priest and saving the city from discovery (and plundering) by the Spanish conquistadors. The entire film is a feast for the eyes, with gorgeously painted backgrounds, dynamic camera movement and character animation, and some brilliantly rendered ocean scenes. However, the story itself, set in this pseudo-historical context, is flippant and vacuous (appropriately enough, I suppose, for a “family entertainment”), while ignoring the implications it raises by resurrecting the tale of fantastically wealthy paradise, inhabited by so-called “savages,” in the “New World,” a world, of course, just waiting to be “discovered.”
As I sat in the darkened theater before the film began, surrounded by small, roving bands of sugar-smacked children, I overheard one parent tell his son, “This is a movie about history.” Just why any parent, who should at least know the skeletal details of the conquest of the “New World,” would mislead his child thus is beyond me. In fact, The Road to El Dorado might seem relatively responsible, in that it is not being advertised as a “movie about history”; instead, and rather more unpretentiously, posters call it a “comedic tale of friendship and adventure.” And yet, while friendship and adventure abound in this “tale,” why such an oddly glossy retelling of Cortes’ landing in Mexico is the context for these general themes is another question entirely.
The film uses many elements of Cortes’ actual meeting with Moctezuma in the story of Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) and Tulio (Kevin Kline), our two “friends and adventurers,” while omitting the wholesale slaughter that followed los conquistadores’ welcome in Moctezuma’s court. It opts instead for a moral lesson, in which the comic duo renounce paradise and their own worldly desires in order to save the inhabitants of the city from Cortes and his mirror-cuirassed thugs. Not to say that Cortes is missing entirely from the narrative. He shows up periodically as a menacing, square-jawed clod, striking momentary fear into the audience and implying the real danger posed by Spanish “explorers.” But the archetypal conquistador is not the primary villain here, just a historical signifier.
The primary villain in The Road to El Dorado is a scheming, deceptively obsequious high priest, Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante). Tzekel-Kan, the representative of the native religious beliefs (which are caricatures of Aztec religion), is portrayed as a misanthropic zealot with an overwhelming bloodlust for human sacrifice, not, it seems, as an offering to the gods, but just for the sheer pleasure of it. In this paradise, religion is the oppressor, and the representative Europeans, Miguel and Tulio, are heroic liberators who rid the city of their psychotic priest and his black magic. Cortes is also identified with religion, proclaiming to Miguel and Tulio as he towers and glowers over them that, “My crew was as handpicked as the disciples of Christ.” Cortes as a stand-in, handpicking, scary Christ here embodies some superficial awareness of the use of Christianity as a mechanism of colonial conquest and slavery. But this hardly ameliorates the troubling suggestion that the inhabitants of El Dorado must be rescued from Tzekel-Kan’s tyranny by the two Spanish “adventurers” recalls those colonial apologists who argued that Europeans rescued the “savages” from their primitive, bloody religions and brought them a more “civilized” western humanity. While human sacrifice is repulsive and incomprehensible to us (and quite disturbingly represented in a couple of scenes), the treatment of Aztec belief systems here is too simplistic: they are condemned as a mechanism of control that is used, like Christianity, to enslave and terrify people, rather than provide them with a shared cultural tradition.
Still, we must keep in mind that this is a fun family film that promises, in one of Elton John’s piano-pop songs, to “turn legend into fact… myth into history.” That said, it often succeeds in doing just the opposite, or to scramble the terms so much that such distinctions collapse. Much of the story does appear to draw from and contort Cortes’ own dealings with Moctezuma. Tulio and Miguel, like the historical Cortes, are greeted as gods when they arrive in El Dorado. Instead of using this reception to deceive and murder their hosts, they parade around like fools, planning to take the gold offered them as tribute and sail back to Spain, fearing all the time that they will be discovered as imposters and killed. Tzekel-Kan and the Chief (Edward James Olmos) are much too hip to the Spaniards to believe in their divinity. And of course, everyone speaks the same language in this film, trading in the difficulty of one culture confronting another without the benefit of a common language for a contest founded in moral absolutes.
Tulio, the more pragmatic of the two, is greedy (imagining he is dying, his final regret is that “I never had enough gold”) and so serves as a foil to Miguel’s dreamy idealism. Being that Miguel and Tulio are ineffectual if comic losers, they come off as pilgrims in a strange land who are transformed by their adventure while their homosocial friendship survives the ultimate test, a woman.
The heroine in the film, if she can be called such, is a spunky rebel named Chel, voiced by Rosie Perez, who is described by producer Bonne Radford as “remarkable, because in many ways, she’s a contemporary woman.” Chel is actually a thief, like Miguel and Tulio, and when she comes on the scene, she is running from the law after stealing a golden artifact from the temple. Chel, eager to leave El Dorado, agrees to help the two Spaniards by coaching them on the local etiquette, that is, how to be convincing gods. She ends up seducing Tulio and coming between him and his buddy so that she and Tulio can sail off with the mountain of gold on their boat. Why, I wonder, is a woman who uses her sexual power to solicit power and wealth from a man “contemporary”? What the filmmakers may have conceived as a progressive female character ends up falling into the same traditional mold of a scantily-clad object of desire who uses her body to obtain what are deemed (within the culture) male possessions.
Perez herself comments on the character, saying, “What they [the filmmakers] did was deal with her human side first, before dealing with her outward appearance.” It is, though, Chel’s outward appearance that is constituted as her appeal, for both the protagonists and the audience. Her every advent on screen was followed by whistles and catcalls from the pre-pubescent audience, which drowned out most of the character’s verbal expressions of her “human side.” Although Chel is a strong character, she is the embodiment of exotic sexuality, and her instant alliance with the white intruders makes her less than admirable. Coincidentally, the historical Cortes also purportedly had a female native companion as an aide and interpreter in his conquest of the Aztecs. Her name was Malinsi, the Spanish baptized her “Marina,” Cortes called her “Mi Lengua” (my tongue), but the Aztecs called her something else, “la Malinche” the traitoress. While it is doubtful that this historical person had any bearing on the construction of Chel, and her alliance with Tulio and Miguel against her own people, the story might raise questions about what passes for a “human side,” past or present.
Perez has also observed that the filmmakers did a “wonderful job in being sensitive to the portrayal of Chel and other characters as Latinos.” This is perhaps the greatest instance in the film of “turning myth into truth,” and one that supposes that Latin American culture arose spontaneously from Native American culture, without the unwelcome intervention of colonial Spaniards. Though Perez and Olmos both bring tremendous life and subtlety to their vocal performances, the decision to characterize members of a pre-Hispanic Central American culture as Latinos is a strange one, considering that the Native American culture portrayed in the film did not become “Latin” until it was wholly conquered by the Spanish.
One wonders why the makers of The Road to El Dorado chose to resurrect the 500-year-old myth of a city of gold for audiences in a “New World” long since conquered and colonized. Perhaps The Road to El Dorado attempts to redeem the ruthless conquest of the Americas by Europeans by creating characters who befriend the native people, instead of enslaving and exploiting them. But the two Spaniards (played by Anglos Branagh and Kline) still occupy a position of superiority in that only they can liberate El Dorado from its oppressively “primitive” religion, and only they can (at least temporarily) stave off the city’s destruction. Behind the facade of goofy humor and simple sentimentality is an attempt to turn the myth of Miguel and Tulio’s “adventure” into an alternate, bloodless history in which insecure whites renounce their lust for gold and charitably show the natives a more humane, “Enlightened” perspective, pausing to pick up one of the native women along the way.