Before we plunge into the review, I must say that I have not heard if this piece has yet been optioned by a major studio but — with a number of “historicals” currently in the pipeline — the time is good for those producers who would like to take the path less traveled with this work, which focuses on the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. Make your offers now, you will not be disappointed.
This screenplay tells the story of Hernan Cortes’ expedition to Mexico, utilizing flashbacks from a Bernal Diaz, a survivor of the adventure who looks back on his youth. Taking a Chekovian role Diaz describes the people involved in this mad scheme to obtain gold and glory from the New World. The chief protagonist is of course Hernan Cortes, a petty noble who is eager to make a name for himself and suspects that only by taking an expedition to the unknown New World can he do so. Cortes has a number of friends and fellow petty nobles who he enlists in his plan – Sandoval, Alvarado, Cristobal de Olid, et. al. — and sets out, over the protests of the Governor of Cuba to explore the New World. It is fairly clear that Cortes has no idea of what awaits him but is convinced that it has to be better than cooling his heels in Cuba. The screenwriter is apt to employ Diaz to narrate the story and makes the point that the Yucatan Peninsula – for which Cortes and his fellows are headed – translates literally to “I do not understand you” which is apparently the response the Spaniards got from the natives when they asked the name of this new country. It is a nice touch defining that phrase, for none of the participants knows what he’s getting into when they begin this adventure.
Once Cortes and his fellows have reached the Yucatan Peninsula things begin to get interesting very quickly as he acquires an interpreter named Marina – a beautiful native woman who speaks both Spanish and the local tongues. Although Cortes tries to deny it, the mutual attraction here is evident. Soon thereafter, a native army of 10,000 brilliantly clad Cacique warriors confronts the small party of Spaniards. The battle is soon joined and the Spanish infantry, despite their terrifying muskets and flashing swords, are hard-pressed by the hordes of natives until the Spanish cavalry arrives. The mere sight of men on horseback, quickly mistaken for gods or monsters, is enough to terrify the natives and the Spaniards have soon won the day. In their terror of these strange beings the Cacique quickly sue for peace and the Spaniards enlist them as allies against their hated Aztec overlords.
For the uninitiated, I should point out that the Aztecs were not the only inhabitants of the peninsula, only the most warlike and feared. The Aztecs made a common practice of tapping the populations of surrounding tribes for use as human sacrifices and were thus none too popular with the other residents. This is another point that I should make right here and that is that this is not a script — and certainly not a film — for the faint of heart or weak of stomach. The conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards was not a walk in the park and the Aztec empire was not an enlightened race of mild-mannered accountants. As is made evident in this excellent piece of work, the Aztec empire, for all of its beauty and its advanced civilization, was a bloody piece of business. A warrior society run by grotesquely costumed Papas or high priests with an unquenchable taste for blood it depended on surrounding tribes for an unending supply of human beings destined for sacrifice. So, while the Spaniards are not necessarily good guys neither are their opponents. The screenplay does not avert its eyes tastefully but shows both societies “warts and all.”
Augmenting his woefully small force (there are only about 300 Spaniards in the expedition) with Indian allies — all looking to get a shot back at the hated Aztecs – Cortes pushes his way into Mexico City (Tenochtitlan) and a face-to-face meeting with Moctezuma (a.k.a. Montezuma). Cortes and his men are awed by the appearance of Tenochtitlan and stunned by the seemingly endless riches of the place – they have never seen so much gold. With Marina translating Moctezuma greets the Spaniards as gods whose arrival was foretold in ancient legends but it is evident that his son Cuauhtemoc is not buying it. He grits his teeth and goes along with his father but it is evident that this fellow means trouble. For a brief time relations between the Spaniards and the Aztecs are civil if strained. But Cortes and his men are both affronted by the Aztec’s taste for human sacrifice and enticed by the wealth, which is there for the taking. Cortes himself sees trouble brewing and seizes Moctezuma as a hostage. His plan however is flawed and the Aztec Empire, under the leadership of Cuauhtemoc, rises against him en-masse.
What follows is a horrific trip into hell which makes “Black Hawk Down” look like a church picnic. I don’t know if one can find a studio with guts enough to handle the subsequent scenes (Ron Howard had a serious falling out with Disney over his intention not to sugar coat the fight for “The Alamo”), but if a studio picks up this screenplay, there is some powerful stuff within, replete with images which will haunt the viewer for years afterwards. It is not for nothing that the Spaniards referred to the retreat from Mexico City as “La noche triste,” or “the night of sorrow.”
Now, there is more to this story. As is my practice, I shall not reveal the ending of this stunning piece, but only repeat that this is a work not for the faint of heart. There are many shadings here – relationships between Cortes and his followers and his critics at home, inter-relationships between Aztec authorities and the Spaniards, the development of relations between Marina and Cortes, etc.. At 150 pages this is not a short work. But is it a good workr Hell, yes! It is exceptionally well done and my hat is off to Nicholas Kazan for turning out such a remarkable script. I can only hope that a major studio is willing to step up to the plate for this one which, with ongoing projects for Alexander the Great, Kleopatra, and Hannibal, making it ever more likely. In the interim, for those who would like a first hand account – upon which this screenplay appears largely to be based – I would strongly recommend that they go out and find a copy of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s memoirs, “The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico – 1517-1521” (my battered old copy is here on the desk). This story of Cortes’ conquest of overwhelming odds is told from the point of view of a young participant. Granted it gives only the Spanish version of events but it is no less riveting for that. I would also recommend the late Gary Jennings’ novel “Aztec” or “The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico,” by Miguel Leon-Portillo. All of these will help give you a more rounded picture of a catastrophic time. If you’re more inclined to go the film route you can have a look at “The Captain from Castile,” “Royal Hunt of the Sun,” or the more eclectic “Aguirre: The Wrath of God.” Granted, the two latter films purportedly deal with the conquest of Peru but many of the attitudes conveyed are appropriate.
“Cortes” is one heck of a good piece of work. If only there were more writers of this caliber out there. Now, all that has to happen is for a studio exec to surface who has both courage and taste – well, I’m not holding my breath on that one. Frederick J. Chiaventone, an award-winning novelist and screenwriter, is a retired Army officer and Professor Emeritus of International Security Affairs at the U.S. Army’s Command and General Staff College. His most recent book, “Moon of Bitter Cold,” a novel of Red Cloud’s war, was nominated for the Pulitzer. It has also won The Wrangler Award and the premier William Rockhill Nelson Award for literature.Rating: A