JACO, Costa Rica — On a vacant stretch of black sand beach, on the western coast of Costa Rica, a small film crew has its camera set up just a few feet from the receding surf and aimed steadily at the horizon, above which hangs a preposterously orange sun.
In the camera's foreground, huge pelicans float inches above the water, circling back occasionally to scoop fish into their basket-sized beaks, and off to the right can be seen the masts of three wooden ships--exact replicas of the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria.
Take away the film crew and the ships and you have a show that nature has been repeating for millions of years. Take away just the film crew and your view could be exactly that of a man standing on the beach in Spain, say 500 years ago, advancing the concept to his small son that the ships disappearing over the horizon were proof that the world was round.
That scene occurs at the beginning of Ridley Scott's "1492," one of two big-budget movies being readied for release during this, the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage to America. Now, at the end of a long day, Scott's camera is pointed west, capturing the most rehearsed scene in history on film.
"The sun sets at exactly eight minutes past six," says Scott, a former TV commercial maker whose sleek images have driven films as diverse as "Blade Runner" and "Thelma & Louise," which earned him an Oscar nomination. "There's going to be a nice afterglow, a burn-back. I think it's going to be quite good."
The quiet at dusk here, 15 miles south of the resort town of Jaco, is deceiving. An hour earlier, the three ships were anchored just off shore and the film crew was smack in the midst of a 15th-Century Spanish army. Rows of overdressed soldiers lined the beach, while officers on horseback paced nervously between the ranks, and cannoneers stood over their ponderous weapons waiting for the order to fire.
In front of them all, his thick torso covered by a leather vest and his long hair blowing in the breeze, stood Columbus himself . . . or Danton, or Cyrano de Bergerac, whichever larger-than-life character you associate with Gerard Depardieu. Maybe you just know him as Andie MacDowell's shaggy French roommate in "Green Card."
All day long, Depardieu and the 400 Costa Rican extras repeated the scene, which will consume only seconds in the movie itself. Half the day, the extras lined up to the south of Scott's three cameras, and stood there while Columbus marched up from the surf to the sand, turned his head left and right, and ordered the cannoneers to fire. Then, they all moved up the beach, the cameras were turned around, and the scene was repeated with a northern exposure.
"Columbus had 1,500 men with him facing the Indians on the beach that day," Scott explained, as this scene from Columbus' second--and most violent--voyage to America was being set up. "I only have 400 extras, so I'm using them twice. I guarantee you it'll look like 1,500 men on the screen."
When the shadows became too long to continue, everyone left except Scott, cinematographer Adrian Biddle and a few other technicians who stayed to gather evidence for what many people, for many centuries, considered the main lesson of Columbus' adventures--that the world, son, is round.
But the question many people are raising during the quincentenary of Europe's discovery of America, as they ponder the flaws of our shrunken planet and attempt to fix blame, is which of those images best represents the truth of Columbus' deeds, the spirit of adventure felt by a man staring longingly at the horizon, or the spirit of conquest seen in the eyes of a man leading a modern army against Stone Age natives?
"Very little is actually known about Columbus," says Scott, who has little patience with those who see Columbus as the symbol for all that has gone wrong with the world. "He was a visionary and he was certainly a man with a conscience. But most of all, he was a man of his times, and the times were different."
"For a long time there was the cliche of the hero," says Roselyne Bosch, the French journalist who wrote the screenplay, "and now I'm afraid there is the cliche of genocide. The truth is in between. He was not Cortes, he was an explorer. He imposed his view once he got here, but to blame him for the massacres that followed is like blaming Christ for the Inquisition."
The 31-year-old Bosch says she became interested in Columbus while researching a 1987 article on Spain's long-range plans for celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage. It was a light feature compared to the kinds of stories she'd been doing for the French newsmagazine Le Point--reporting on baby smuggling in Sri Lanka, flooding in Bangladesh--but she became fascinated by the man and continued to pore through material written by and about him.