Covering 20 years of the life of Christopher Columbus, from his initial efforts to raise interest in his voyage into the unknown, through immortalising triumphs and the ultimate disillusionment of seeing Eden turned into Hell.
After the countless books, articles, TV documentaries and movies already assailing one's sensibilities, the exhausted lay person naturally looks to this to be the definitive account of Christopher Columbus' momentous journey from the coast of Spain to the Caribbean, the better to consign the rest to the bin and have Ridley Scott tell it like it is. It comes as something of a shock, then, to realise early on that reappraising Columbus' personality - he's been accused of obsessional greed, wanton murder of the natives and general megalomania - has been entirely reversed here.
Indeed, Depardieu is required to present our Christopher as a caring eco-freak implanted with a deep desire not to wreck his New World or rape any locals, meaning that the best anecdotes - like the one about him claiming to have spied land first, thus selfishly divesting the real lookout of his lifetime pension reward - do not feature here. More worryingly, Columbus' very motives for setting sail in the first place are somewhat muddied - if he didn't go for riches beyond imagining, what did he go for? Depardieu merely mutters something about not accepting the world as it is before hoisting anchor and pointing his boat westwards.
Putting aside these problems, Ridley Scott has produced a snapshot of history on a par with the very best. The atmosphere of fear, dread and ignorance in medieval Spain is brilliantly recreated, and the sheer vastness of the undertaking - bigger, surely, than the first space flight, since Columbus had literally no idea of what lay beyond the horizon - comes across loud and clear. As you'd expect from the arch visualist, he does the subject aesthetic justice too, despite the irritating use of some coloured filters left over from The Duellists.
It's surprising though, that in the wake of Thelma & Louise, the human moments of 1492 sink like cannonballs, with the assorted EC thesps often making themselves less than clear in the English language department, and many a character development and relationship-building scene presumably still on some cutting-room floor. Whilst Scott lacks the genius of, say, Fred Zinnemann in bringing history to life, and while his two-and-a-half hour celebration of the discovery of the Americas sags somewhat in the middle, this is no Revolution. As for Gerard Depardieu, he's the stand-out - loping around like a particularly charismatic sore-headed bear, and playing triumph, passion and crushing disappointment with equal Gallic aplomb.
Flawed, certainly, but by no means the horror-show its paltry box-office performance would suggest.