Film Review: Captain from Castile (1947)
Tyrone Power [The Razor’s Edge, Blood and Sand] stars as early 16th century (1518) Spanish caballero Pedro de Vargas, persecuted as a heretic by the Inquisition after he helps a runaway Aztec slave who claims to be of noble birth (Coatl, played by Jay Silverheels). Lee J. Cobb [Twelve Angry Men, Thieves Highway], sporting Technicolor red hair, aids de Vargas in escaping from prison only after de Vargas’s 12 year old sister is killed being tortured by the strappado. The second escape following so closely after the first establishes a symmetry between the characters of Coatl and de Vargas, whose natural dignity and manly rectitude, it is implied, cannot be contained– and indeed they are destined to meet again. Cobb seems miscast; as the corrupt cop in The Man Who Cheated Himself or a mobbed-up trade unionist in On the Waterfront Cobb tended to play contemporary roles usually lacking any redeeming features. Juan Garcia, on the other hand, lives with a tragic secret, a fault-line beneath his confident and ambitious exterior which renders him one of the most damaged of Captain from Castile’s characters. Juan Garcia, it is revealed, strangled his mother to death to spare her from burning at the Inquisition’s stake, an act he insists was justified, one that tells us something about the world of early modern Spain– corrupt, priest-ridden– and, by extension, the postwar world in which the film was made. There is a hard-boiled sensibility to CFC, one appropriate to its 2nd act setting in a New World ransacked by rapacious conquistadors: confronted by the man responsible for his family’s disgrace and sister’s death, de Silva, Power’s de Varga forces the villain– a member of the dreaded Hermandad, something like the Catholic church’s secret police– to renounce his faith and then runs him through with a sword.
Captain from Castile strives for moral and historical equilibrium in its acknowledgement of the trauma and ineluctability of Spanish colonialism, a gesture personified by the character of Coatl, who at a piviotal moment confronts de Vargas. Though Coatl is grateful for the caballero’s assistance, he declares that this debt will not prevent him from defending his people against Spanish aggression. These divided obligations find a counterpart in Dona Marina (Stella Inda), based on the quasi-mythical figure of La Malinche, who negotiates the tensions between invaders and indigenes as an interpreter. Though she has since been reviled as a traitor who enabled the conquest of Mexico, La Malinche possesses a powerful symbolic charge as the bridge between Old and New Worlds. Given the traditional European construction of women as the bearers of culture, as pivotal figures connecting groups via exogamous marriage, Dona Marina embodies the transformation of Spaniards and Aztecs into Mexicans.
Produced on the eve of a global decolonization movement, Captain from Castile seems if not prescient at least conscious of the contradictions of western supremacy.