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Samuel Shellabarger's best-selling 1945 novel Captain from Castile had everything readers could want from a historical adventure: intrigue, epic action sequences, romance, exotic locales, and a dashingly brave hero pitted against a powerful evil villain. Everything about it was so ready-made for the movies that even before the book was published and still being serialized in Cosmopolitan, 20th Century Fox shelled out $100,000 for the screen rights. As a measure of how important the property was to Fox, studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck turned to powerhouse producer-writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz for consultation on the best way to bring the story to the screen.
"To do this picture ambitiously will cost a great deal of money," Mankiewicz wrote in a July 1945 memo to Zanuck. "It will require Technicolor, a huge cast, great numbers of people, elaborate sets, costumes, props, locations etc. The script will take a long time to write--thorough research will be necessary. Censorship problems should not be too difficult, once a satisfactory substitute for the Inquisition is established."
Mankiewicz was correct about all details, including the censorship problem, one of the first issues the studio had to face. The story concerns a young Spaniard, Pedro de Vargas, the captain of the title, who helps an Aztec slave escape his cruel master, Diego de Silva, incurring de Silva's wrath and bringing about the destruction of the de Vargas family and good name. By the time shooting began on Captain from Castile (1947), the de Silva character had morphed into the head of the Spanish Inquisition, a judicial arm of the Catholic Church and Spain's royalty established in 1478 to ferret out heretics; it became a tool for persecuting non-Christians and even Protestants both in Europe and the New World. The original scripts included scenes of the "examination" of de Vargas's family and the torture of his mother by one of the novel's major characters and villains, the chief Inquisitor and Dominican friar Ignacio de Lora. Changes were made to this version at the insistence of the Rev. John J. Devlin, a representative of the Catholic Legion of Decency and an advisor to the so-called "Hays Office," the motion picture industry's self-censorship arm. Devlin found the depiction of the Inquisition to be unacceptable to the church (despite its being somewhat historically accurate), so those aspects of the story were toned down, eliminating the auto da fe (ritual burning of heretics) prominent in the book, changing the name of the Inquisition office to suggest a distance from the church, and making the chief villain and head Inquisitor a lay person, de Silva, instead of the friar. With those changes, Devlin gave his permission to continue.
The sweeping scope of the novel also had to be truncated, especially in its second half, to keep the picture to an acceptable release length (although early suggestions had been to release it as a road show feature with intermission, a common practice in the studio era for large-scale, expensive--and long--epics). After the initial sequences about de Vargas's persecution and escape, the film follows his adventures as part of Cortez's expeditionary force in Mexico, depicting the destruction of the Aztec empire in what today we quite rightly view as offensive and inaccurate terms. Some reviewers and commenters at the time of the movie's release noted that the bloodier aspects of the book had been muted (case in point: the slaughter of thousands of Aztecs changed into a single cannon shot that destroys a religious idol), but most still found much to commend Captain from Castile as a crowd-pleasing adventure. In 2002, critic Jonathan Yardley characterized the film as "a faithful adaptation that had all the necessary ingredients: an all-star cast, breathtaking settings and photography, a stirring score, and enough swashbuckling action to keep the Three Musketeers busy for years."
There was little doubt who would play the hero. Fox immediately went to Tyrone Power, the studio's primary period-adventure lead in such films as Suez (1938), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Black Swan (1942). Power had just completed service in World War II, and the studio thought it best to return him to form after relatively downbeat roles in the Somerset Maugham adaptation The Razor's Edge (1946) and, brazenly against type, in the film noir Nightmare Alley (1947), the kind of complex, challenging parts the actor wanted but that proved far less popular with audiences.
Mankiewicz suggested the solid box office potential in reuniting Power with Linda Darnell, his co-star in four hit pictures, including The Mark of Zorro and Blood and Sand (1941), but Darnell's star had risen significantly during the war years, and when Peggy Cummins proved inadequate for the lead in another costume drama, Forever Amber (1947), Darnell was pulled into that production. The role she was originally slated for in Captain from Castile, the beautiful barmaid and de Vargas love interest Catana Perez, was given to Jean Peters in her film debut.
Mankiewicz also urged Zanuck to cast Fredric March as conquistador Cortez, Alan Reed or William Bendix as adventurer Juan Garcia, and Jose Ferrer as escaped slave Coatl. Those parts were eventually taken by Cesar Romero, Lee J. Cobb, and Jay Silverheels, later famous as Tonto on TV's The Lone Ranger.
Many of the film's scenes were done on location in Mexico, where the company got fortuitous shots of an eruption of the newly formed Paracutin, standing in for the volcano Popocatapetl, which was active during Cortez's invasion. One scene was filmed right at the edge of Paracutin's lava beds with the volcano's cone visible in the background, a difficult shoot thanks to the ash clouds that made lighting extremely difficult. Reports claim as many as 4,500 extras were used in that scene, bringing the total number of extras employed on the film to nearly 20,000. Of the film's total 106 days of production, 83 took place in Mexico. The final budget swelled, as Mankiewicz predicted, to more than $4 million, which Variety deemed to be "visible in every inch of the footage."
Alfred Newman's Oscar®-nominated score was one of the earliest movie soundtracks to be released as a full album, a recording rumored to have been completed at his own expense. Newman donated his royalties to the Damon Runyan Cancer Fund and later gave the rights to the film's stirring march theme to the University of Southern California. The school's marching band still regularly plays the music, known as "Conquest."
Some reports say Tyrone Power met his future wife Linda Christian while the two were both in Acapulco, he filming Captain from Castile and she working on Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). They were introduced there by Power's then romantic interest Lana Turner, but he said he remembered meeting Christian briefly at a party given by his first wife Annabella some years before.
Tyrone Power and Cesar Romero were longtime close friends (and oft-rumored lovers), and prior to their on-set adventures in Mexico, the two made a ten-week trip just after the war through that country and much of Latin America in a twin-engine Beechcraft piloted by Power. Years later, Romero recounted a story of one stop on their tour, a lunch date with Argentine dictator Juan Peron and his world-famous wife, Evita.
Producer: Lamar Trotti
Director: Henry King
Screenplay: Lamar Trotti (screenplay); Samuel Shellabarger (novel)
Cinematography: Arthur E. Arling, Charles G. Clarke; Joseph LaShelle (uncredited)
Art Direction: James Basevi, Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Film Editing: Barbara McLean
Cast: Tyrone Power (Pedro De Vargas), Jean Peters (Catana Perez), Cesar Romero (Hernando Cortez), Lee J. Cobb (Juan Garcia), John Sutton (Diego De Silva), Antonio Moreno (Don Francisco De Vargas), Thomas Gomez (Father Bartolome Romero), Alan Mowbray (Prof. Botello, the astrologer), Barbara Lawrence (Luisa De Carvajal), George Zucco (Marquis De Carvajal).
by Rob Nixon