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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
October 30, 2005

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Legend of Zorro, 1491, Settlers of Cataan, The Price of Silence

You don't seriously think that The Legend of Zorro is going to be about anything, do you?

Because if you think that, you are definitely going to be disappointed.

In fact, it's so not about anything that much of the fun of the movie is spotting historical howlers.

Let's see ... the bad guys are planning on shipping their secret weapon from California to the American South in order to use it to provoke the Civil War ten years early -- in 1850.

They are planning on shipping it by train. A neat trick -- nearly twenty years before the transcontinental railway was completed.

And when California does become a state, guess who is there in person to congratulate them (this before there was even dependable stagecoach service from the East to the West): Abraham Lincoln.

But in 1850, Abraham Lincoln was no longer in Congress -- he was home in Illinois, where one of his children died and another was born. Nor was he nationally famous. He was certainly not President -- in 1850, that would have been either Zachary Taylor or Millard Fillmore.

So wasn't it nice of them to invite an obscure former Congressman to congratulate California on becoming a state?

Their reckless contempt for history shows up relatively late in the movie, though. What really had me worried was that in this ten-years-after sequel to The Mask of Zorro, they seemed to be making the same dumb mistake that The Jewel of the Nile made as a sequel to Romancing the Stone: They broke up the happy couple.

It made Jewel of the Nile feel tedious; it was as if we had to tramp once again up the same steep slope we had already traveled in the previous film. Only this time nothing was exciting and new.

And that's certainly how Legend of Zorro feels at first. The early chase-and-fight scenes are moderately entertaining, but they feel almost perfunctory, as if the filmmakers wanted us to nod and say, Oh, yes, I remember this movie.

But Legend has a saving grace that gave me hope -- and delivered on it.

Zorro (Antonio Banderas) and his wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) have a son, Joaquin, played by Adrian Alonso. His part is serviceably if predictably written (i.e., do you expect him to be anything except mini-Zorro?) -- but Alonso's performance is wonderful.

This kid can do anything and everything. He has the intensity to carry off brattiness, courage, and cleverness; but then there are tender, emotional moments, and he delivers there, too. He's also funny when he needs to be. He delivers by far the best acting performance in this movie. He keeps the thing fresh and alive.

And I have to give the writers credit, too, for the fact that while all the adventure hinges, as before, on a ludicrously elaborate evil plot, the relationship between Zorro and his wife turns out to be not quite as predictable as I feared, and by the end, I actually found myself interested in what happened and delighted at how all three members of this superhero family ended up being indispensable to saving the entire West from an evil conspiracy of ... oh, never mind that. It's just too silly to bother repeating it.

Naturally, because this film is made in Hollywood in the year 2005, the most violent, cruel, despicable villain is a Christian Conservative; but it's worth pointing out that Zorro himself is a believing and practicing Catholic, which is a refreshing change.

Not only that, but most of the characters in this movie have Mexican or Spanish accents, and there are even brief sections where Spanish is spoken. For a movie that is intended as mind candy, this is unusual -- and also rather pleasing, because when Banderas and Alonso have an extended conversation in Spanish, we can hear how beautifully they speak, how their "accent" in English becomes music in their native tongue.

This is not a great movie. It's barely a good movie within the boundaries of what they were attempting to accomplish.

But these days, that's quite worth the money we spent to get into the theater to see it. It's a film the whole family can see -- really. Some tense moments and cruel things happen, but the bad stuff is off-camera or invisible to us. We had a good time.

Not least because the hot chocolate at the Carousel is so very good ...

*

I've been keeping up pretty well on the findings of archaeologists and linguists and historians about Native American cultures and history prior to the arrival of Columbus.

But a new book by Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, is a reasonably thorough and fascinating survey of the discoveries in the past few decades that have transformed our picture of how the Indians lived, who they even were, and what brought their many civilizations crashing down.

For instance, we have the picture of North American Indians wandering through the mostly-empty forests, hunting for a living, or occasionally farming a little plot of ground; and the plains Indians were a few scruffy tribes following the vast buffalo herds.

Now it seems that this is hopelessly wrong. Because the earliest Europeans to see these regions saw something radically different. The Indians of the Mississippi plain, for instance, were completely agricultural -- hunting was primarily used to keep the buffalo thinned out and distant from vast acreages planted with corn and monumental "mounds" where thousand and thousands of Indians gathered for worship.

It was only when Hernando de Soto's expedition came through that European diseases first assaulted the Indians -- perhaps carried by runaway pigs -- and hit them so hard that by the time the next Europeans came through, that high civilization was gone, and the few remnants had become mere tribes following the buffalo.

Buffalo that now were free of their most dangerous and efficient predator, for there were too few Indians to keep their numbers down. Only then did America come to have the vast herds of buffalo that make up so much of the romance of the prairie frontier.

How was it that European diseases were so devastating to the Indians? Partly it's because they were virgin territory, without any built-up immunities.

But it is also partly because the entire race of American Indians lacks the broad-based immune systems that have allowed Europeans and others to fight of myriad infections far more successfully than the Indians ever did.

Mann does a good job of explaining the science in layman's terms -- and keeping clear the difference between what's fairly certain, what's probable, and what's still speculation.

But it seems quite possible that because the Indians were in far greater danger from parasites than from germ-caused diseases, they collectively developed immune systems geared toward coping with parasitic infections. It may be an either-or situation -- our bodies choose one defensive gameplan, leaving us vulnerable to an attack from the other source.

The fact remains that not one but multiple epidemics of different diseases swept through the great empires and civilizations of the New World in advance of the conquerors, leading not just to radical population drops and economic disruption, but to despair, deep anxiety, social chaos, and civil wars.

That's why a relative handful of Europeans were able to conquer empires that always had the power to squish them like bugs -- one side or another in ongoing civil struggles enlisted them, intending to "use" them but ultimately being betrayed by them.

It was certainly not European guns. They were noisy, yes, but grossly inaccurate and very slow to reload. Indians could shoot off half a dozen arrows with a longer range and more deadly aim while the Europeans were reloading.

Horses, on the other hand, were terrifying to the Indians, who had no comparable beasts of burden (early American horses were hunted or competed to extinction not that long before Europeans brought their much larger versions of the same species). It happens that the advantage horses gave the Spaniards were easily overcome -- but by the time the Indians worked out the right tactics, it was too late.

Most astonishing, though, is the discovery of a huge civilization in the Amazon basin, where it was long believed that only the most primitive sorts of Indian tribes could live.

Now we learn that those "primitive" tribes are actually the descendants of an extraordinary civilization that turned much of the Amazon into a vast farm.

This civilization built huge artificial plateaus in the Amazon floodplain, so they could ride out the flood season high and dry -- and also built straight-as-an-arrow causeways to connect them!

They had a very high technology, but one built on tensile strength rather than compression: In other words, instead of using hammers and building arches, which depend for strength on pressure, they created incredibly strong, thick ropes and cables. Their rope bridges spanned impossible distances without a single support in the middle; they wove rather than pounded their way to a high level of civilization.

But they did not deforest the Amazon. Instead, they tamed it. The fruit-bearing trees and plants of the Amazon are not there by accident -- they were bred there and deliberately planted, making what could have been an ordinary rainforest into a veritable Garden of Eden. Their decimated descendants have been living off their self-propagating orchards for five centuries.

Even on our own east coast, what we often overlook is the fact that our colonies did not succeed until disease cleared the Indians out of the way. There was, for instance, an English colony attempted in Maine prior to the coming of the Pilgrims. But it failed because the Indians basically threw them out, allowing them to remain only until a ship arrived to take them away.

When John Smith visited the shores of Massachusetts, he was warmly received -- until it looked like he intended to stay. Then he and his men found themselves surrounded by an overwhelming force and invited to return again sometime when they had something to trade.

The reason the New England Indians wanted beads and trinkets from Europeans is because they had such efficient, productive agriculture that they really didn't need anything else the white men had to offer.

Mann has no illusions -- the Indian civilizations could be astonishingly cruel. He does try to keep things in perspective, comparing the numbers of human sacrifices, for instance, to the number of public executions in Europe; some will not agree that there is a moral basis for comparison, and others will be skeptical about his low numbers of human sacrifices. But it does suggest a rather cavalier attitude toward state-sponsored killing on both sides of the Atlantic.

It's an extraordinary look at a fascinating subject, and a good example of credible science writing. Because along with the information about Indian cultures and history, we also get another story -- how one set of scientific ideas has to make way for another when newly discovered data makes the old theory untenable.

*

Years after getting Settlers of Cataan as a gift -- which remained unopened because it sounded complicated -- we finally began a game one Sunday afternoon at the home of some friends. We had to end the game before we had done much more than set it up, but then a few weeks later, some other friends brought the game to our house and we got to play it all the way through.

It really is a fascinating game, and much simpler than it seems at first to be. Though it's for ages 12 and up, our 11-year-old grasped it quickly and plays it enthusiastically. But be warned: This game of trading and building can be played quite ruthlessly.

So if you play for fun and not blood, make sure the people you're playing with share your light-hearted attitude.

*

Kate Wilhelm has a new mystery novel, The Price of Silence, which for some of you may be all you need to know.

A young couple, Barney and Todd (Todd is the woman), move to a small town in eastern Oregon -- the dry part of the state -- where Todd takes over the production of a local weekly paper while Barney commutes back and forth to the classes he's teaching as a graduate assistant at a university hours away.

They soon discover a couple of things: First, that young women have been disappearing with astonishing regularity, and second, that everything in this small town seems to tie in with things that happened a generation or more in the past. Some people just don't like it when outsiders come in and stir things up.

That may sound predictable, but I assure you that this story definitely is not what you expect it to be. And because Wilhelm is such a wonderful, inventive writer, her characters come alive with charm and verve and humor. You're among people that you like, all the way through the book.


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