Cabeza de Vaca (1992)




Director:  Nicols Echevarra.

Cast:  Juan Diego (Alvar NZez Cabeza de Vaca), Daniel Gimnez Cacho (Dorantes), Roberto Sosa (Cascabel/Araino), Carlos CastaZn (Castillo), Gerardo Villarreal (Estebanico), Roberto Cobo (Lozoya), Jos Flores (Malacosa), Eli 'Chupadera' Machuca (Sorcerer), Farnesio de Bernal (Fray Surez), Josefina Echnove (Anciana Avavar), Max Kerlow (Man in Armor), scar Yoldi (Esquivel), Ramn Barragn (Pnfilo de Narvez), Julio Solrzano Foppa (Alcaraz), Javier Escobar Villarreal (Young Iguase Indian).

lvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca was an early Spanish explorer of the New World and somewhat of an anthropological author.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire movie.

San Miguel de Culiacan, 1536.  The Pacific Coast.  Eight years says lvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca.  He had been on the expedition to Florida for eight years.  He is asked what became of the captain of the expedition.  Captain Narvaez died, along with almost 600 men, except for Cabeza de Vaca and three other men. 

Eight years earlier, coast of Florida, 1528.  Men on two rafts meet each other.  One man complains that their ships are all gone.  Captain Narvaez is on one of the rafts and he tells the men in the other raft that "Spain ends here!"  He adds that "It's every man for himself."  The friar on the other raft tells the captain that "Here ends your hope of salvation." 

The raft with Cabeza de Vaca and without Captain Narvaez lands on land.  They bury some of their men.  They need to find fresh water soon.  They go searching for it.  They find some of their men dead, killed by the Indians.  While considering what to do, they are attacked by a group of Indians who kill many of the men of the expedition with arrows, including the friar. 

The Indians put the remaining Spaniards into a cage and take them to their village.  The Indians live in stick shacks on top of stilts in the water.  When Alvar is taken out of the cage he shouts to the other men to make for the west and the Panuco River.  They take Alvar to a shaman and his dwarf assistant in an isolated place along the water.  The dwarf treats Alvar terribly.  He constantly harasses the slave.  One day Alvar runs away.  But since he does not know where he is or where he is going he ends up right back where he started.  Disgusted with his situation he shouts who he is, treasurer for his Majesty Charles 1st of Spain and 5th of Germany, Lord of the Indies. 

One of the Indians severely damages his left eye.  The shaman, dwarf and Alvar come to the village to see what they can do for the man.  During the healing ritual, Alvar starts to participate.  He acts as though he is possessed and places his right hand over the man's damaged eye.  The next day the damaged man is up and walking around.  The shaman believes that Alvar is gifted and he sets him free.  He gives Alvar some food, clothes and a long stick and Alvar starts walking. 

Editorial Note:  Here part of the story is missing.  The remaining men made crude boats and sailed from Florida landing in or around Galveston, Texas.

Alvar walks a long way because now he is walking in an arid location in the mountains.  He is having a hard time surviving out in the wild, but he survives through the winter.  In warmer weather he hears drums and then sees tee-pees.  Alvar rushes in when he sees two other white men and a black man tied to posts arranged in a circle.  Tied up with them are four Indian braves from another tribe.    Alvar is told that Captain Narvaez is dead.  The Indians untie some of the white men and start to harass and threaten them.  But then warriors from the other Indian tribe start shooting the holders of the captives with their arrows.  One of the women grabs an arrow lodged in one of the posts and stabs it into the chest of a young Indian man.  All the men are freed and Alvar is able to save the life of the young Indian man. 

All the freed hostages now go back to the village of the young Indian man, who is now very much attached to Alvar as he is to him.  Later Alvar and the others from across the ocean attend a funeral.  Alvar believes that the young woman is not dead and tries to help her back to life.  He succeeds in his task which deeply affects the Indians of the tribe.  

Everything changes when Alvar discovers a Spanish musket ball in the side of a dying Indian.  They know they are close to the Spanish.  This is a little worrisome to Alvar who has become admired among the Indians for his healing powers.  The other Spaniards with Alvar suggest that because of his being so attached to Indian ways, he had better starts acting like a Christian again or the Spanish will take him back to the mother country in chains.  Alvar realizes that to be accepted by the Spanish, they will have to lie to them and not stress the importance of Indians ways in their lives. 

Alvar and the other three send the Indians back home and they walk on toward the Spanish.  Four Spanish riders on horseback find the four survivors of the Narvaez expedition.  Alvar, back in "civilization", is disturbed by what he sees.  There are 178 captured Indians that will be used as slaves for the Spanish.  And they want to capture 80 more Indians.  They ask Alvar for help seeing as how he is so respected and trusted by the Indians.  Alvar tells the commander that his request offends the faith of Christianity more than it offends him personally.  The captains orders a guard to be put on Alvar. 

At night some of the survivors tell some really tall tales about shining cities of gold to the north with rivers of honey and golden women.  Alvar is devastated when the Spanish bring in the dead body of the young Indian man whose life he saved.  He cries over the dead body. 

The last scene is one of a giant silver cross being carried by a multitude of Indian slaves, kept in step by one Spanish drummer.  



Pretty good movie, but it is so slow in parts.  With little or without any dialogue in many scenes, the movie almost appears surrealistic at times.  When Alvar starts to become a healer in the Indian spirit, one wonders if the man is not going a bit mad.  But it was more of a survival strategy than anything else.  But it would have been better if the movie told us more about the customs of the Indians rather than make the audience wonder what the heck is going on.  It could have been a lot better movie with more information rather than less.  (They don't even mention the names of the Indian tribes involved in the movie.)  I still enjoyed the movie but it was a bit disappointing.  What did the movie say about the Indians other than that they appeared to be incredibly cruel and that's not a good thing. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:


c. 1490  --  birth of lvar Nez Cabeza de Vaca into the Spanish aristocracy.  In Spanish Cabeza de Vaca means "Cow's Head".  The name came from the fact that in the 13th century one of his ancestors aided a Christian army against Spanish Moors by leaving a cow's head at the head of a secret pass. 

1527  --  he was the treasurer of the inept Narvez expedition.  Pnfilo de Narvez and Cabeza de Vaca began with five ships and 600 men.

Arrive in Santo Domingo; 140 desert.

In Cuba to get supplies. There were 2 ships and 60 men lost in a hurricane. (Spend the winter in Cuba to get more boats and supplies.)

He was only one of 4  of 600 men who survived the expedition.  Along the way, the 4 had survived by being enslaved by various Indian tribes of the upper coast of the Gulf of Mexico.  The survivors escaped by making it all the way to Mexico City.

1528 (April)  --  with five boats and four hundred men the expedition sets sail again. 

They land near what is now Tampa Bay. 

Narvez thought the River of Palms was not far away (when it was more than 1500 miles away).  The captain had 300 of his men to search for it.  Unfortunately, the men got lost and disappeared.

The remaining 100 survivors walked to northwestern Florida.  They stayed there for three months before they out-stayed their welcome and the Apalachee Indians ran off the survivors into a swamp.  The men knew that they had to get away from the Indians so they built five crude vessels to make their get-away.  

1528 (September 22)  --  they set sail for the River of Palms.

1528 (November 6)  -- after many harrowing experiences only two of the vessels finally land on an island (Galveston or a nearby island).  They receive help from the Karankawa Indians.

1529 (Spring)  --  only 14 or 15 men were left.   Cabeza de Vaca became a shaman to the Indians.  The remaining survivors, thinking  Cabeza de Vaca was dead, moved on along the coast.  Cabeza de Vaca stayed with the Indians for four more years. 

After four years, Cabeza de Vaca moves from tribe to tribe in search of his fellow Spaniards.   Many of the men were made slaves.  Cabeza de Vaca helped a number of the survivors to escape. 

1532  --  only four men survived: along with Cabeza de Vaca were Andres Dorantes de Carranza; his African-born slave, Estevanico; and Alonso Castillo Maldonado.  They traveled through Texas and the Southwest.

In his travels of some six years, Cabeza de Vaca had explored the future Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. They finally walked into Mexico where they were finally found.

1537  --  Cabeza de Vaca returned to Europe.  He wrote a report for King Charles V.

He wanted to be the next governor of Florida, but that assignment had gone to De Soto.  Cabeza de Vaca was so mad at not being able to lead the next expedition from Florida that he jealously refused even to give the expedition any helpful details of the countryside. 

1540   --  he was appointed governor of La Plata, Argentina. There he was the first European to behold the world spectacular Iguazu Falls.

1542  --  his report to the king was published under the title La relacin (The Tale).

c. 1545  --  political intrigue led to his arrest and return to Spain in chains.

1552  --  He was eventually exonerated.  The pardon allowed him to become a judge in Seville, Spain, a position he held until his death.

He wrote an extensive report on South America, combined this with La Relacion and published both in Comentarios  (Commentaries).

c. 1556  -- death of Cabeza de Vaca.



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