Thursday, March 24, 2022

Chicanonautica: Hollywood Invades Pre-California

by Ernest Hogan

With my radar looking out for California history, the 1955 film Seven Cities of Gold caught my eye. I found it on YouTube, saw it, and needed to review it here.

It doesn’t really fill the gap left by the skimpy coverage of California Indians I learned while going to school in the state. The natives were described as peaceful, and easily converted to Catholicism, and enjoying working in the Missions, like happy slaves on plantations of the South. The film provides a rare Hollywood look at a forgotten slice of history.

It came out of an era when studios were coming up with color and widescreen spectaculars to pry the audience, and their money, from blurry, small, black and white television. Fantasy, sci-fi, and superheroes were still considered outré stuff for kids and weirdos, so these movies were usually historicals, with exotic locations.

The exotic land is California, the place that became San Diego, south of Hollywood, before the sprawling suburbs where I grew up, when it was desert. Water, like just about everything in the state, comes from somewhere else.

It was based on a 1951 novel The Nine Days of Father Serra by Isabelle Gibson Ziegler. Father Junipero Serra is played by

Michael Rennie, who was Klaatu in the science fiction classic, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Once again he was an alien ambassador trying to civilize a primitive people.

After showing sympathy for Indians, he is sent on an expedition to California in search of those elusive Seven Cities of Gold.  It is led by Captain Gaspar De Portola, played by Anthony Quinn, the versatile, Irish-Mexican-American actor who shows that he can play a white Spaniard. His second in command is José Mendoza, played by Richard Egan, who starred in another Fifties sci-fi favorite, Gog. Father Serra is sent along as a “spiritual advisor” and, oh yeah, to found a mission and spread the word of God.

Captain De Portola, and Mendoza, experienced in Indian fighting in other parts of Nueva España, want to kill several of the first ones they meet, but Father Serra convinces them to try to communicate.

At the beginning of the film, the narrator explains that the only things changed about the story, that is presented as true, is that everything has been translated into English. So when they meet the Indians, the Diegueños (a Spanishism, they called themselves the Kumeyaay, or Tipai-Ipai, according to Wikipedia; in 1990 there were 1200 of them on reservations, and 2000 off–wonder if there are any left in 2022?) they speak English, simplifying the usual confusion that happens in a first contact. It is as if they had been provided with Star Trek universal translators. 

Speaking of Star Trek, Matwir, a young warrior who becomes the chief, is played by Jeffrey Hunter, who played the original captain of the starship Enterprise. He is darkened by full body makeup and wears colorful warpaint and feathers. He and all the other Kumeyaay deliver their lines in the halting manner, stressing every word, making it almost impossible to do any real acting. At least none of them said, “Ugh!”

There are some thrilling battle scenes.

The Kumeyaay do find the Spaniard’s technology, guns, scissors, and medicine appealing, but are confused by Father Serra’s God and his desire to get them to junk their culture for his. When the mission is built, no Kumeyaay want to be baptized.

To further complicate things, and to provide some love interest, Mendoza, being frustrated by the lack of white women, falls for Matwir’s sister Ula, played by Rita Moreno years before West Side Story. He keeps it a secret, but then the expedition, having found no cities or gold, is called back to Mexico City, abandoning the mission. Ula is willing to go with Mendoza and marry him, but this was not socially acceptable in those days.


 They argue, and she “accidently” falls off a cliff, which nearly results in the Kumeyaay wiping out the expedition.

They do manage to contrive a happy ending. As they are leaving for Mexico, Father Serra, who didn’t baptize one Indian, rings the mission bell for the last time, gets a demented look on his face, and says, “I hear them coming.”

The more I think about the film, the stranger it gets.

It would also be a good way to trigger discussions of California history.

Ernest Hogan was born and raised in California, and it is a big part of what made him into the Father of Chicano Science Fiction.

1 comment:

Scott said...

There's no happy ending. The myth of the benevolent monks and docile child native in a bucolic land was pushed in this movie and Hollywood to europeanize the past, make it some kind of Romantic dream for Anglos to claim (they for sure didn't want to claim a Mexican dream) and at the same time flipflop to the black legend, and curtain the horrors of genocide and dominance and theft the people of the USA committed. My Californian native ancestors I know so little didn't need anyone to teach them a damn thing, or rob them of everything, land, language, culture. Movies like this leave out Fray Serra separating men and women and packing them in tight at night so they got sick and died by the hundreds every year, which he praised as they had been baptised. The movies leave out the natives of Baja California they had brought to be an example of a "reduced" Indian, and they were not only reduced, they were decimated by the time they were dragged to Alta California. (again, many "mixed blood" because of rape by soldiers). Many native groups get upset at depictions of fanciful missions for good reason, these places were a focal point for genocide, rape, and cultural genocide and everyone should get upset. The other reason is that there aren't any Spaniards calling the shots, so Anglo dominance, theft, etc. is more than willing to allow, as they dream about Zorro dancing and indians knowing their place, the call out of the missions (and try to say who is indigenous or not). These Missions were all mostly in ruin by the time they showed up and Anglos rebuilt them for tourists and local color. Not repaired, rebuilt. Faked. A "worse wrong" doesn't exculpate the Mission system or anything. We need the truth about them. Plenty of raza still jump in on the fantasy, somehow in all of Mexico with native slavery, native mistresses, etc going on everywhere, CA and NM everyone was Spanish. More newly arrived folks show up and say this is the proof we have been here and go to pray at these shrines to murder. And for many native folk, becoming Mexican was the way to keep from being hunted, enslaved by the US then and now find their roots go to local folks rather than crossing the border. My family, from CA tribes, CA colonizers from Sonora, those Baja natives, a few from DF, and New Mexico (same story there) was certainly neurotic about who we were, thanks to this Spanish fantasy as well, one minute, native folks, other minute, Spaniards. Colonizers and those dominant in society have been working on us for hundreds of years just to shut up, to accept what they say about us, and these Hollywood movies about sweet old spanish monks and childlike natives is a part of it, another form of cowboy movies, celebration of dominance.