Renowned actorBenicio del Toro will produce, and maybe star in, an upcoming HBO series about the life of Hernan Cortes, the (in)famous Spanish conquistador. While details aboutCortesare still scarce, there will be considerable discussion in the coming months regarding how Cortes, and the Aztec Empire that he conquered, will be portrayed.
Del Toro is an accomplished actor, but playing a real-life historical figure who had a critical role in the shape of an entire nation and region may be his most challenging role yet.
Hollywood and history
Corteswill be produced and directed by Martin Scorsese, known for his films cinematic masterpieces such asRaging Bull, Taxi DriverandThe Wolf of Wall Street. As for del Toro, he will be an executive producer but according toDeadline he “is interested in starring as the [conqueror of the Aztecs].” No word yet on who will play the other major roles of Moctezuma, the leader of the Aztec Empire, or Malinche, a local woman who became Cortes’ interpreter and aide.
Hollywood has always had an interest in pre-Columbine cultures, as prominently displayed by recent depictions of the region’s rich past. For example, the controversial Mel Gibson directedApocalyptico, and Harrison Ford’s iconic Indiana Jones traveled to the Peruvian Andes and Amazon inIndiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Additionally, the Starz seriesDa Vinci’s Demonsdepicts Leonardo da Vinci voyaging to South America to meet the Incas.
In other words, it was only a matter of time before a series focused on a Latin American empire, especially one as emblematic as the Aztecs.
Walking a fine line
The upcoming HBO series already has a star-studded production team, but a question remains as to how the series will be structured, including the portrayal of Cortes’ complicated life, including the eventual the conquest of the Aztec Empire.
I asked a literature teacher from Jalisco about her thoughts regardingCortesand she summarized her concerns well, “I just hope that the shows does not portray Cortes as a hero, nor the Aztecs as dumb.”
Indeed, one constant concern about series that portray historical events is that the producers may take too many artistic freedoms in order to increase viewership. Historical inaccuracies or exaggerations are obvious worries. For example, one major criticism ofApocalypticowas that it conjured “pedigreed, but insidious stereotypes: the romantic savage – proud, primitive for most intents and purposes manly, and above all timeless and unchanging.”
Hence, the upcoming HBO series will have to walk a fine line regarding how it portrays both the Spanish conquistadors as well as the Aztec empire. The conquest of the Aztecs is a turning point in the history of the region; hence it must be approached with historical and cultural sensitivity.
There were plenty of major incidents throughout the war between the conquistadors and their local allies against Moctezuma’s forces, and it will be interesting how they will be depicted. Moctezuma originally welcomed Cortes as a friend when the Spanish arrived in 1519, but the conquistador eventually turned against him.
Another notable event was La Noche Triste, when the conquistadors fled Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital. Finally, one example of a bloody incident is the massacre of Cholula, with Cortez and his forces killing some five to six thousand (mostly) civilians that were still loyal to the Aztecs. HBO programs have no problem exposing gore and violence, but real-life massacres, even though they occurred five centuries ago, are still a sensitive issue.
As for casting, del Toro will likely make a fine Cortes. It is worth noting that this is not the first time that he has portrayed a historical figure. He recently played the notorious Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar inParadise Lost, and he was the Cold War revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara inChe.
There is no word yet whether Mexican (or Central America) actors and actresses will be selected to play major roles such as Moctezuma, Malinche, or other prominent figures like Moctezuma’s wives Tlapalizquixochtzin and Teotlalco. InApocalyptico, Mel Gibson utilized a combination of locals (the movie was filmed in Mexico and Guatemala), though the actor who had the main role was notably not Mayan, but rather a “Native American of Cree, Comanche, and Yaqui descent.”
Given the transcendental importance of Cortes’ arrival to the Mexican Empire, hopefully del Toro and Scorsese will give Mexican and Central American actors an opportunity to have prominent roles in this major production.
HBO has enjoyed vast success with shows such asOz,VEEPandGame of Thrones. Nevertheless, a series based on real life events is a different type of beast, and while the series will probably be a masterpiece given the quality of the individuals involved, HBO must also be aware of not hurting sensibilities. The conquest of an empire is not something to address lightly.