This movie is a good if you have any interest at all in early exploration of the Americas by the Spanish. I watched it spellbound and, despite some serious drawbacks, I've decided to watch it again. (For more information on the real-life subject of this movie, go here.)
The movie tells the story of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca, an officer in a 16th Century Spanish military expedition who was shipwrecked off the coast of what are now Louisiana and Florida. For eight years he traveled among the native Americans to the Pacific coast where he was re-united with Spanish soldiers. Along the way he learned to live among the "Indians" and adopted many of their ways. He earned their respect and, at the same time, learned to respect them and their ways. The movie tells this story with great visual flair. While the "Florida" where de Vaca lands looks little like the Florida we now know (at one point we see mountains in the distance), the foreign settings with their waterways and dwelling places are a step back in time.
The natives are presented in a matter of fact fashion with their good and bad characteristics -- and their cruelties -- on clear display. De Vaca spends the first part of the movie as a captive subject to cruelty and humiliation. How he grows out of this situation, by adopting some of the ways of his captors, while at the same time developing relationships, is fascinating to watch. He becomes increasingly unstable as the movie proceeds, a reaction that I find entirely understandable.
The movie is marred by an episodic story that occasionally jumps from one time and location to another in a jarring and abrupt fashion. It's almost as if the movie started out as being twice as long as it is now and the director was forced to cut it without proper planning. Still, the images, relationships, sets, and just plain foreign situations on display here force our attention on one simple fact; Native peoples were brushed aside and treated cruelty in our early history just as colonial cruelties were perpetuated by other "civilized" nations onto whatever groups they considered less "civilized." It's an old story but one that is told in an original and dramatic fashion here.