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Films >> Cabeza de Vaca (1991) >> Scene Analysis >>

Marching Into the Future

By Sara Asheroff and Michael Joseph, with comments by Jaime Miller, Jason Sebok, Megan Snyder, Courtney Brown, and Carina Meleca

[1] The final scene of the film Cabeza de Vaca (1:45:56) abruptly breaks from the coverage of Cabeza's journey and switches to marching natives transporting an enormous crucifix (comment by Jaime Miller). The scene represents the religious transformation provoked by the Spanish and other European explorers in the New World. On a vast barren desert on the outskirts of a mountain range, approximately thirty natives, led by a Spanish drummer, militarily march an enormous silver crucifix toward dark mountains and a severe thunderstorm. The ominous tone of the scene portrays the unwanted transition from primitive native rule to oppressive Christian authority (comment by Jason Sebok).

[2] When examining the topography and meteorological conditions of the scene, there is a distinct transition from sunshine and desolate arid land to an ominously dark and lush mountain range. This represents the change from primitive life to sophistication. (comment by Carina Meleca) The filmmaker, Nicolas Echevarria, used the topography as a metaphor of the refinement of Christianity. The scene portrays the natives marching from barren land, a symbol of their non-structured religious background, toward stormy higher terrain, representing a move towards Christianity. The mountains are the all-powerful and detailed piece of topography in this scene that point to Christianity's omnipotent, uninviting, and sophisticated nature. The director contrasts this European view of religion with the natives' attitudes by inserting sounds of crashing thunder and pouring rain, which negatively connote a walk into the destructive storm of Christianity (comment by Megan Snyder).

[3] The natives, marching in unison to the commanding, militaristic-sounding drums are indistinguishable from one another. Their only visible movement is the motion of their marching legs. With their heads and torsos covered by the shadow of the crucifix, the natives appear tiny, almost ant-like, as they march. It is important to note the non-distinctness of the natives because it represents how the Church saw the "savages" that they were Christianizing. The church's authority figures viewed natives as nameless and faceless and needing to be cleansed and reborn through Christianity.

[4] The extremely large and silver crucifix also serves as a cleansing agent. The natives appear to be disinfected by the crucifix they bear, the silver color a nod to the color of sterile surgical instruments. Christians, likewise, saw conversion as a routine sterilization. Not only were they protecting themselves from the dangers of infectious native religion, but they also were cleansing the souls of the "savages."

[5] There is no dialogue in the scene; the only audio comes from a Spanish soldier beating a military-style snare drum. The solider, overweight and wearing a helmet, marches apart from but alongside the natives. As the only "civilized white man" in the scene, he appears almost like a slave-owner, easily commanding the thirtysome natives, who oblige his wishes.

[6] The camera documents the march at an elevated angle. The procession first marches in the direction of the camera, and, as they pass, the camera follows, providing a profile of the soldier and the natives. The march never comes close enough to the camera to allow the viewer to distinguish facial features, and the camera never focuses in on one individual or section of the scene's action. The camera's motion continuously follows the entire procession from start to finish in the scene.

[7] The crucifix, the most visible aspect of the scene, is an obvious symbol of Christianity, in its enormity representing Europe's power over the natives during the exploration and acquisition of the New World. The natives and their primitive means could never outlast or contend with European colonization. The natives are no longer distinguishable and no longer have a voice; they have become prisoners and work horses of European exploration. With every beat of the drum the disciplined natives march toward their stormy future. The military aspect further demonstrates power over the natives. In the military system, marching is used for both discipline and control.

[8] Just like the scene on this site that Paul Galante analyzed in "The Mystical Transformation and Shamanic Initiation of Cabeza de Vaca," this final scene also represents religious transformation. In the first scene, "Cabeza de Vaca is depicted as experiencing a direct, profound spiritual experience. He is overpowered by a spiritual force that both transcends and unites the underlying spirituality reality of Christian and Native religions" (Galante, paragraph 1). Cabeza de Vaca is viewed as a spiritual union between Christianity and native religions. Due to his assimilation into the native culture, Cabeza de Vaca, as captive of a tribal shaman and the armless dwarf Malacosa, learns the ways of the shaman. Through embracing both Christian and Native methods, Cabeza de Vaca is successfully able to heal people and achieves high status within the native culture.

[9] The religious transformation in the film's final scene sharply contrasts with Cabeza de Vaca's learned process in order to show the cruelty and intentions of the Spanish. While Cabeza de Vaca's transformation was an educated process, the Spanish enforcement of Christianity was an act of violence and domination. Cabeza de Vaca is an example of a successful union of cultures and evidence of a better potential outcome. The final scene is the director's way of showing a different, regretful outcome. The Spanish, waving the flag of Christianity, focused only on expansion and profit when settling into the New World.


Jaime Miller 10/31/02 and Courtney Brown 2/26/10

[1] The final scene of the film -- dominated by the huge cross -- is not such an abrupt break from the rest of the film as Asheroff and Joseph suggest if we remember the prominent, though subtle role of the smaller cross in the previous scene.

[2] In the penultimate scene, one of the reasons that the death of Cascabel "tugs" at the heartstrings is because Cascabel wore Cabeza de Vaca's cross with the shaman's feathers -- the symbol of his transformation into Echevarria's "new man" -- and the cross he threw away on the brink of his return to Christian culture. By retrieving the discarded cross Cascabel makes it yet another symbol of the brotherhood forged by two men of different cultures.

[3] The small cross the wailing Cabeza de Vaca removes from his limp "little brother," then, strongly alludes to the overbearing cross in the final scene -- the one a symbol of unselfish love that connects, the other a symbol of selfish power that crushes. Therefore, the cross of the final scene enhances rather than breaks the underlying goal of Echevarria's storyline.

[4] The glaring symbol of all that is wrong with "conquest" stands in stark contrast to the symbol of the cultural brotherhood that could have been. Echevarria consciously prepares us for the enormous cross that seems so surreal. When we "see" in our mind's eye the big cross in the final scene paired with the small and modified cross in the earlier scene, we have in a visual nutshell the meaning of the movie. (comment by Courtney Brown)

Jason Sebok 10/31/02

[1] The reason Echevarria puts this scene in at the end of the film is to concisely summarize the fate of the Natives in a short, powerful, very symbolic scene. The scene opens with all Natives carrying a large, heavy metal cross through the desert with no real goal or direction. It is very reminiscent of Jesus carrying the cross in his final days, a symbol of sacrifice often used by the church as a metaphor for the way to salvation. The way to heaven is to pick up your cross and follow Christ. Since all Natives are carrying it while a Spanish man is supervising, one can conclude that the Spanish are forcing the Natives to bear Spanish misery as well as their own -- hardly a shared sacrifice. The Spanish and the Catholic Church seem to be using the Christian morality system as an excuse to enslave and control Native populations, a sharp contrast to the "enslavement" Cabeza de Vaca endured.

[2] The Indian version of enslavement was quite different and seemed to have different goals than the Spanish version of enslavement. Cabeza de Vaca was enslaved to Hechichero for a period of time, where he was treated as an inferior. After Cabeza de Vaca's attempted escape from his captors, however, they seemed to form a common human bond. After a trust was built, Hechichero taught Cabeza de Vaca survival skills and, most importantly, the art of shamanism. This is how Cabeza de Vaca applied his Christianity to the Natives, by healing the sick and performing miracles.

[3] The Spanish "conversion" to Christianity, on the other hand, has two different versions displayed in the film--death or enslavement. Towards the end of the film Cabeza de Vaca and his party find a whole village murdered and a Spanish musket ball in a body, proving Spanish murder. Cabeza de Vaca then abandons his party, citing death will follow because he realizes the Spanish will use the faith as an excuse to murder Natives. Finally, at the end of the film Cabeza de Vaca finds the body of Cascabel on a death cart, Cabeza de Vaca's own cross draped around his neck. Even though this Native was clearly marked by the universal sign of Christianity, the Spanish murdered him, revealing their true motives.

[4] The other version of Christianity is displayed in the Spanish camp scene when Cabeza de Vaca is talking to the captain. Surrounding the pair are many Natives trapped in large, iron cages, dehumanizing the Natives as if they are on display at the zoo. Cages are also used to house and keep dangerous objects, implying that the Natives are vicious savages on the level of animals. Cabeza de Vaca asks why they are in cages, and the captain replies that they are slaves being used to build the cathedral. This application of Christianity contains nothing of the healing powers but is simply downright slavery in the name of the Church. The Natives are not even being taught the good side of Christianity Cabeza de Vaca showed them earlier. They are simply construction workers being used to erect a building, ironically, in the name of Christianity.

Megan Snyder 11/6/02

[1] It is interesting to me how Echevarria is using the weather in the final scene as analogous to the sentiments that the natives hold about the Spaniards' and the Christian religion. Not only does he use starkly contrasting black and white colors in the sky, but also, as noted by Asheroff and Joseph, he uses the "European view of religion with the natives' attitudes by inserting sounds of crashing thunder and pouring rain, which negatively connotes a walk into the destructive storm of Christianity." It is evident that Echevarria's point is to convey the sentiments of confusion and pain within the natives. While they are befriended by this "hybrid" compassionate "new man" Cabeza de Vaca, they are also "slapped in the face" by the arrogant and overpowering nature of the other Spaniards. That proverbial "slap" is mimicked by Echevarria's use of the thunder, further signifying the stormy conditions that lay ahead between these two obviously different cultures.

[2] Furthermore, this contrast is accentuated by the sky's coloration. It is almost as if Echevarria has taken a paint brush or a ruler and drawn a line down the middle of the movie-set sky. On the left you see the white, signifying the once pure nature and life that natives once lived; and then on the right you see the black sky, signifying the harsh Christian religion they are walking headlong into. The once "steady" group of natives who peaceably co-habited with the metamorphosed de Vaca are now being shaken into the thunderous and dark sentiments of Spanish oppression.

Courtney Brown 2/26/10

Kraniauskas’s article supports Jaime’s comment that the final scene of the film has strong ties to the previous one: “Alvar gathers the dead Ariano in his arms and, in yet one more classic reproduction of the Catholic image of the Pieta, weeps over his dead body. As befits melodrama, the music wells up to extend this gesture into sentimentality and set the stage for the film’s last word: ‘Why?’ The film does not allow us to leave the cinema without suggesting an answer: the last image of the film is of a group of Indians forced by Spanish soldiers to carry an enormous silver crucifix across the desert. Thus the violent origins of popular Catholicism” (117). As Jaime said, “When we ‘see’ in our mind's eye the big cross in the final scene paired with the small and modified cross in the earlier scene, we have in a visual nutshell the meaning of the movie.”

It is interesting to note, however, that Kraniauskas mistakenly refers to the cross the natives are carrying as a crucifix. A crucifix has the body of Jesus on it. This made me wonder as to how the scene would have been different had the natives actually been carrying a crucifix as opposed to a cross. As Jason comments, “It is very reminiscent of Jesus carrying the cross in his final days, a symbol of sacrifice often used by the church as a metaphor for the way to salvation.” The natives are persecuted as Jesus was. If the natives had been carrying a crucifix, they would have literally been carrying Jesus’s body as well. This would have been an even more suggestive image. On one hand, it could be interpreted as a more graphic foreshadowing of the natives’ fate. On the other hand, some Christians would probably object to such an in-your-face juxtaposition of Christ’s crucifixion with the enslavement of the natives. The cross is a simpler symbol that more succinctly conveys the message that Sara and Michael explain.

Carina Meleca 2/26/10

I'm curious as to whether this scenic analogy can be expanded on a bit further. It is interesting Sara and Michael comment that "sunshine and desolate arid land" suggests primitive life and further that an "ominously dark and lush mountain range" suggests religious and cultural sophistication. While I agree with the physical description of the scenes, neither of these descriptions sounds inviting or appealing. The representations of primitive versus sophisticated life either concern a desolate or ominous atmosphere, both of which embody a negative connotation. I think as viewers we tend to look for these distinctions of "good guys" (natives) pitted against "bad guys" (Europeans), but we cannot let that affect our objective understanding of a physical metaphor. Because the scene is barren of dialogue, these physical representations become vital to a viewer's interpretation of the end of the film. As neither scene represents an ideal environment, perhaps we can conclude that Echevarria's underlying message concerning religious reform isn't as clear-cut as a viewer might at first think.