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  • The Mission and Historical Missions: Film and the Writing of History
  • James Schofield Saeger

Because of the power of film, movies with historical themes affect public perceptions of the past more deeply than do scholarly reconstructions. Film makers and historians search for meaning in separate ways, but their quests can converge. Examples of different approaches to similar destinations are found in a newer film and older historical views of Catholic missions in South America. Released in 1986, The Mission, directed by Roland Joffé with a screenplay by Robert Bolt, displays paternalistic attitudes like those of an earlier generation of North American academic historians. The film’s voice is a white European distortion of Native American reality. This essay will examine that voice, offer alternative explanations of historical events, and suggest a research agenda for future study of the Guarani missions of Paraguay, often mentioned in surveys but seldom studied by North American historians.1

Academic mission history pioneers in the United States, including Herbert Eugene Bolton and his students Peter Masten Dunne, S.J., and John Francis Bannon, S.J., would find comfort in The Mission.2 English Jesuit [End Page 393] Philip Caraman’s The Lost Paradise: The Jesuit Republic in South America3, which informs the screenplay, is a bastard stepchild of scholarly histories.

Claiming “The historical events represented in this story are true, and occurred around the Spanish borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil in the year 1750,” the creators of The Mission invite historians to test their assertions. Bolt and Joffé in fact scorn accuracy and twist the truth, even though as artists they may legitimately reorder events, create new characters, and still retain historical integrity.4

In The Mission as in the Boltonians’ works, Native Americans appear throughout; but no Indian viewpoint emerges, even though creating three-dimensional Guaranis is as easy for film makers as it is difficult for historians. The ethnocentrism that treats Indians as mission furniture was an unpleasant part of the dominant culture of historians of Bolton’s Berkeley seminar before World War II, and such a bias against Native Americans is even more objectionable for a book like Lost Paradise (1976) and The Mission, created when decent men and women are expected to be sensitive to insulting stereotypes of colonized peoples.

Located in Jesuit Paraguay in the 1750s, the movie’s climax is the Guarani War of 1754–1756, during which historical Guaranis defended their homes against Spanish-Portuguese forces implementing the Treaty of Madrid of 1750.5 The Mission is partly narrated by “Altamirano” (Ray MacAnally), a cardinal and papal legate who “used to be a Jesuit.” He corresponds to an Andalusian Jesuit, Father Luis Altamirano, who went to Paraguay in 1752 as Jesuit General Ignacio Visconti’s appointee to transfer territory from Spain to Portugal. Visitor Plenipotentiary with absolute authority over Platine Jesuits, Altamirano oversaw the attempted exchange [End Page 394] from Spain to Portugal of seven missions6 south and east of the Río Uruguay in return for other regions, according to the Treaty of Madrid. Reflecting in 1758 on the late Guarani War, the movie Altamirano says, “The Indians are once more free to be enslaved by the Spanish and Portuguese settlers,” a misleading assertion initiating the ideological confusion to follow.

Joffé puts conversion efforts “above the falls” where Jesuits took religion to Indians “still in a natural state,” presumably without religion, and received martyrdom in return. The movie location recalls missions founded on the Río Paranapanemá from 1610–1630 above Guairá Falls, from which Brazilian slave raids forced Guaranis and Jesuits to flee in 1631.7 The movie makers’ site, far from the seven missions traded to Portugal, substitutes historical accuracy for the spectacular scenery of Iguazú Falls, a harmless tradeoff.

In this wilderness, several nearly naked, painted Native American males (played by Onaní of Colombia) carry a priest lashed to a cross to the river that sweeps him over the falls to his death. How did the priest offend the Guarani? Since the movie never says, one inaccurately concludes that customarily killing whites was their nature. This initial “Indian problem” forecasts the ethnic and ethical confusion of Bolt and Joffé.8



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pp. 393-415
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