March 21, 2009

Hello Columbus in Get Smart

An episode of the spy spoof Get Smart is interesting for what it doesn't say about Indians.

Episode Guide:  Season 5, 1969-1970Hello Columbus, Goodbye America
Airdate: Friday, May 1, 1970, 7:30 PM
Writer: Pat McCormick
Director: Alan Rafkin
Carl's Rating: *

When an ancient document shows up in Italy, Christopher Columbus's descendant Gino becomes the owner of America. Max is assigned to keep Gino happy and keep KAOS away from Gino so that Gino can return the country to the president. Unfortunately, KAOS kidnaps Gino and Max right away. Fortunately, 99 is backing up Max and they all manage to escape. To allow Gino to get to the White House, Max disguises himself as Gino and allows himself to be kidnapped by KAOS, who again use an unusual torture method on him.

CONTROL Insider's Report:

* This episode is another yawner, with plot points so ridiculous that they ruin the entire episode. It was voted the worst episode by fans.

* I'm not Italian but even I find the stereotypes in this episode off-putting.

* The title is a play on Goodbye, Columbus.
The Chief explains how Gino Columbus came to inherit and own America:CHIEF:  [A] document was recently unearthed in Genoa, Italy, proving Christopher Columbus claimed the United States for himself in 1492.

CHIEF:  Our country was transferred verbally to Spain. Then a few centuries later, our forefathers took over.

CHIEF:  According to international law, the document that was unearthed in Genoa proves conclusively that Christopher Columbus still owns the United States.
Comment:  This scenario is meant to be stupid. And yet, it's stupid for reasons beyond the obvious stupidity. Among its problems:

  • Columbus never set foot on the territory that would become the United States. Since he didn't know it existed, he couldn't have claimed it.

  • Columbus was sponsored by and working for Spain, so he couldn't have claimed the land for himself. In fact, I don't think he could've claimed a single island, gold nugget, or palm frond for himself. Anything he found and claimed would've gone to the Spanish monarchy.

  • There was no such thing as "international law" in 1492. And today's international law wouldn't uphold any claims made by an European explorer for himself.

  • The biggest omission is, of course, the Indians. The episode makes no mention of them. It doesn't acknowledge that they occupied and owned the land--that any European claim of ownership amounted to grand larceny. One could say that Columbus's theft of the Western Hemisphere was the biggest property crime in human history.

    About the only semi-valid claim in this episode was that the Americas were transferred verbally to Spain. The show presumes that this verbal transfer didn't supersede Columbus's fictional document. In reality, it didn't supersede the Indians' right of occupation and ownership.

    Myth-making in action

    Even though this was an intentionally lame comedy, we can still see America's myth-making in action. Columbus "discovered" the "New World." The land was basically uninhabited; the Indians were invisible or inconsequential. The Europeans claimed it for themselves as the natural order of things. A piece of paper was enough to secure their ownership "rights."

    Sure, no one formed an opinion based on this episode alone. But the episode reinforced what they already thought; it didn't raise any trouble questions. It was one more brick in the media myth-construction business.

    Note that this episode aired in 1970, not 1950. That was almost a year after the occupation of Alcatraz began. Nixon was establishing policies to protect Indian rights. Change was in the air.

    You can't expect much from a sitcom, but this was late in the game to be completely ignorant of Indians. The "thinking" that went into this episode was pathetically weak. The show was canceled soon thereafter because episodes such as this one were so bad.

    For more on the subject, see TV Shows Featuring Indians.

    Below:  "Sorry about that, Indians."

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