Hernán (2019) Needs a U.S. Release

17

As we’ve discussed before, us Frock Flickers are generally focused on the “girlie” side of historical movies. But we all have some less obvious historical periods and places we’re interested in, and one of mine is Mesoamerica (i.e. pre-contact Mexico and Central America; I’m also interested in the contact era). I’ve been down some rabbit holes the past few months with documentaries, podcasts, and books about the Maya and Aztec cultures as well as the 16th century Spanish conquest of this area, so I’ve been wanting to watch Amazon’s new miniseries Hernán (2019) about Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés, indigenous translator Dońa Marina/La Malinche, and Aztec King Moctezuma II, among others. The show had a LOT of money thrown at it, including special effects by the company that did effects for Game of Thrones, and the topic is one I find fascinating. So I was super annoyed to discover that Amazon has only released it for streaming everywhere except the United States! After waiting for over a year, I finally managed to find a pirate-y site where I was able to watch it (tip: Google “Hernan Amazon English subtitles,” although make sure your antivirus software is up to date).

I gotta say, there are some problems with the series, which I’ll discuss in a moment … but aside from these, this series GETS IT RIGHT. Like, they actually show the events as they really unfolded, and seem to mostly hit the important parts! We see not only the Spanish lust for gold, but also how they used indigenous tribal divisions to pit various city-states/tribes against each other. We see how Marina needed to look out for number one, given she’d spent most of her life as a slave. We get some ideas about 16th century Mexican and Aztec culture and ways of life, and how they interpreted and understood the new people in their land. We see just how developed — physically and culturally — the capital city of Tenochtitlan was, and seeing some of its most interesting aspects (like the causeways that connected this city in the middle of a lake with the mainland) as they might have looked was really fascinating.

Hernan 2019

Aerial “shot” of Tenochtitlan.

Hernan 2019

Entering the city on one of its causeways.

The first season only goes up through La Noche Triste, in which the Spanish and their allies were driven out of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan; there is supposed to be a season 2, which I really hope happens, as there’s lots more fascinating events leading up to the fall of Tenochtitlan and the Aztec Empire.

Of course, there’s definitely some problems, which seems inevitable. First, each episode moves through the overall storyline but focuses in on one particular character. While it’s great that at least three (four?) of the eight focus on indigenous characters, we only get real backstories on the Spanish characters. You do get some senses of Mexica culture in this period, but it would be even more interesting to see it not under the stress of the Spanish arrival. Of course, telling the “white conquistador” story has been done; many viewers have complained that telling indigenous stories is long past overdue. And, some of those Spanish backstories are semi-ridiculous, most especially Cortés befriending/falling in love with a local Moorish girl in his hometown which is why he Haz a Sad.

Hernan 2019

Teenage Hernán has boy band hair and WAY TOO MANY STRAPS AND BUCKLES on his clothes.

Hernan 2019

With mom.

Hernan 2019

His Moorish love.

There’s the usual problem of not enough extras, which always bugs me, especially since they clearly had a special effects budget — we can’t flesh things out that way? It makes certain key points less clear, like just how many people lived in Tenochtitlan (20,000-40,000 depending on who is estimating), and just how outnumbered the Spanish were in battles (they were able to win not only because of their stronger weaponry, but also their warhorses and war dogs), and just how bad the Spanish atrocities were (for example, thousands of Mexica were killed at Cholula, and while the show stresses the horror of this event, you get the impression that it’s more like hundreds).

2019 Hernán

Scenes like this NEED MORE PEOPLE. THOUSANDS MORE. Sorry!

Now, fair warning that I know very little about the relevant areas of late 15th/early 16th-century costume, specifically, Spanish menswear and Mexica mens- and womenswear. But with that in mind, let’s discuss the costumes — EDITED TO ADD: which were designed by Mónica Neumaier and Natacha Fernández Gallardo.

The Spanish men tend to wear generic 16th-century costumes that can sometimes be cheesy and sometimes decent. Now, I don’t expect to see them dressed formally out of European portraits, but there are images created by indigenous peoples who were there at the time, and the series costumes look much more “renfaire” than any of these period images:

Hernan Cortes

The real? Hernán Cortés: Hernán Cortés, attributed to the Master Saldana, 16th c., Museo Nacional de Historia; Ferdinand Cortez (1529), “Trachtenbuch” des Christoph Weiditz, 1530s, Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg; Tenochtitlan, Entrada de Hernán Cortés, 8 de Noviembre de 1519, c. 1550, Lienzo de Tlaxcala, Bancroft Library

Spanish (including Cortés, right) from the Codex Azcatitlan, 16th- or 17th-century indigenous pictorial manuscript of the conquest of Mexico, via Wikimedia Commons

2019 Hernán

Some of the fabrics scream “upholstery remnants.” Note Cortés’s hair; he actually sports a manbun at one point.

2019 Hernán

I don’t know enough about armor to have anything to say about this, but Cortés apparently doesn’t own a comb and his hair is constantly in “wet look.”

2019 Hernán

I was impressed that Cortés is wearing Actual Shoes, not boots, occasionally, although I feel like he’d put on something with sleeves for meeting the Aztec king for the first time.

2019 Hernán

There’s some good layering, if a WHOLE LOT of metal grommets.

2019 Hernán

Cortés’s fanciest doublet has very pretty, very Indian sari trim.

2019 Hernán

The rest of the Spanish characters embraced the “shipwrecked” look, like Pedro de Alvarado here.

2019 Hernán

SO MANY metal grommets. No facial hair was trimmed in the making of this series.

2019 Hernán

This is allegedly Jerónimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan friar who was indeed shipwrecked and lived with the Maya for a number of years before joining Cortés. Okay, so we learned that the Mayas did shave their heads, but I still found his hair to be VERY modern hipster.

For the indigenous peoples, I mostly want to talk about the two main female characters: Marina (VERY well played by Ishbel Bautista) and Luisa (both are the names the Spanish gave them).

From the VERY LITTLE I know, both seem to be relatively well dressed according to my deep research (sarcasm) on Wikipedia, in long, wide blouses and skirts.

The real Dońa Marina | Codex Azcatitlan, 16th or 17th century indigenous pictorial manuscript of the conquest of Mexico, via Wikimedia Commons; Tenochtitlan, Entrada de Hernán Cortés, 8 de Noviembre de 1519, c. 1550, Lienzo de Tlaxcala, Bancroft Library

I liked that they showed a progression for Marina, from topless slave to basically dressed interpreter to well-dressed interpreter and advisor.

Hernan 2019

As the Spanish arrive, Marina is in a skirt and necklace and not much else.

2019 Hernán

Once she starts helping to interpret, she gets clothing that provides more coverage, although it’s basic.

2019 Hernán

As she becomes indispensable to Cortés, Marina’s clothing is made of finer materials with interesting decorations, like this embroidered neckline.

2019 Hernán

Here she’s advanced enough to get jewelry.

2019 Hernán

LOTS of beautiful details in the clothes.

2019 Hernán
2019 Hernán

And she isn’t only in natural/off-white colors.

2019 Hernán

Here she’s gone a woven or embroidered band on the chest plus tassels.

2019 Hernán

I do have questions about this hairstyle from a practical perspective. They frequently give her the wrapped braid but also leave most of her hair down, and given the braid’s placement, I feel like she’d have an instant migraine.

2019 Hernán

Luisa is the daughter of a chief, so she’s always dressed well.

2019 Hernán

Color, feathers, jewelry.

And finally, there’s one random sub-plot where one of the conquistadors’ Spanish wives (played by Aura Garrido of El ministerio del tiempo) shows up in Tenochtitlan and is HIGHLY ANNOYING, both in her pseudo 16th-century dress, wispy messy hair, and doing the whole plucky “I can take care of myself!” thing and proving that she can’t, actually.

2019 Hernán

1510s-20s? I think not.

2019 Hernán

SO MUCH HAIR.

 

 

Come on, Amazon! Release Hernán in the U.S.!

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

17 Responses

  1. Damnitz

    Looking at period paintings and even when reenacting the early 1600s and not the 1500s the European clothing is looking somehow poor – more like a cheap German documentary. I suppose that the Spanish officers would have tried to impress the American leaders. It’s a shame especially because there are enough people in Europe to ask even decades ago.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      She was living in Cuba, and somehow got herself to Veracruz (I think with some Spanish reinforcements?), then joined Cortes when he was returning to Tenochtitlan from Veracruz. All very complicated. There were several Spanish women who did participate in the conquest, including Beatriz de Palacios, Beatriz González, Isabel Rodríguez, and Juana Mansilla — I think maybe the show was trying to reference them?

      Reply
      • Roxana

        I knew there were spanish women in Cuba but it genuinely surprises me that any were able to join the conquistadors in Mexico. I assume this would be after Cortez had established a reasonably secure foothold?

        Reply
        • Kendra

          Not really! It’s when the Spanish are essentially besieged in Tenochtitlan, so it was a pretty bad decision on her part.

          Reply
  2. Al Don

    This seems serviceable. I would have loved to have seen Werner Herzog make his proposed movie on the subject. He intended to film it from the perspective of the Aztecs and said the Spanish arrival would have felt like “a real life example of an alien invasion”.

    Reply
  3. Popka Superstar

    Marina! I remember her from reading about the Aztecs, a very, very important person. I think she looks good but the head wraps are mystifying. I can’t remember what her people actually dressed like, though. De Aguilar looks like a hipster because of the beard, which Mayas did not have, but he had a beard in real life, so they lucked out.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Marina is a very interesting person indeed. Given that she’d been enslaved by the Aztecs her transference of loyalty to Cortez makes a lot of sense. The Spanish seem to have treated her with more respect than the Aztecs ever did.

      Reply
      • Popka Superstar

        Yes, that’s the idea I got from the book I read. She and her people seemed to think the Spanish would be a better bet than the Aztecs, and based on what they knew it wasn’t a weird decision, but they couldn’t know how it would develop.

        Reply
        • Roxana

          I’m not sure they were wrong. The Aztecs were nasty SOBs who took human sacrifice to genocidal levels. At least the Spanish didn’t rip people’s hearts out of their chests for daily prayers! And some individuals, like Marina did get a better deal from the Spanish.

          Reply
          • Rori

            Something I have to address that while there’s no doubt that the Aztec practiced human sacrifice to a huge scale, compared to the Maya, the nature and scale to a lesser extent were exagerrated by the Spanish chronicles to justify their subjection and colonization of the Nahua people. So it’s deeply problematic to judge a culture based on that alone, especially getting the rabbit hole of what the Spanish particularly did to the people.

            Reply
          • Kendra

            Let’s not judge a culture hundreds of years old and very different from our own. Remember the Spanish were burning heretics at the stake. And Cortes’s atrocities (e.g. the massacre at Cholula) were pretty egregious.

            Reply
        • Kendra

          In the moment, one would be looking out for number one. Why would she have any loyalty to the people who had sold her into slavery? And, of course, the inter-city warfare shows just how much the idea of being “us” as in the entirety of Mexico would be ridiculous.

          Reply
          • Popka Superstar

            Yes, I think her decision made total sense for her. And she couldn’t know what the Spanish were doing at home. It’s on the Spanish colonisers that they treated a people that helped them as badly as the rest.

            Reply
  4. Roxana

    Nobody owns a bleeding comb! Why does historical costume equal messy hair for so many cinematic producers??
    And the idea of Cortez having a moorish love is as far as I know completely un-historic and darn unlikely given the moors had either been expelled or converted by his time.

    Reply
    • Kendra

      For a second I was thinking “wait, there’s a comb that bleeds in here?” The series has her family converting, but then being accused of secretly practicing Islam.

      Reply

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