Kings of the Sun  (1963)

Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza

Found this movie by accident while working on migrations in Hawaii, June 2010.  It opens with a large ceremony at the great pyramid of Chichen Itzá on the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico.  A narration speaks of the high level of civilization of the Maya people, even as the great cultures of Greece and Rome had fallen into ruin.  An old King is carried on a palette to the foot of the long stairs where he ascends to preside over a sacrificial ceremony.  A captured warrior is led up the steps by the high priest (Richard Basehart) and laid on a stone altar where his heart is cut out with a curved sacrificial knife.  The King and his son, Prince Balam (George Chakiris), watch dispassionately.  Time passes and Chichen Itzá is now under siege by a rival force from the west, led by the dread Hunac Ceel (say, Hune-ack Kell).*  As the enemy surges up the steps of the temple, the nobles gather in the inner chamber to plan their next move.  It is either fight or flight.  The King has died and the Prince now receives the crown.  He wants to brave the approaching hordes but the priest counsels that they must flee and find a place to gain strength to fight another day.  They make their way through a secret escape tunnel out to the forest and then to the seashore.

After a difficult crossing of the Gulf, they land on the far shore near the mouth of the Mississippi. There are women and children onboard, taken from the fishing village. Prince Balam has a love interest (Shirley Anne Field, who does not look Mayan). As they set about building a new colony in the Maya style, a local chief swaggers into their midst. It is Yul Brynner, marinated in reddish-brown make-up, and he is not in a welcoming frame of mind. After some tense situations, including an unlikely love triangle, the two sides agree to unite and defend their land against the approaching Hunac Ceel, who wants vengeance. Brynner, called Black Eagle, takes the moral and military lead (he is opposed to human sacrifice), giving him plenty of opportunity for heroic posturing. Tragically, he is killed at the end of the battle but not before a long death scene in which he bequeaths Shirley Anne Field to Balam. They will stay in this place and build a new life free from fear of human sacrifice.

This film was not well-received by the critics or the public, but I found it fascinating for its treatment of a little-noted pivot point in North American history. There were some very satisfying backdrops behind the indigenous melodrama with only Hollywood actors in speaking roles.

*Hunac Ceel Cauich (fl. late 12th and early 13th centuries) is known to history as the conqueror of Chichen Itzá.  According to Wikipedia, this is the story of how the Maya founded the mound culture of the Mississippi Valley.

Captain from Castile (1947)

This summary has been criticized for being too long and detailed, but I look at it differently. In just four paragraphs, it offers all of the key points in the first European conquest of the vast indigenous populations of the Americas. I know there are more reliable sources for the real story, but this website is about finding the grid of history under the fictions of the movies.

Starring Tyrone Power in the title role, this adventure movie opens in 1518 on the hillsides of southern Spain. Power is a picaresque caballero, called Pedro De Vargas. He is riding alone when he stops to give aid to a runaway Indian slave, played by Jay Silverheels in his film debut. He also helps out a pretty peasant girl. He returns to his family home where he is paying court to a lovely noblewoman. Suddenly, he learns that his mother, father, and little sister have been arrested for heresy and brought before the Inquisition. Soon he too is pursued through the city by soldiers. The Inquisition is presided over by a malevolent nobleman who bears bad will for the family. He tortures the little girl and she dies. Power and his parents are helped to escape by an odd character played by Lee J. Cobb. He is able to take his parents with him. There is a furious chase through the forests. The girl who helped Pedro earlier has aided in the escape and is with him now. He is separated from his parents and Cobb persuades him that his only option is to join the company of Hernan Cortez (Cesar Romero) and sail for “Habana” in the New World. Power, Cobb and the girl head for Cuba.

On arrival, they sign on for the Cortez expedition to Mexico and sail around the Yucatan to land near Vera Cruz. Moctezuma sends a gift of gold and desires that the Spaniards depart for home. Cortez exhorts his men to push into the interior to capture far greater riches. There is a long and ridiculous dance sequence performed by Power and the peasant girl around a campfire on the beach. Cortez and a good-sized army forge up the river toward Tenochtitlan. There is an attractive Indian woman named “Marina” who speaks English and is favored by Cortez. The army stops in a village where once again they are met by envoys from Moctezuma trying to dissuade them from pushing further. Cortez will not be turned back. He makes his headquarters in the temple of the village. Power runs afoul of a group of mutineers who are planning to desert Cortez and sail back to Cuba. He is shot while trying to escape from them. When Cortez hears of this, he burns the ships to forestall any further defections.

At Cholulu, a huge contingent of Aztec warriors approaches, escorting the nephew of Moctezuma on an ornate litter. He brings gifts and wishes to know when the Spaniards will leave. He makes a threat and Cortez responds by firing a cannon on a large stone idol at the top of a stepped pyramid. Power meets Silverheels who has returned to his homeland where he is an important figure. He asks why the Spaniards want to kill and enslave his people when they would not do that to them. He neglects to mention that it is exactly what the Aztecs do to the tribes that have allied with Cortez.

A ship arrives from Cuba with reinforcements for Cortez. Power is shocked to see that the nobleman that killed his sister is among them. There is a confrontation and that night the nobleman is killed in his sleep. Power is arrested for the murder and prepared for execution. His peasant lover stabs him in the heart to save him the indignity of hanging just as Silverheels confesses to the murder. Miraculously, Power survives and we see him next on his horse as Cortez marshals his forces for the final march on the Aztec capital. Cortez rides at the front of his army orating on the greatness of their mission in the opening of a New World. The music swells. The novel was a bestseller and a major project for the film studio. It was the end of World War II and there was great audience interest in cinematic heroics. But by 1947, things had changed and the film saw a poor return on its large investment.

The Other Conquest  (2000) – Mexico

The film opens at Tenochtitlan with a young man named Topiltzin, bastard son of Moctezuma (sic) as a survivor of the Spanish destruction of the city. It is 1520. The scene shifts to 1526. In a hidden cavern, he takes part in the sacrifice of a beautiful young woman to the Mother Goddess. Spanish soldiers burst in on the completed sacrifice and arrest Topiltzin. Brought before the captain general, Hernán Cortés, he discovers that his half sister, Tecuichpo – now Dona Isabel, is the mistress of the conquistador. Topiltzin is spared death through the intervention of the mistress and it becomes the mission of Friar Diego to save the Indian’s soul by converting him to Christianity.

There is a very lifelike statue of the Virgin Mary in the the newly-built cathedral of Mexico City. Topiltzin is torn between his allegiance to the old gods and his growing obsession with the statue of the Virgin. He makes ritual love with his sister in hopes of saving the race. Cortes is enraged when she becomes pregnant. She commits suicide. Topiltzin endures many trials and indignities until he escapes his imprisonment and steals into the cathedral and carries away the Virgin. As he is lowering her into a chamber, she falls on him and he dies. Friar Diego prays for his soul.

Beyond the interest of the story, this is a tone poem on the lurid mix of religion, ritual, sex and violence that characterize the Spanish colonial period. When Topiltzin and Friar Diego face one another, it is fascinating to contemplate this meeting of the nomads who came out of Asia 12,000 or more years before and the Europeans arrived in Mexico. Human circum-migration of the planet had come full circle. This could also be said of the meetings of Norsemen and Indians in Newfoundland five centuries earlier. This film was a major event for Mexican cinema – see Wiki. Placido Domingo and son were involved.

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