The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969)

Because this film was made by seemingly competent people, it would qualify as one of the least successful translations from stage to film that I have ever seen.  Robert Shaw stars as Pizarro, Christopher Plummer is Atahualpa, and Leonard Whiting (Romeo in the 1968 Zeffirelli film) is the young soldier who bears innocent witness to the Inca tragedy.  It opens in the court of the Spanish King where Pizarro pleads for resources to search for the city of gold in South America.  He gets little but contempt and is given permission to make the expedition only if he can raise the funds himself.

The film is like a home movie of a stage play.  Next we see Pizarro with a rag-tag army setting off for Peru, bitter at his treatment from the Crown.  There is no account of his time in Mexico or the staging of his mission in Panama.  He arrives on Peruvian shores and an Inca pokes his head up from behind a dune.  The army makes its way across the sand and is met by emissaries of Atahualpa.  They make camp in some sort of temple-fortress and in the morning Atahualpa, the “Inca” – god-king, arrives on a litter with a large entourage.  A priest attempts to give a sermon to the heathen.  The Spaniards open fire and cut down many of the Inca’s men. Strangely, the moment stops short just as Pizarro halts the massacre, and cuts away before the legendary moment when Atahualpa is pulled from his litter.  The scene shifts abruptly to an interior where Atahualpa is prisoner.  Plummer cuts a fine figure as the bizarre god-king.  Pizarro negotiates with him (in English) to fill his cell with gold and he will be set free.  This is done but it takes time, making an occasion for the god-king and the conquistador to dialogue.

Now at least it is possible to see how the stage play might have had some allure. Plummer makes strange noises and speaks as if English was not his first language. He is curious about Spanish culture because no Europeans have been to these shores before. When the room is filled, the gold is taken by the Spaniards and melted into ingots. It is time for Atahualpa to be liberated but there is intense argument among the officers and priests about the wisdom of letting him go. Pizarro says to a priest, “If Christ were here, would he kill the Inca?” The drama intensifies but in the end there is a sham trial and the Inca is sentenced to death by strangulation. The execution is carried out in the courtyard, and there is ominous music. The young Romeo seems to register in his eyes that there is a price to pay for Civilization. It gets better as the drama kicks in and film technique is deemphasized but this is a very poor effort at a worthy topic.

Secret of the Incas  (1954)

With location shooting at Cuzco and Machu Picchu, Charlton Heston stars as a prototype for Indiana Jones in a quest for Inca treasure. This was the first time that Hollywood cameras had been allowed to film at these sites. Yma Sumac sings over the credits and plays a role in the adventure. Five hundred indigenous people were employed as extras. Heston is called Harry Steele and works as a minimally trustworthy tour guide in Cuzco. He wears the now familiar fedora. All of the key characters come together at a fairly sleepy-looking Cuzco of the early 1950s. Harry and the scheming Thomas Mitchell are in pursuit of a golden Sunburst said to have been hidden by the ancient Inca people in a lost temple. A legend says that when the Sunburst is recovered the Inca people will return to their former power and glory.

The inevitable attractive woman arriving early on the scene is a Romanian escapee from behind the Iron Curtain. She is attempting to make her way to the United States. Harry and Elena, the Romanian, manage to steal a plane and land it in a valley along the Urubamba River below the high perch of Machu Picchu. When they climb over a wall and gaze upon the ancient ceremonial center before them, they are irritated to see that an archaeological team, led by Robert Young, is already on the scene. They are excavating the lost temple. Word of this has reached the Quechua people in the valleys and 500 of them are seen climbing the mountain and streaming along the walls of Machu Picchu.

Yma Sumac is a priestess of the ancient culture and conducts evening rituals that, sadly, turn into virtuoso showcases for her famous four-octave singing voice. There is indifferent folk dancing. Not unexpected devices of a love triangle and competition for the possession of the treasure lead to a truncated ending. Pangs of conscience, and the presence of 500 extras staring him down, inspire Harry to return the golden Sunburst to its rightful owners. Harry Steele and Elena head off down the Inca Trail while Robert Young fades into the background. The sun sets on the Andes.

This movie illustrates a great deal of what I like and dislike about movies that speak of world history. There is little interest for me in watching 1950s movie actors kissing by the Urubamba or threatening one another with pistols. Because I have been to these places in my travels, however, I was intrigued to see dusty Cuzco more than 50 years ago. Likewise, it was a thrill to see Machu Picchu from above and to review what little is known of its mysterious history. See also Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, set largely in Peru and involving a search for ancient treasure.

The Road to El Dorado  (2000) – Animation

I saw this DreamWorks (Katzenberg) film shortly after our return from South America (Spring 2000).  The press liked it better than I did.  It is the latest entry in the DreamWorks battle with Disney and seems like way too much cleverness and way too little substance (probably the reasons the press liked it).  Based loosely on a segment from Voltaire’s Candide,* two adventurers depart from Seville with the fleet of Hernán Cortés and find themselves shipwrecked on the coast of the New World.  They are led by the locals to a place called El Dorado, and treated as gods.  It is a Shangri-La-like utopia, hidden among the mountains.  The drama centers on their opposition to human sacrifice, and the efforts of an evil priest  to expose them.  Rosie Perez gives contemporary voice to a love interest for one of the men (the dark one, Kevin Kline – the blonde one is Kenneth Branagh).  In the end, after a battle with a huge pre-Columbian monster created by the priest, one of the adventurers (the blonde) decides to stay and hold sway in El Dorado.  At the last moment, word comes that the priest is leading the malevolent Cortez at the head of an invading army (Cortez never left Mexico; this would have to be Pizarro).  The two adventurers attempt to escape with a boatload of treasure but the boat is destroyed and the guys are left outside the hidden realm with only Rosie and their endearing horse.  They ride off toward more adventure.

*A note on Candide: (1759) what a shame that no movie has ever been made of Voltaire’s popular masterpiece.

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