Time for our latest installment in our March “Thrilling Adventures!!” Movie Review Festival here at the old Litterbox, with a trip to 1954 and a look at a classic old film, “Secret of the Incas”, starring Charlton Heston and Nicole Maury. One look at it and you’d be immediately struck by its resemblance to a certain adventure film starring Harrison Ford… Coincidence? Hmmmm?? Let’s find out. 😉
Our synopsis goes like this: “An ancient Incan folklore legend states that the Inca Empire was destroyed by their Gods when a gold and jeweled sunburst was stolen from the Temple of the Sun centuries ago by Spanish Invaders, and that the ancient civilization will be reborn once the treasure is returned. Harry Steele, a down-on-his-luck adventurer, part-time tour guide and full-time rogue, is seeking the artifact, as is his nemesis Edward ‘Ed’ Morgan. Along the way, Harry finds his attempts to uncover the treasure complicated by his becoming entangled in the troubles of lovely fugitive Elena Antonescu, an Iron Curtain refugee seeking help in reaching safety in the United States. Passions flare, greed rears its ugly head promising danger and the ever-present threat of death to any seeking to recover the hidden Secret of the Incas!!”
Hmmmm? So… never remember seeing this one on TV waaaay back when? Wonder why? This wee Catgirl knows she certainly does… Luckily I scored a really nice copy of this one on DVD just in time for our Festival. So, let’s grab our adventure gear, slip on our trusty bush hat and head off to exotic Peru for some classic romance, adventure, and thrills on the trail of the “Secret of the Incas”.
Can’t tell you how many times this title popped up while I was researching “Raiders” for our Review Festival. Was it even possible such a film could exist? Yours truly watched oodles and oodles of these sorts of films as a wee girl when they filled the burgeoning programming hours on cable TV and somehow, I never… ever… remember seeing this one. It’s a fairly big budget film too, filmed on location in Peru by Paramount with some fairly big name actors and actresses of the period. Where did it disappear to? Heck if I know… but there are theories…
A good number of people think that this one was the main cinematic “inspiration” for Lucas and Spielberg’s 1981 “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Both films were Paramount Pictures productions and the story goes that supposedly the directors hatched up a plot to have “Secret of the Incas” quietly “buried” in obscurity to cover up just how much “inspiration” they might have taken from that old movie… Conspiracy theory or truth? Who knows? But as with all things like that sometimes the crazy story is more fun than the boring truth.
Anyways… this one has never been released on DVD, but in some crazy quirk of Fate, has managed to slip quietly out of copyright and into the Public Domain, so “grey market” discs do occasionally pop up and your Favorite Catgirl managed to score herself just such a treat… and what a treat it was. 🙂
This 1954 film starts off with a picturesque vista of the Andes as an Incan native plays a haunting melody on a flute, the camera pans across the rugged terrain as a truck makes its way along a twisting mountain road… all in glorious Technicolor!! (Yes… yes… this wee lady is super goofy and nostalgic for the way old vintage Technicolor looks… faded but still vibrant and warm like the colors of an old paperback book… a look modern movies just never seem to capture. Just love it…) The truck reaches a rail crossing just as a small motorized rail car does the same, only to be halted by a couple of lazy burros at the crossing. Then Charlton Heston pops out of the rail car to shoo them off… in that snazzy vintage leather flight jacket, dusty khaki pants tucked into his boots, and sporting that battered wide-brimmed fedora we all know from somewhere…. 😉 Oh yeah… now we know where Indy took his fashion hints from…
He’s definitely a “take charge” kinda guy right from the start, shooing away the burros and sparing an approving glance for the nervous, shy, but ever so pretty lady passenger in the truck before jumping back into the rail car to continue his ride into Cuzco.
Charlton Heston is playing our story’s hero, Harry Steele (Now isn’t that just about the perfect name for an action hero!) and he’s not exactly a “good guy”, that much you figure out right from the start. Nope… Harry’s one of those expatriate Americans that always seem to pop up in exotic locales in old movies, down on their luck and hustling any angle to make a living… always waiting for that “one big score” that will make them rich and let the return to the States a winner at last. Harry’s gig? Well, he hangs out at the airport bribing a buddy on the inside to let him look over the passenger manifests of incoming flights to find likely tourists he can scam into letting him lead the around Cuzco to see the sights… for a price of course. He’ll never get rich doing that… but keeps joking with his friend that one day a private plane will fly in and he’ll just steal it away for a quick trip home…. Or is he just joking?
We find out quickly that he makes ends meet by occasionally taking jobs from another seedy American Ed Morgan (played by classic star Thomas Mitchell)… a relationship that is obviously one of convenience as you can tell immediately how much the two dislike each other. Morgan is old and worn out… an ex-soldier of fortune and now some sort of shady middleman and “fixer”. He’s got a line on a job… a woman seeking help with a problem not exactly on the up-and-up. He’s willing to trade Harry the job for a little info on a personal obsession of his. He… and Harry too it seems… is obsessed with the local story about the lost Sunburst of the last Incan King. It’s one of those treasures for which there is a lot of story and legend and very little actual historical proof for. All he cares about is that it’s supposed to be a 30 lb. disk of solid gold covered with hundreds of diamonds and emeralds worth a veritable “King’s Ransom”. He think’s a recent story about an archaeological discovery… a 3D stone map of Machu Picchu that’s conveniently missing an important chunk… might be the map to its hidden location in the ruins of the old Incan capital. Oh… and he’s pretty certain Harry’s already got that missing piece…
Yes… yes… of course he does. Not that he’s willing to tell Ed that… or entertain any idea of sharing the treasure with his rival. he does agree to see the girl… mostly to throw Ed off the trail by thinking he needs the work. Naturally, the lady in question turns out to be our pretty “lady on the run” from the truck, Elena Antonescu (played by Nicole Maury), a Romanian refugee recently escaped from behind the dreaded “Iron Curtain” and looking for refuge in America. If only she can get there before the Romanian Secret Police catch her, that is…
As pretty as she is… and wow, Nicole Maury certainly is in this one… you’d think Harry would be eager to lend her a hand, but he’s too blinded by the prospect of the treasure to want anything more than a passing flirtation with Elena. Yeah… you just know that’s gonna change as the story progresses, old classic Hollywood loves their romance stories. However… the feeling of this relationship is pretty much like those in a “Film Noir”. Our hero is more than a bit of a rogue… our heroine is more than a little tarnished around the edges with a shady past and a desperate need to escape by any… and they hint pretty heavily… any… means necessary. So the love story’s going to be complicated and rough.
Eventually she gets tracked to Cuzco by Romanian diplomat Anton Marcu (played by Leon Askin), but not before Ed Morgan tries to scare Harry by sending a sniper after him at his hotel. Just to throw a shot at him and scare him… yeah, right. Harry’s a rough tough customer, though and a little thing like being shot at doesn’t phase him a bit. He races through his hotel to find the gunman and slap him silly… ooohhh, and steal away the money he was paid for the job. Gotta think of the bottom line after all. 😉
It does convince Harry that getting out of Cuzco might be the smart thing, and luckily Marcu arrived by small private plane in search of the wayward Elena. Just the ticket Harry’s been waiting for. Convincing Elena to act as bait, and help him steal they keys with a promise to fly her safely out of Peru, his real plan is to blow town and make a quick dash to Machu Picchu to snatch the treasure first.
There’s more of that classy understated 50’s style sexual tension between Harry and Elena once they steal the plane and fly off to the mountains but it’s more sizzle than steak, and after some effort they finally arrive at the legendary city in time to discover an archaeological expedition has already unearthed the Incan King’s tomb. So close to the treasure Harry wants… and so unaware of its very existence.
The expedition is a joint one between the Peruvian authorities and Doctor Stanley Moorehead (played by Robert Young). He’s that decent boring sort of “science-y”guy that lives for his work, so different from Harry in almost every way. He’s instantly smitten with pretty Elena, and she realizes it, recognizing her chance to make a move on the good Doctor to further her chances of reaching the U.S. This creates a triangle… well at least for Harry and Elena, the good Doctor is utterly clueless and only has eyes for Elena. Eventually he clumsily asks Elena to marry him, and she is conflicted, torn by her growing attraction to Harry, yet desperate for her chance to escape and ultimately still untrusting Harry’s true motives. Given a choice, would he choose her… or the treasure?
What could make things even more complicated? How about the arrival of Ed Morgan, still following Harry and still aching to seize the treasure for himself. He manages to blackmail Harry into coming up with a convenient lie to explain his presence and after stealing Harry’s revolver, pretty much tells him he’s now the “senior partner” in Harry’s plan to find the Sunburst.
Naturally, by this time in the film, it’s time for some “local color”. We get introduced to Dr, Moorehead’s native servant girl Kori-Tica who’s played by 50’s international Peruvian singing sensation Yma Sumac. Here, she’s a bit wooden as an actress… this was her first acting role… but boy, can she sing! She does a couple of traditional Peruvian folk songs in the latter part of our film. She’s got an absolutely amazing vocal range and it isn’t hard to see why such a talented and exotic woman would become an overnight sensation around the world back in the day. It’s a neat thing, and gives our film almost that “Bollywood” feel to have those couple of musical interludes thrown in.
She’s got a minor little role as Dr. Moorhead’s assistant, but it’s she that articulates the Incan natives desire for the expedition to find the legendary Sunburst. The legend has it that if it can be found and returned to the old Temple of the Sun here, then her people will finally be forgiven by the Gods and return to their former greatness.
Finding the Sunburst is a great lil sequence… and it’s the place where the most easily identified influence on “Raiders” can be seen. Harry sneaks into the tomb at night… armed with a polished bronze mirror depicted on his rock fragment, and using a flashlight and a quartz inlay over the Incan King’s resting place, he discovers the Sunburst’s hiding place by reflected light beam. Yep… just like in “Raiders”…. Unfortunately, there are no thrilling deathtraps to dodge this time, but at the climactic moment, Morgan catches Harry unawares and takes the treasure at gunpoint. He’s ready to gun Harry down, but the two of them are discovered by Kori-Tica’s brother. After a brief scuffle, Morgan clobbers Harry and the native and makes his escape with Sunburst and the horde of Incan locals scrambling in hot pursuit.
Harry wakes up… realizes Morgan has the treasure and sets out after him. There’s a deadly game of cat and mouse up among the rocky cliffs before the climactic face-off between Harry and Morgan. His gun empty, his body unable to cope with the thin air and the rigors of the chase, it’s no problem for our Harry to take the treasure back before Morgan collapses and fall to his death from the perilous cliffs.
Treasure in hand at last, will our hero choose to evade the Incas, and fly away alone a rich man, or return to the camp and surrender the treasure to face the authorities and claim the beautiful girl? Awwwww c’mon… like you have to ask…. Let’s just say, Yma Sumac’s got one more triumphant musical number at the Temple of the Sun and leave it at that… 😉
My goodness. This one was a hoot!! It was more of a character piece and a romance than a two-fisted adventure, and for this wee lady, it could have had some more “action-y” bits thrown in to spice things up, but for the most part it hits the target very well. Charlton Heston is a really good Harry Steele, and the delightful Nicole Maury an excellent heroine. (Goodness how I just love her vintage hairstyle in this one!! I soooo wish I could give mine a ‘do like that…) The rest of the cast shine as well, especially veteran Thomas Mitchell in the role of Morgan, who does a cracker jack job as the weary and obsessed villain. The budget was pretty good for it’s time and some of it was even filmed on location in Peru as well. For the purposes of our Festival, it hits all the right points too. Daring hero… check. Exotic locales… check. Lost Treasure… check. Slimy villain… check. Lovely spunky heroine… check. It’s got it all and then some.
With that, I can give it a well-earned 4 “Meows” out of 5. Yep, they just don’t make them like this anymore. Oh wait… apparently according to “Raiders”, they do, Hehehe!! It’s a hard film to find a DVD of, but surprisingly, the entire movie… Public Domain after all… is available at Youtube for your viewing pleasure. So for a “Thrilling Adventures!!” Movie Review Festival special treat, here it is in its entirety. Enjoy!!