Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Classic Tuesdays: Kings of the Sun (1963)

    In which we celebrate the time-honored, Hollywood tradition of white men playing Native Americans... 

    Kings of the Sun came out at a rather interesting time for Hollywood. The independent movement hadn’t broken through and the studios hadn’t been sold off for scrap just yet, but their time was coming soon enough. They had been throwing more and more money each year at increasingly hollow event films, soon to be held accountable for their bloated excess and usurped by the next generation… Much like the Mayan empire centuries ago. Hey, I smell a metaphor coming on…

    1963’s Kings of the Sun was just such an exercise, a lavish production put together through the best of old Hollywood’s might. Featuring superstar Yul Brynner and George Chakiris (best known as Bernardo from West Side Story), the film is just about as old-fashioned and by-the-numbers as you could get at the time - down to even the mostly Caucasian cast in a movie set entirely in pre-Colonial America. The story concerns the fall of the original Mayan capital Chichen Itza to Hunac Ceel (Leo Gordon) and his Mayapan army, leaving the young Balam in charge of what is left of his people. They take to the boats, sailing across the Gulf of Mexico to what is now the Mississippi coast. They set up camp along the beach, building houses and even an extravagant temple, soon attracting the attention (and possible ire) of the local natives.

    Chakiris plays Balam, the young Mayan prince who’s charged with the safe-guarding of his people when his father is killed. Chakiris is fine enough in the role, but he’s playing the Ronald Reagan part - the bland-as-bread hero who is constantly outshone by his more exciting costar. There is room here for Balam to evolve into an interesting character - for instance, the prince is far more concerned with setting up an aqueduct system and agriculture instead of the constant ritual sacrificing his priests keep egging him on to do. But the script doesn’t really allow him to become anything more than the third wheel in a very-tired love triangle. The rest of the Mayan players are worse, even moreso due to their lily-white appearance and faux-British accents. Richard Baseheart plays the Mayan head-priest no differently than he would a Roman soothsayer or Dark Ages friar, blandly performing in a bland movie. Far worse is Shirley Anne Field as Ixchel, Balam’s promised wife who finds herself attracted to another man. She’s certainly beautiful enough to get two men fighting over her, but her blank stare and her wooden delivery would make you wonder why they even bother.

    Which brings us to the third part of the menage a tois: the Native American chieftain Black Eagle, played marvelously by Yul Brynner. The Russian-born Brynner is about as much of an American Indian as the rest of the cast is Mayan, but a great performance is a great performance. If we could buy Brynner as a Siamese king, Rameses II and a robot cowboy, I suppose we can buy him here (it also doesn’t hurt that Brynner is the only actor in the movie who bothers to give his character any kind of accurate accent). It’s amazing how quickly the movie picks up once Brynner enters the frame - he completely and totally owns the role, making the rest of the film look like a high school production by comparison. There’s a physicality to Brynner’s performance, even down to the way he walks - you get the sense that this is a man who has spent the majority of his life hunting, climbing and running through densely forested areas. Compared to the stiff Balam, it’s kind of hard to even see how Ixchel could choose anyone else.

    The film sets up the main conflict between Balam and Black Eagle, as the two leaders try to bring their people together peacefully, all the while trying to reconcile their mutual feelings for Ixchel. They fight, they put aside their differences, they fight again, they realize they could never live amongst each other, only to later fight again - this time at each other's side, as Hunac Ceel sails across the sea with dubious motivations (i.e., to give the movie a closing conflict) to fight Balam and the surviving Mayans. J. Lee Thompson provides solid direction, as to be expected (he was responsible for The Guns of Navarone two years previously). There is something to be said for this specific moment in time, where the battles employed extras by the hundreds - something that no amount of CGI can match. They literally don’t make them like this anymore (and probably can’t, fiscally).

    The problem is the film has no life. Compared to other sprawling epics of the day - like Lawrence of Arabia - it feels flat-lined. There’s no vigor, there’s no passion - even the film‘s runtime feels cheated of an epic scope, as several sub-plots are setup but given no real resolution - the love triangle being resolved in the cheapest, most obvious way. Outside of Brynner, there is nothing even remotely remarkable about the whole production - a historical curiosity more accurately representing the culture it seeks to (inaccurately) document.

    A scant five years after the release of Kings of the Sun, the studios would rethink their movie production output with releases like Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate and Rosemary’s Baby, setting up one of the most interesting and volatile decades in cinematic history; a far cry from stiff, historical epics like Kings of the Sun.


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