Who needs epics about Ancient Rome, Egypt, or Greek mythology when we have a thousand years of exotic Central and South American civilizations to exploit? Well, it’s only been done a handful of times. This cinematic concatenation of nifty architecture, fruity multicolored headgear and athletic oiled warriors is, well, nifty, fruity and athletic!
Kings of the Sun
KL Studio Classics
Savant Blu-ray Review
1963 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date May 26, 2015 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring Yul Brynner, George Chakiris, Shirley Anne Field, Richard Basehart, Brad Dexter, Barry Morse, Armando Silvestre, Leo Gordon, Victoria Vettri, Rudy Solari, Ford Rainey, Chuck Hayward, James Coburn (narrator).
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Film Editor William Reynolds
Original Music Elmer Bernstein
Written by James R. Webb, Elliot Arnold
Produced by Lewis J. Rachmil
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Epics don’t get wilder than this. According to producer Walter Mirisch, 1963’s Kings of the Sun was a pet project of United Artists’ David Picker. Mirisch seems to have served as executive producer without credit; he considers it a bad choice among the projects he supervised. Straight from his success with West Side Story, Mirisch tapped star George Chakiris for a multi-picture contract with United Artists. A bigger-than-life adventure story was also needed for star Yul Brynner, who liked the project. Respected actor Richard Basehart would later appear in Mirisch’s The Satan Bug. Walter Mirisch had experience filming in Mexico, with his hit The Magnificent Seven. And in his back pocket was composer Elmer Bernstein, who was also working on the score for the producer’s The Great Escape. J. Lee Thompson was ‘in’ because he’d directed Yul Brynner in Taras Bulba.
Whether a calculated mistake or a case of creativity running wild in the absence of control, Kings of the Sun is a weird show, yet undeniably entertaining. Had anybody even attempted a movie about pre-Columbian Aztecs or Mayans? Offhand I only know of Mel Gibson’s fairly recent Apocalypto, and Irving Lerner’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, which is actually about Incas and Francisco Pizarro.
Kings of the Sun, as you will discover, is just like Martin Scorsese’s goofy Gangs of New York: boiled down to its essentials, it’s all about crazy HATS.
David Picker’s inspiration was a nonfiction magazine article. Elliot Arnold put together a first script, which James R. Webb, according to Mirisch, hammered into final shape. It’s not a bad story, its just that it reduces the film’s unique cultural setting to a minor detail in a generic, if exciting, adventure tale. Somewhere around the year 1,000 AD, a Mayan city celebrates a human sacrifice, overseen by the high priest Ah Min (Richard Basehart). Then the city is attacked by the aggressive hordes of the warlord chieftain Hunc Ceel (Leo Gordon), whose metal swords easily overpower the Mayan’s wooden weapons. The Mayan king dies, and his son Balam (George Chakiris) takes charge. The city is overrun, the men killed and the women made slaves. Against advice, Balam orders his top advisors and elite military guards, led by the loyal Ah Haleb (Brad Dexter) to flee to the coast. There they force an entire fishing village to escape with them to found a new home across the ocean. Balam refuses to perform a blood sacrifice, upsetting the traditional Ah Min. The industrious Mayans already have a new pyramid-temple half built when they’re discovered by the intrepid Native American Chief Black Eagle (Yul Brynner). Black Eagle is captured and prepared for sacrifice, as the Mayans aren’t certain their crops will grow in this new land. He falls in love with Ixchel (Shirley Anne Field), a Mayan beauty meant to be Balam’s queen, an arrangement stalled by a personal misunderstanding. A new kind of ruler with a new kingdom, Balam wants to free Black Eagle and make peace with his tribe. But he also doesn’t want the savage to run off with the woman he covets, but is too proud to properly court. As Ah Min is sizing up the captive for the sacrificial altar, Black Eagle’s tribe is gathering for an all-out attack. But hold on! The Indians might have to wait their turn, as that old rascal Hunc Ceel is on his way, with his fierce army and their formidable metal weapons. Do you think this story might end violently?
Kings of the Sun pulls a slick trick that only a producer who survived Monogram could have devised: the first scene takes place at a real Mayan ruin, Chichén Itzá. A huge number of extras witness a gory sacrifice atop an authentic, enormous pyramid, the kind with stairs so steep that the actors should have received hazard pay. But it’s just the one scene. The city is wiped out and the rest of the movie takes place in less-expensive locations. Mirisch and credited producer Lewis Rachmil built some great sets, commissioned a ton of wild costumes and didn’t skimp on the extras, yet most of the movie makes the Mayans strangers in a strange land. Rival chieftains Balam and Black Eagle talk about observing each other’s culture, but all we see of the Indian’s village are some teepees and a campfire.
Let’s talk about the story first, a tale of migration and conquest that ends with two warring cultures finding a path to security and happiness through mutual trust and cooperation. In other words, this has nothing to do with human history. The product of a culture developed in engineering, math and astronomy yet politically in the Stone Age, this Balam dude is as progressive as a Jeffersonian democrat. He believes in fair play. He’s a pacifist-warrior. Even more of an anachronism, he’s interested in understanding his potential enemies. He has notions of tossing out the Mayan religion, ixnaying the blood sacrifices and leading his people forward to a secular Great Society. This perverse ‘radical’ liberal fantasy could only be dreamed of during the Kennedy Years.
For his part, Yul Brynner’s North American ‘savage’ is a romantic natural-man poet who dreams of happy children and buffalo (don’t you?). I didn’t know that Native American chiefs wooed their women like this, but I guess some of them had to be lover boys. Black Eagle is no slave to tradition either. The general rule of Mississippi Indian tribes is to slaughter all invaders, but he’s impressed by the Mayan’s civic improvements, fancy feather capes and sexy women. Or woman, to be exact. The doll that Black Eagle thinks is Balam’s property, purrs with an irresistible English accent.
This political setup leads us to wonder if Kings of the Sun is a gloss on the East-West Cold War, or perhaps the edgy situation in the new state of Israel, where a new ‘tribe’ is having trouble getting along with the resident locals. These Mayans certainly behave like a lost Tribe of Israel, while Black Eagle’s tribe are genuine nomads, that periodically migrate to Bison country. I’ve found one rather rich interpretation of Kings of the Sun on an interesting page dedicated to Mormon Issues: By Common Consent: ‘Epic Beefcake Movie.” The wildly anachronistic dialogue brings up all manner of eclectic borrowings. If the movie were made just a few years earlier, the Production Code might well have insisted that mention be made of a Judeo-Christian God. Unless there are doctrinal clues this ignorant reviewer doesn’t pick up on, the only thing I heard that would apply, is a mention of ‘our daily bread.’
With all that said, it’s time to assert that Kings of the Sun succeeds as a killer action epic. Us kids in the early ’60s loved movies about half -naked action heroes with swords and shields, and we didn’t care if it was Steve Reeves flexing his biceps at a buxom sorceress, or Kirk Douglas subverting us with anti-fascist, pro-socialist sentiments. I guess the kid next to me at the matinee for Constantine and the Cross could have been getting off on all the oiled musclemen, but I guarantee you that the rest of us just celebrated the physicality of these he-men with buff bodies, smashing each other with swords, chains, elephants, what have you. We went straight home and mashed our fingers fighting with sticks and trashcan lids. Kings of the Sun really delivers on this promise. The ad illustration (on the disc cover) with Brynner and Chakiris locked in dynamic combat would have us lined up at the local box office — it was the same bait offered for Tarzan movies, with posters featuring the half-naked torsos of Gordon Scott and Woody Strode.
But enough of unenlightened observations about homoerotic content in gladiator pictures. The designers of Kings of the Sun had a field day with the costumes. In his later years Yul Brynner would be outfitted in some pretty ridiculous costumes. His gunfighter rig for Adios, Sabata makes him ready to join the Village People. But here he’s decked out beautifully, with rough-looking native leathers that say warrior king, not ‘wild injun.’ Brynner spends much of the movie lying on his back, imprisoned. He’s hairless and magnificent, muscular but not muscle-bound. He runs and fights as a great action star, something that he’d still be able to do twelve years later in The Ultimate Warrior, at age fifty. Brynner looks incredibly fit – it’s too bad about his smoking habit.
George Chakiris is indeed the delicate dancer who ten years before was one of eight sleek tuxedos offering Marilyn Monroe diamonds, ‘a girl’s best friend,’ in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Chakiris is gentle and unintimidating in person, but comes off as fierce as Bernardo in West Side Story. For Kings of the Sun he keeps his shirt on, as Brynner’s build is such that he’ll look weak by comparison. Yet their fight scenes are very good — good fight choreography and good dance discipline have a lot in common. Balam may not know how to sweep Ixchel off her Mayan feet, but he’s a handy man with a sword, even one made of teakwood.
Kings of the Sun has good fights, and good second-unit direction arrays hundreds of foot soldiers across the screen in exciting build-ups to battlefield confrontations. As a pyramid is a perfect setting for a game of ‘king of the hill,’ the concluding thrash-out is not at all bad. It’s really Brynner and Chakiris leaping around on those ramparts.
What slays us are the costumes, particularly the Mayan headgear and hairstyles. There must be fifty crazy ceremonial helmets worn in this thing, and it’s hard to believe anybody could put up with them for five minutes, let alone live and fight in them. Maybe a goofy helmet was all that separated a ‘nobody’ from a priest or a high muckety-muck office holder.
George Chakiris’s helmet sports circular doodads at the ears that look like hands-off microphones for a primitive fighter pilot. His battle costume has a blue textured chest piece that appears to be made of shiny blue vinyl, another first for those technologically advanced Mayans.
Compared to the rest of the cast, Chakiris gets off easy. Richard Basehart barely escapes with his dignity — he wears a poofed-up Golda Meir hairstyle and various wooden (?) hats that make him look like a fruity carved chess piece. The other priests and advisors follow suit, and for the sacrifice add gaudy colored feathers and what-not. That these actors can recite their lines with straight faces is an endorsement of professionalism. Nobody ever gets to kick off their sandals, let their hair down and have a beer. Familiar faces Ford Rainey and Barry Morse stay fairly conservative with the foliage, but good old Brad Dexter and Leo Gordon have trouble not looking ridiculous. The vain Dexter spends the whole movie sucking in his gut, wishing he were as buff as the frankly spectacular Brynner.
The beautiful Shirley Ann Field may have auditioned like a million dollars. She surely had a terrific agent, too. She found her way into many high-visibility pictures around this time, only to be routinely dismissed as a weak acting link in most of them: Peeping Tom, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, The War Lover, These are the Damned. Oddly, it’s the male characters that get to wear all the finery, leaving Field in simple garments. She’s a plain Jane but still the object of royal lust and savage admiration. The movie is so packed with Anglos playing Mayans that the leading lady’s cultured English accent isn’t a problem at all, and Ms. Field comes through with a certain dignity.
Some opening narration is performed by James Coburn, another Mag 7 connection. My favorite moment? A whiney Mayan priest, upset that his status will be lowered if Balam stops sacrificing humans and goes ‘full secular,’ conspires to have the king killed. Loyal retainer Pitz (Rudy Solari) offs him with an arrow to the gut. Ah, sixties liberalism and its righteous fantasies. Ya gotta love it. In the sequel, Balam will found a pre-Columbian Peace Corps.
Topping things off is a wall-to-wall ‘big action’ soundtrack score by Elmer Bernstein, which frequently goes off on riffs that sound exactly like his Mag Seven music. The basic themes are very much like the Mexican Indian dance cues in the John Sturges movie. I think it would be hilarious to make all of Kings of the Sun a dream experienced by Brad Dexter’s Harry Luck in Mag Seven. All of Yul Brynner’s gunslingers are watching the colorful native Thunderbird dance, when Harry nods off. We dissolve to the opening reel of Kings of the Sun. Two hours later, Harry wakes up after the funeral scene, having experienced an out-of-body Bridey Murphy-like flashback to an earlier life. It would essentially pad The Magnificent Seven out to a four-hour running time. MGM can premiere this version at Cannes. I’ll accept the awards.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Kings of the Sun is a colorful, exciting action spectacle. The transfer is fine considering that the film’s original elements appear to have problems. Some sections seem to be from dupe materials. A few interiors with dark corners have blotchy blacks, and a brief wide shot of action at the pyramid is out of register. Most of the movie looks spotless, especially the sharp, wide battle scenes with the screen filled with extras.
The trailer included is bright and colorful as well. Walter Mirisch is a producer, and when the audiences don’t come producers chalk up movies as failures. But Kings of the Sun is a very entertaining action spectacle. I remember seeing movies like this one, and wishing I were as athletic and dynamic as the impressive Yul Brynner.
Kings of the Sun
Movie: Good +/-
Video: Good —
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 30, 2015
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson