Behold — it’s Indiana Jones in embryonic form. Paramount’s South American adventure exploits Peruvian scenery and the ’50s exotica phenomenon that was the unique songstress Yma Sumac. The production receives hearty input from Charlton Heston, Nicole Maurey and Thomas Mitchell, but it’s mostly a relic today. Not because the Raiders films have stolen its thunder . . . because it’s plenty hokey, even for 1954.
Secret of the Incas
Viavision [Imprint] 154
1954 / Color / 1:78 widescreen / 102 min. / Street Date August 31, 2022 / Available from [Imprint] / au 39.95
Starring: Charlton Heston, Robert Young, Nicole Maurey, Thomas Mitchell, Glenda Farrell, Michael Pate, Marion Ross, Leon Askin, William Henry, Kurt Katch, Yma Sumac, Booth Colman.
Cinematography: Lionel Lindon, Irmin Roberts
Art Director: Hal Pereira, Tambi Larsen
Film Editor: Eda Warren
Original Music: David Buttolph
Written by Ranald MacDougall & Sydney Boehm, from stories by Boehm and Boehm Maximum
Produced by Mel Epstein
Directed by Jerry Hopper
Everybody loves a good adventure-romance and there’s a lot of potential in Secret of the Incas, one of Paramount’s many mid-range outdoor adventures of the mid-’50s filmed in color but typically cheated for locations. Actors performed on dinky sets on the Paramount lot, scenes often intercut with footage filmed on distant locations to give the illusion of a far-off safari with Rhonda Fleming or Fernando Lamas.
Instead, ‘doubles’ stood in for the stars, wearing identical costumes. Done really well, Doubling could be an art form. It’s breathtakingly successful in Michael Powell’s I Know Where I’m Going! — we never realize that a key actor never went to Scotland.
The penny-pinching ’50s encouraged the entire industry to adopt this technique to save money — early Fox CinemaScopes do it constantly: The Rains of Ranchipur (India) and Soldier of Fortune (Hong Kong). Paramount producers Pine-Thomas and Mel Epstein made Technicolor adventure-romances set in foreign locales almost as cheaply as westerns, some of them even in 3-D: Alaska Seas, Caribbean, Tropic Zone, Jamaica Run, Sangaree, Jivaro. George Pal’s The Naked Jungle is a slightly upscale variation on this pattern, adding fantastic elements and Technicolor special effects.
Secret of the Incas has a reasonably stellar cast, but its Big Attraction is a genuinely exotic location — the impressive ‘hidden city’ of Machu Picchu. In 1954 it was still a remote site high in the Andes, known mainly through exciting photo articles in National Geographic magazine. Paramount sent a second-unit crew, and (reportedly) actors Charlton Heston and Nicole Maurey. Did the pair really take the trip to Machu Picchu? I’m not so certain I believe that.
The rugged adventure follows the cynical, scheming treasure hunter Harry Steele (Heston) as he develops a conscience through an unexpected romance. Steele gets by as a travel guide, hooking American tourist visitors in Cuzco, high in the Peruvian Andes. He habitually seduces the man-hungry Yankee schoolteachers and bored housewives that come his way (Marion Ross, Glenda Farrell). Avoiding the encroachment of artifact thief Ed Morgan (Thomas Mitchell), as well as an attempt on his life, Steele links up with woman-of-mystery Elena Antonescu (Nicole Maurey), an Iron Curtain refugee. She wants security in the United States; he uses her to initiate a treasure-hunting detour to the still-remote Machu Picchu. Harry steals the airplane of Anton Marcu (Leon Askin of One, Two Three), a communist agent dispatched to return her to Romania.
Harry and Elena reach Machu Picchu by rubber raft and a narrow trail, and are surprised to encounter a full archeological expedition led by scientist Dr. Stanley Moorehead (Robert Young). They’re looking for the same thing Harry is, a fabulous Inca artifact made of gold and precious gems that the Peruvians call the Sunburst. Harry possesses a stone fragment that shows where the Sunburst is hidden, and must keep it doubly secret when the greedy Ed Morgan arrives by pack train. Helping with the official dig are the indigenous Peruvian Pachacutec (Michael Pate) and his sister Kori-Tica (Yma Sumac), who sings several times for a multitude of Indians that have gathered to see if the Sunburst will be found.
Dr. Moorehead declares his love for Elena, and proposes. As her stated goal is a future in the United States her problems should be over. Too bad that Elena has fallen hard for the roguish Harry, who admits that he’s used her every step of the way. As for Morgan, he’s just waiting for his chance to steal whatever is found.
Secret of the Incas is predictable but amusing, with easily-read characterizations for Charlton Heston and Thomas Mitchell. The script would read like a comic book — everyone telegraphs their motivations loud and clear. Heston risks Elena’s life, steals a plane and deceives the legit expedition. He’s also complicit in a violent death, after which he quips that ‘gravity’ was responsible. Playing in ‘rugged’ mode, Heston is superficially corrupt and cynical. But a single critique from Elena — that Harry will just grow older and become a loser like Morgan — is enough to spark a moral course correction.
Harry’s backstory is left unexplained, but his leather flying jacket with its missing AAC patch hints that he was a pilot in the China-Burma theater, perhaps for the Flying Tigers. He and the petty racketeer Ed Morgan bum around Peru sniffing out treasure to steal. They’re a more glamorous version of the boys stuck in Tampico or the selection of international vagrants in a Central American outpost colonized by a U.S. oil company.
Elena’s stateless background is also whitewashed for Production Code and State Department approval. She fesses up to having worked as a cabaret peformer in La Paz. She asserts that she is still pure (‘I never went upstairs’) yet tells Moorehead that she must be honest about her past with him. She needn’t have bothered. Refugees from Communism get a full pass, legal and moral. Note that Elena doesn’t talk about anyone back home. She’s not going to be asking for visas for an extended family. In fact, she seems only concerned for herself, which puts her in Harry’s me-first category. Was Elena perhaps a famous singer in Romania? It’s unclear why the Reds would send an agent halfway around the world to arrest her, as if she were a defecting nuclear scientist.
As this is Hollywood, the glamorous vagabond endures a lengthy jungle adventure yet still manages great hair, just-so makeup and an attractive wardrobe. Elena’s hairdo reminds us very much of the style given Ann Robinson in the previous year’s The War of the Worlds.
Elena’s relative innocence / experience is also ‘Hollywood ambivalent.’ She turns to sensual jelly when Heston’s manly-man Steele demonstrates his vice-grip ‘bruise the arms and lips’ kissing technique. But she also plays a seductive act to inspire Robert Young’s anemic-looking doctor. She only has a little cut high on her shoulder, yet Dr. Moorehouse has to stop her from fully removing her slip. A little skin does it every time — a marriage proposal follows soon thereafter.
The adventure becomes less credible up at Machu Picchu, where the use of doubled actors and sets is just too obvious. Although Heston sometimes appears next to impressive rock walls, he’s not seen posed in a single ‘hero’ vista of the truly incredible looking Incan city-on-a-mountaintop. Why transport the actor 6,000 miles to Machu Picchu and then not exploit his presence? Thomas Mitchell’s double does a lot of running in his attempted escape. We see doubles for Heston and Maurey on a few trails, but also some shots of them in a town that could very well be Cuzco. There are some impressive Incan ruins on the outskirts of Cuzco. Is it possible that something prevented the stars from traveling to Machu Picchu itself? Other than that, the entire cast is restricted to Paramount sets, some of which decently approximate bits of Incan stonemasonry.
Those Hollywood sets simply don’t cut well with the on-location footage. Not only does the lighting not match, there’s little attempt to link them editorially. The expedition members huddle together on a little set, and cutaways show 400 Peruvian Indians in full indigenous costume watching them. The Indians are under harsh, flat Andean sunlight, while Heston is on a stage set and throws three shadows. Perhaps original Technicolor prints matched these shots better.
We don’t apply the crime of Cultural Appropriation to Secret of the Incas because almost everything about it is an outright fantasy. Paramount invested in the aura around the then-hot Peruvian singer Yma Sumac, an extraordinary vocalist with a multi-octave range. She originally sang more indigenous-oriented material, but found fame only after record companies promoted her with a bunch of hooey about being born of Incan royalty, imbued with pagan spirituality, etc.. Composer-orchestrator Les Baxter helped shape Sumac into an exotic novelty, a vocal special effect.
The movie takes breaks for Sumac to lip synch several cues from her albums, singing for the Indians, of course. She also sings behind the main titles. We’re meant to assume that Sumac’s Kori-Tica, ‘inspired’ by the discovery of the Sunburst, offers an eccentric aria to the rising sun. Otherwise, Kori-Tica’s only function is to loiter around the margins of scenes, looking regal-mysterious. The one direction given the obviously intelligent Ms. Sumac is to act jealous of the ‘whiter than white’ European woman Elena.
Australian actor Michael Pate was both a Shakesperian expert and a screenwriter, yet found himself stuck playing movie Indians, including in a Charlton Heston movie or two. His Pachacutec is at least afforded a little respect. Pate would have better days in his career, but ten years later Heston would nominate him to play a wild Indian one more time, in Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee.
The beloved Thomas Mitchell enlivens the show but his Ed Morgan is the dictionary definition of a stock character. We feel even worse for the wonderful Glenda Farrell (The Mystery of the Wax Museum), whose few scenes just show her lusting after Heston’s grungy tour guide. The uncredited Marion Ross is still known to millions as Mrs. Cunningham from the ’70s Happy Days TV show. Nicole Maurey is okay but not all that memorable, at least not when compared to other postwar ‘imports’ that didn’t catch on: Marta Toren, Denise Darcel, Osa Massen, even the much-maligned Bella Darvi.
Director Jerry Hopper made a positive start with the smartly-written thriller The Atomic City and then was assigned a series of so-so projects. He apparently met with Charlton Heston’s approval as they worked together again in the serio-comic The Private War of Major Benson.
Secret of the Incas became hard to see just as it was being cited as a major influence on the Lucas-Spielberg Raiders of the Lost Ark. In a nutshell, Indiana Jones’ costume is almost a copy of Harry Steele’s. Both Harry and Indiana vie with collectors and thieves to steal sacred artifacts. Both come into possession of secret maps to a treasure associated with an ancient deity. And both sneak into a rival archeological dig, to unearth said treasure. Steele locates the Incan treasure the same way Jones finds the Ark of the Covenant — a special beam of light shows them the way.
Finally getting to see Secret of the Incas does establish its solid connection to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The similarities don’t feel like thievery, mainly because George Lucas’s movie develops the ideas much more interestingly. The CineSavant Raiders review lists some other sources for Lucas’s eclectic ‘raiding’ of film and comic book history for his super action serial.
Machu Picchu is realistically presented, except I’d bet that Paramount’s company had to bring in the hundreds of Peruvians we see hanging around the fantastic ruins, to play ‘mysterious indigenous folk.’ Today, outdoors types can spend a couple of days hiking up the beautiful ‘Inca Trail’ and encounter Machu Picchu the old-fashioned way. In 2018 the Peruvians had set it up as an ideal tourist destination, with an excellent system to regulate the number of visitors. In 1953, of course, the site was way off in the hinterlands, far from any support or lodgings.
Viavision Imprint’s Blu-ray of Secret of the Incas is taken from Paramount’s file HD master. It is in the proper widescreen format for 1954, unlike the flat masters wrongly used for some Para pix from ’54, like The Bridges at Toko-Ri. Secret on disc is often quite attractive and at present is the best way to see this Indiana Jones precursor. But the film itself is in need of a serious Technicolor restoration.
Paramount’s master appears to be scanned from an Eastman composite negative of barely passable quality. The Peruvian second unit location material was definitely filmed on Eastmancolor. For whatever reason, that footage lacks color and contrast, and may be slightly off-register. Machu Picchu looks only half as green as it should, and doesn’t cut well with the studio work. As I said above, original IB Tech prints may have matched studio-to-location footage much better. If the film wasn’t reissued in Eastmancolor, the original negative elements may have been left in pieces, and not stored well.
The audio is only just passable as well. Yma Sumac looks splendid in her studio-shot scenes, lip synching to her songs. But we are told that the songs were simply lifted from her existing record albums. One of them is sharp and rich, but another adds studio reverb or echo or something, which doesn’t sound right for a high-Andes exterior location.
Phillipa Berry’s very pleasant commentary covers the production quite well, and includes some nice observations about Charlton Heston’s early career tendency to play morally tainted heroes. The track is especially good when detailing the life and times of Yma Sumac, comparing and contrasting her real life with various publicity accounts. The Indiana Jones comparisons are equally well covered, as is the history of the discovery of Machu Picchu.
Chris Poggiali’s featurette takes the fan-oriented path, explaining in clear detail of how Secret relates to Raiders and then discounting the importance of those observations. He did pick up on a couple of aspects that had escaped us. Also present is a radio adaptation and a handsome photo gallery. I wish that some decent images were available online.
The cover artwork is original poster material, which to me looks to appeal to 12-year-olds. Indiana, I mean Harry, is depicted escaping with a large golden pizza under his arm.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Secret of the Incas
Movie: Good +/-
Video: Good –
Audio commentary by Phillipa Berry
Featurett Raiders of the Incas with Chris Poggiali
Lux Radio Theater adaptation Secret of the Incas with Charlton Heston and Nicole Maurey
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: September 26, 2022
Text © Copyright 2022 Glenn Erickson