Marrying Doc is my one chance … Don’t kiss it away for me, Harry … please … please … please …
Long considered almost a lost film as it was so hard to find, 1954’s Secret of the Incas presents a mixed bag. For many years there were unfounded rumors that Steven Spielberg had blocked any release of the picture on DVD or other means, given that supposedly the Raiders of the Lost Ark series was inspired directly from it.
Since then the film has become slightly more available, though it’s still not anything you can grab from amazon. Though I’ve had a copy for quite a while, I’ve never had the inclination to watch it. Well that’s changed and along with it has come an epiphany on why the picture isn’t everywhere you may like it to be. Frankly, it isn’t that good.
It’s clear that there are some similarities between the two pictures, which have been acknowledged by some of the folks who worked on Raiders. Charlton Heston as the protagonist Harry Steele in Secret of the Incas is clearly the physical inspiration for Indiana Jones as he’s complete with fedora, leather bomber jacket and shoulder bag. Outside of this and one good scene towards the end which intimately mirrors the great map room scene in Raiders where Harrison Ford bends light to locate the resting place of the Ark, the similarities are few.
So that aside, what’s this Incan story? As mentioned, Charlton Heston is the lead as Harry Steele, a money driven artifact thief and borderline shyster. Most of the time he loiters at the airport in Cusco, Peru waiting for incoming flights. He meets these posing as a tour guide to innocent tourists, goading them to hire him to show them the local museum. It’s clear really early on that he’ll do most anything for a buck and that his first and second priorities are Harry Steele, in that order.
One evening he comes across Ed Morgan (Thomas Mitchell) in the hotel bar shooting pool. Ed’s even further removed from the law than Harry, but his better days are behind him as age and drinking have caught up with him. (As an aside, why must Thomas Mitchell always play a drunk?) Ed wants to steal a gold and bejeweled Sunburst which was stolen from the Incas generations ago. Harry declines to work with Ed on locating and stealing the relic, but decides to find it for himself.
During on of his tours, Harry learns the location of the Sunburst, but it’s too far to travel with his limited resources. About the same time Elena (Nicole Maurey) comes to Cusco, looking to escape her pursuers and flee to the United States. Though it’s never explained why she is being chased, Harry realized that the gent who is chasing has a plane, so after meeting her and duping her just a bit they steal the plane and head to Machu Picchu to find the Sunburst.
Once at Machu Picchu, they find an archaeological dig underway being led by Stanley Moorehead (Robert Young in his last screen role). It’s here that things finally pick up a bit of speed, though it comes at a price.
That price, hard to say, is the singing of Yma Sumac, known for her five octave singing range. Presented onscreen as Peruvian folk music, her performances (and there are several here) are not for the faint of heart. Whether they are authentic or not, they’re fluff at best and a detraction from the picture (which is saying something) at worst. That said, some few find these sections among the best of the film.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of Secret of the Incas is that for the bulk of the picture things seem to happen in slow motion. The only excitement and action happen well after the dynamic duo of Elena and Harry get to the dig site. Directed by Jerry Hopper, who left pictures in 1956 for the small screen, there’s not much life on film. The cast, which has a few stars, seem lost and lackluster in what could be better roles. Especially early on, there’s some especially good dialogue which shows potential but is handled poorly. There’s great banter between Steele and one of his smitten female tour customers in addition to the interchange where he meets Elena at the bar:
Elena: Mr. Steele, Harry Steele?
Man at Bar: Well, does the name really matter?
Harry: Yes, because my name is Steele, and I’m bigger than you.
Later on the dialogue becomes shallow and bland, almost as if the scriptwriters themselves gave up.
The characters are flat with no development throughout. We never find out why Elena’s on the run nor why Stanley makes his sudden proposal. In the end we really don’t care perhaps. Steele, the one character who (perhaps including Mitchell’s Ed Morgan) does show potential, makes an abrupt change of character in the last scene. So is Steele really the low level con-man we met an hour or so earlier cruising the Cusco airport? Who knows.
The love story between Elena and Harry never feels like it clicks and Nicole Maurey and Charlton Heston have little chemistry, though their relationship is definitely in better shape than the almost father-daughter one she has with Robert Young.
At the end of the day, Secret of the Incas is a roughly typical picture for the day, with nothing to make it worse than that. Yes, it has some stars and a lineage which ties it vaguely to one of Hollywood’s most successful franchises, but at the end of the day it’s exceedingly typical. It’s clear a good deal of the picture was filmed on location in Peru which is definitely a rarity for the time, but the portions which were filmed on soundstages are equally obvious- just watch the grass.
While it’s clear that Harry Steele’s wardrobe inspired the later Indiana Jones, it’s hard to take the inspiration farther. Indiana is an archaeologist who says relics should be in museums, whereas Steele clearly thinks they should be sold with the proceeds going into his pockets. While Jones fights Nazi’s in two of his pictures, one imagines Steele might have been open to working for them had the price been right like Belloq did in Raiders. Then again, Steele couldn’t do that either as he isn’t an archaeologist.
Luckily with today’s technology at least you can skip the performances of Yma Sumac, so things can’t be that bad.