Posted by Moira Finnie on August 26, 2009
If, like the rest of us peasants, you can’t get enough of ambitious movies set in Mesoamerican times, you might want to check out Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006). I’ve tried to watch that recent movie about three times now, but somewhere around the time that the words “I am Jaguar Paw. This is my forest. And I am not afraid” are spoken, I tend to nod off, even when these lines are spoken in the Yucatec Mayan language. My excessive snoring is the only thing that kept waking me up as Mr. Gibson‘s earnest attempt to dramatize the decline of Mayan civilization unfolded into the expected gore-filled spectacle. But enough of those stabs at historical accuracy in the movies–give me an engrossing, epic-sized if ill-conceived distortion to get me through the dog days of summer.
Happily, I’m here to report that no attacks of narcolepsy occurred while discovering the utterly delightful, nearly unknown Yul Brynner movie, Kings of the Sun (1963) recently. That 108 minute movie, shot in richly textured hues of De Luxe Color, is one of those being aired today, August 26th at 1:30PM EDT on TCM as part of Yul‘s moment in the Summer Under the Stars annual August event. An audacious movie–befitting an American financed re-imagining of the rise of a hypothetical ancient Mayan culture—was crafted with enormous professionalism in every frame, from the gorgeous cinematography of Joseph MacDonald to the rousing score from Elmer Bernstein and a cast of Oscar honorees and an industrious troupe of artists and craftsmen. The only problem is the script, darn it!
In some ways the story is a Western of sorts. It concerns what happens when Yul Brynner, as Black Eagle, the very scantily clad leader of a rather tolerant Native American tribe, is captured by some invaders, (led by George Chakiris). While in captivity and unwittingly being fattened up before his sacrifice to appease the god of rain, Brynner falls in love with one of the “new people” (an unrecognizable dark haired Shirley Anne Field, an English rose fresh from The Entertainer and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning). After much sturm und drang the opposing tribes find a way to enable the two peoples to live together in peaceful harmony, learning from one another, after they have quelled their blood lust in a war with a third, vociferously aggressive tribe in an imaginatively staged battle scene. Ultimately abandoning the practice of bloody human sacrifice to appease the gods, the newly united tribes find that living each day by doing their best may be another way to honor the gods.
At the helm of this grandiose vision of an imagined past was J. Lee Thompson, a British born director whose best known films may be, the action packed The Guns of Navarone (1961), Cape Fear (1962) and nine Charles Bronson movies, including 10 to Midnight (1983). These may not necessarily be the director’s best, even if they were boffo at the box office.
Thompson‘s more personal movies, made on a relative shoestring compared to his American films, offered several lean, thought-provoking, tensely plotted examinations of human relationships in such movies as Ice Cold in Alex (1958), Tiger Bay (1959) and the almost totally unknown The Yellow Balloon (1953). As Thompson later recalled, “[h]aving got to Hollywood, I wanted to stay there. This perhaps was not the best career move, because I was offered The Longest Day, and I didn’t want to go back to England, so I turned it down. I was very anxious to stay in Hollywood so my choice was not of the best. I should have waited to get something very good which I was in line for but was too hasty in trying to set up my next film.” As the candid director once commented, “I’ve been accused of selling out, and when I look back, I really can’t argue with that description of my career.”
Getting away from the penny-pinching British cinema industry may have been one of the worst moves of his career, creatively, but Kings of the Sun may have seemed better than it turned out. Signing a four picture deal in Hollywood, J. Lee Thompson was soon cranking out some slick if forgettable bombs such as the alleged comedies, What a Way to Go (1964), John Goldfarb, Won’t You Please Call Home (1965). But those turkeys were in the director’s future. His ride on the Hollywood roller coaster began in earnest with a film that may have been the most disappointing of all, perhaps, for him and his star, Yul Brynner.
Taras Bulba (1962), made with Brynner just before “Kings…”, was a movie that Thompson believed had “a peace message”, though even the director confessed that may have been a bit delusional on his part. Concerned with the relationship between a Zaporozhian Cossack (Brynner) and his son (Tony Curtis), whom he kills after the lad falls in love with an enemy princess, this quasi-epic movie can also be seen today at 11AM EDT, was based on a story by Nikolai Gogol and filmed in Argentina (standing in for the Urals). Intimate, quieter scenes in the original screenplay centering on the father & son relationship were said to have been filmed, but they were reportedly eviscerated by producer Harold Hecht in favor of action-based scenes that favored Curtis. The stardom of Tony Curtis was still considered “bankable” and likely to draw the youthful worldwide audiences that Hollywood was courting more and more in the ’60s. Brynner‘s son, Rock Brynner, reported in his memoir of his father, Yul: the Man Who Would Be King (Collins, 1989), that it was during filming of Taras Bulba that his father seemed to have lost belief in his own career as an international actor. Seeing his best scenes jettisoned from the completed film, Brynner was said to have become considerably more cynical and wary of committing himself to a project artistically after this disheartening turn of events. Perhaps, but that did not prevent the elder Brynner for initially committing to Kings of the Sun with considerable enthusiasm when he was approached by the producers.
Maybe both Thompson and Brynner should have been a bit more wary when it came to this movie. Budgeted at a then remarkable $4 million and shot entirely in Mexico around the ruins of Chichén-Itzá, Kings of the Sun is based on a screenplay by Elliott Arnold, whose novel “Blood Brother” provided the foundation for the 1950 Delmer Daves film, Broken Arrow, which also dealt with a clash of native cultures, though during Western expansion. Producer Walter Mirisch was never really happy with that script and eventually had scenarist James Webb add more structure to the work, evolving into an imaginative take on the mysterious Mayan builders of the pyramids of the Yucatan. In response to the rapidly changing movie industry and the worldwide distribution needs of United Artists, who were in partnership with the Mirisch Company, the end product was rife with “high concept” ideas that really came down to an odd variation on that tried and true “boy meets girl” formula.
This may be where the ambitious movie really began to go off the rails for me. While I was fascinated by the choice to make a movie that takes place without the sometimes deadly presence of Europeans and our myths, religions or penchant for categorizing everyone who doesn’t look like them as unworthy, the film is also permeated with ideas and choices that scream “early sixties”. This extends to the dialogue, which is trite at best, with outsiders being described as ““Strange people with strange boats”. Also, the various tribes who encounter one another all speak English as well, which seems awfully unlikely–though I’m nitpicking a time honored convention of moviemaking, I suppose.
The second sticky area in this movie’s production history may have been the casting, which, other than the thousands of extras in the movie, (most of whom were paid about a dollar a day), did not include anyone of Hispanic, Native American or even vaguely Mayan descent. One of the Oscar winning leading men of this piece was hot young dancing hunk George Chakiris, (still riding the crest of that West Side Story wave), who was chosen to play the naïve young king, “Balam”, the leader of a Mayan tribe on the run from a bloodthirsty bunch of interlopers. Chakiris, an accomplished veteran American dancer and sometime actor of Greek descent, demonstrated considerable skill and poise as Bernardo in West Side Story, but things worked against him in his role as the leader of the migrating tribe for me. First, there was his hair, which seemed to have been styled in the early ’60s male pompadour–the exact same ‘do that he wore in West Side Story, actually. And that hair never moved! Maybe it was an incantation from one of his people’s holy men that kept his upswept hair rigidly in place–even in fight scenes–but I found myself being fixated by it. Chakiris almost seemed diffident on screen, shying away from the camera as it focused on him as a principal player. He never asserts himself enough to convincingly grasp the regal mantle of his epic sized role’s potential, though his mien may have suggested he was a natural for the part of a young monarch, leading his people to a new way of life. Perhaps the actor just read the script and thought that making himself as invisible as possible might help his career survive. Ultimately, the dignified Mr. Chakiris played a noble if lightweight king who was overwhelmed by his co-stars, many of whom had an indelible camera presence.
One of the singular actors who riveted my attention was Leo Gordon, who played “Hunac Ceel”, the truly fearsome leader of the violent tribe who drive Chakiris‘s tribe northward by boat. Gordon, many baby boomers may recall, played tough mugs named with names like “Crazy Mike” and “Bull” in everything from Maverick to The Untouchables and numerous movies, including director Don Siegel’s minor classic, Riot in Cell Block 11 (1954), in which he nearly made co-star Neville Brand look soft!*
None of this is surprising, except that when you see Gordon in his full warrior regalia, and with his customary ferocious commitment to a role, any role, you may just forget your familiarity with his previous work and believe that this man will annihilate an entire tribe. A bit less felicitous is the casting of the gifted character leads, Richard Basehart and Barry Morse, as two holy men, “Ah Min” and “Ah Zok”, respectively. Morse, a Shakespearean trained actor best remembered for his role as the pursuer of David Janssen in the series The Fugitive, found the poverty-stricken extras camped around the massive set touching and friendly and was rather appalled by Yul Brynner‘s star temperament and aloofness on the set. Morse recounted a day when the scene being filmed showed the captive Black Eagle (Brynner) being dragged into the Chakiris tribe’s compound. The overly enthusiastic extras, who did not care much for Mr. Brynner‘s insistence that extras keep their distance from him around the set, went a bit far into their efforts to comply with the instructions to heap abuse on the captive and to strike him. No real harm was done to the star and the crowd was restrained, though Morse reports that things were a bit tense for a few days.
Morse was more eager to get to know the extras, but wrote in his memoirs that he and Basehart spent a great deal of time together, mostly “bemoaning our fate for being mixed up in such rubbish.” Basehart, whose role as the conscience of the king was considerably larger than that of the rigid, malcontent character Morse played, had much more reason to complain.
As you can see from the accompanying photo, Mr. Basehart wore one of the wildest wigs in movie history in this movie. More importantly, the size and height of this wig varied from scene to scene, (and sometimes within one scene), making his every appearance fascinating for all the wrong reasons. As the walking embodiment of conservative interpretations of the tribe’s customs, Basehart spends much of the movie sputtering with indignation and frustration as he tries to advise the young King Balam (Chakiris) about his plans for temple building, and his stunted romance with Shirley Anne Field. Most vexing of all for “Ah Min” was the passive, namby-pamby approach to human sacrifice expressed by Chakiris‘s king. The resolution of this “little problem” provides the film with a demonstration of self sacrifice by Basehart, who gets to leave the screen much sooner than the other actors.
Another jarring cast member who appears throughout the film in what looks suspiciously like a giant lug nut for a hat, (see photo) is none other than Brad Dexter, the one member of The Magnificent Seven no one ever remembers. Dexter‘s lines are few, but essentially, he is playing the same part he almost always played in many movies from The Asphalt Jungle to several of Frank Sinatra‘s lesser movies of this period as the faithful bodyguard to Balam (Chakiris) : Dexter was the laconic human doberman, ready to spring when told to attack (and sometimes when he just sniffs out an imminent threat).
The real star of this movie, Yul Brynner, is, uh, *ahem*, at his considerable best. No, his acting doesn’t approach the high style, humor and brooding sophistication of his work in The King and I or Once More With Feeling. Nor does it have the rakish allure of his roles in Anastasia, The Brothers Karamazov or The Journey. No, Mr. B. relies on his undeniable, magisterial authority, as well as a large dose of testosterone made more interesting by his feline grace. He is utterly at home in his own bronzed skin, and completely credible as a Native American and a child of Nature. I’ve read recently that Brynner nearly won the role of Spartacus in the planned film that ultimately starred Kirk Douglas. While I’ve never thought of Yul being cast in the role of the Roman slave who led a rebellion against an empire, this film confirms his ability to play such a part. And oh, yes, he also appears throughout this movie pretty much as nature made him, with just a loin cloth to shield his privacy. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not complaining.
I like Brynner, and think he may have been one of the most interesting screen presences in movie history. He was especially effective in roles that tap into his natural exoticism. He’s often the best thing in a given movie (i.e. The Ten Commandments). Still, by the end of this film, in what may be interpreted as a reinvention of his classic death scene in The King and I, the actor (with very little help from the script) builds enough viewer identification with his character’s developing understanding to be truly moved by his poignant moment atop a pyramid designed for sacrifice.
It’s just that before getting there we have several very long sequences in this movie when Brynner is in captivity in a dimly lit structure. When Joe MacDonald‘s camera lingers a bit long on his bodacious, baby oiled self it’s impressive, but you don’t know if you are seeing an actor indulging his narcissism or creating a character attuned to Nature. If posing fetchingly in half-light that highlighted one’s muscularity were acting, you’d have gotten a dozen Oscars for this movie alone, Mr. Brynner! As his son Rock wrote, “My father, Yul Brynner, combined creative imagination with fanatical perfectionism…These two virtues could, in excess, become vices.” I’m never entirely sure which of these forces in his acting won out here, but, if he wanted to create something unique, he succeeded. So, yeah, Yul, you’re a hunk, but could you please put on that bird feather cape and cover up a little? Ah, hell! That’s that European, shame-based judgmental streak again!
Believe me, you’re probably better off just letting this fascinating if wrong-headed and highly entertaining movie wash over you as the Summer ebbs away. I loved it, even if I knew it was bad for me.
Kings of the Sun (1963) has been broadcast twice in the last few months on TCM, including today and I hope it will reappear again on the schedule (perhaps paired with the fascinating, equally flawed The Royal Hunt of the Sun from 1969, TCM?). Kings of the Sun is also available on DVD for a reasonable price around the internet.
*According to several sources, Leo Gordon (1922-2000) was described by his contemporaries as “a quiet, thoughtful and intelligent” person who was also a screenwriter. He was a serious student of drama, attending the American Academy of Dramatic Arts at one time. However, as a young man newly discharged from the U.S. Army in 1943, he became homeless and drifted into criminal activity. He was eventually sentenced to four years at San Quentin, where guards and fellow inmates recalled that he was a “troublemaker” and not a man to be tampered with in any way. According to an account on IMDb, when he was making Riot in Cell Block 11 on location at San Quentin some time later, “officials would not let Gordon enter and leave the institution with the other cast and crew members; he was only allowed to enter and exit by himself, and was thoroughly searched each time.”
Brynner, Rock, Yul: The Man Who Would Be King, Collins, 1989
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