Secret of the Incas (1954)

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Time once again for the monthly Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which blog buddy Mike’s Take on the Movies assigns me a movie I’ve never seen and vice versa.

Director: Jerry Hopper

As a big Raiders of the Lost Ark fan I’ve long been curious about this movie’s influence as a relic hunting story featuring a proto-Indy fedora-topped adventurer played by Charlton Heston. Heston is tour guide Harry Steele, working high in the thin air of Peru’s Andes, biding his time until he can steal a plane and get to Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Incas. There, he believes he’ll find a priceless relic, a fabulous golden disc encrusted with jewels which was stolen from the Inca centuries ago. Legend has it that their empire was destroyed by the Gods for the loss of that precious item, and will be restored when the giant medallion is found. Harry cares little about restoring anyone’s empire, since he’s a self-admitted heel who looks out for himself and his piggy bank. You can buy him, but you can’t fool this hard, direct, delightfully condescending hunk who’s catnip to female tourists even though he makes them pay for everything.

One day a pretty refugee from communist Romania arrives, Elena Antonescu (Nicole Maurey). Dodging the law, Elena joins Harry’s tour group and tries to hire him to get her to Mexico. Harry uses her as bait, luring out the consul on her tail and stealing his plane. Mexico will have to wait, because Harry takes Elena along to Machu Picchu. He has unexpected competition for the golden disc, since already at the site is an archaeology expedition headed by archaeologist Dr. Moorehead (Robert Young), and Harry is followed by his ruthless rival Ed Morgan (Thomas Mitchell).

Moorehead’s interest is academic; he doubts the disc ever existed, and if it did, it would have been melted long ago. Morgan’s interest is dangerously obsessive; he’s been waiting 14 years for his chance at the treasure and now the “crud, the big tub of guts,” as Harry calls him, won’t let anyone step ahead of him. There’s also a huge contingent of natives present, for whom the opening of the main tomb will determine the survival of their empire and confirm their religious belief. The high stakes also include Harry’s soul, since Elena’s love might tame his antisocial ways, and Morgan represents his future if he continues as an unscrupulous treasure hunter. If and when they find the treasure, Harry will have to choose from just finding, stealing and possessing or searching further.

Elena’s time behind the Iron Curtain has naturally made her guarded and fearful, but she has a sweet infatuation with America, having fed on the country’s culture, history and geography like a fairy tale. The awkward Moorehead falls in love with Elena and proposes to her. She admits to a checkered past, thanks to her willingness to do anything to get to freedom, and they have a nice moment bonding over her “who chopped down the cherry tree” test question, but you wonder if he can really compete with Harry for her affections. 

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The young, chiseled Heston makes quite the sight for both viewers and characters like the one played by Glenda Farrell, a tourist in full cougar mode who spends more time making eyes at Harry than observing any of the town’s other attractions. Heston does a fine job with this ambiguous, noirish, gigolo role, brutally deflating phonies with hardboiled insults, helping himself to leftover drinks at the bar, confidently staring down rivals, wearing a hotel towel as a scarf, dodging bullets, breaking faces and making no secret that all he wants is your money. But as Elena senses, beneath Harry’s macho, mercenary arrogance there’s a hidden treasure worth excavating and that search and discovery is as fun to watch as the one for the lost medallion.

The Inca brother and sister duo at Machu Picchu are played by Michael Pate and Peruvian golden voice Yma Sumac. Sumac was always a household name to me thanks to my mother’s love of everything operatic (Yma Sumac has also frequently served as a crossword puzzle clue and was a descendant of the last Incan Emperor Atahualpha). In this film you get three stunning performances from the soprano, glorious sounds that ring through the mountain setting and lend an air of mysticism. Her first musical offering to the gods gives Harry an opportunity to go snooping in the tombs, and all her memorable musical segments feature colourful native costumes courtesy of Edith Head. More than just musical stunt casting, Sumac also makes an imperious and creepy villainess with an enmity toward Elena and Harry. There’s an amusing scene where Harry reveals he’s overheard and understands her insults, which center on her calling him too pretty a face to be trusted.

When Moorehead seems to find nothing of value in the ruins, Harry goes in alone to look for the treasure with the help of specially placed gold saucers that shoot beams of reflected light. It’s a fun tomb raider moment in a movie that doesn’t have grand, nonstop action, but is exciting in its more serious character-driven pulp and ethically questionable but likable hero who “looks better next to real crooks.”

Now go over to Mike’s blog to see which Bing Crosby movie I assigned to the Der Bingle fan who hasn’t seen them all. 

Please check out the fascinating information on this movie at this extensive fan site: http://www.secretoftheincas.co.uk/ 

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9 thoughts on “Secret of the Incas (1954)”

  1. At long last you can check this fun Heston flick off the list. He’s so good at playing a bit of self serving S.O.B. here just like he would was inThe Naked Jungle and others. Still Heston rocks with all the great film roles and the Apes to boot!

    1. Loved it, and Heston was super as a kind of noir hero, not a good guy but can turn into one after this adventure plays out. Loved the hardboiled lines, he had a great way of calling people out on their false compliments and smelling when someone was trying to butter him up, not to mention the older ladies hitting on him, too funny. Thanks, great one.

  2. It’s too bad that the movie is not available on DVD/Blu-ray. It is an obvious precursor of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the Indiana Jones franchise (Heston’s character dresses exactly like Indiana). The film itself is pretty good. Paramount owns the rights, I believe, and they should release it.

    1. The influences are very obvious, Heston’s more of a “likably unlikable” antihero, which I really enjoyed for this type of story. With this scenery, costume I’d love to see a blu. Thanks!

  3. I really enjoyed your blog on my favourite movie, Kristina.
    It is a pleasure, and a rarity, to read a lady’s opinion on this 1950’s “Boy’s Own” adventure film.
    Also, thank you very much for linking to my website on SECRET OF THE INCAS.

    1. Wonderful, thanks so much for visiting and leaving a comment! I loved looking through your site when I watched and wrote this, great work you have there and your love of the film really shows. I grew up loving adventure tales and Raiders is one of my first magical movie experiences, so I was bound to enjoy this one that so clearly influenced and inspired it. Such a fun picture and I hope a lot more people discover it! Thanks and best

  4. Kristina, if you love vintage adventure movies you must check out a Robert Taylor-Eleanor Parker flick called VALLEY OF THE KINGS. Released in 1954, the same year as SECRET OF THE INCAS, it’s a little cracker filmed on location in Egypt. It’s also another precursor to the Indiana Jones movies.

    1. I have seen that one and like it a lot too, same reason– I saw Raiders at the age where I realized movies were actually made by people 🙂 and could be magical and the classic feel and look of it got me interested in “old” movies like these and others. Thanks again!

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