Kings of the Sun is unique for the time in that it doesn’t feature a single “white man” character. There’s no invading Europeans with their fancy coats, silver tongues and daggers behind their backs. But hang about you cry, neither did Apocalypto (excluding the end). Maybe so, but Kings of the Sun takes it to the extreme by having not one, not two, but three different tribes of natives all fighting each other. It is the Gangs of New York of Mesoamerican inter-tribal gang warfare movies. But unlike Apocalypto there’s controversially no actual Native American actor on set here. And the lead is a Russian?! Something sure is afoot.
Hundreds of years ago. The Yucatan. Chichen Itza. Because most people didn’t (and still don’t) know who the hell the Mayans were, a helpful narrator (James Coburn of all people) fills us in. We learn that the Mayans were pretty advanced people, building roads and cities without metal or wheels or even horses, discovering maths and astrology, and basically out-doing all the other ancient ye olde world people we considered smart, like the Greeks or the Romans.
However they still did some pretty dumb shit. Chief among them was human sacrifice. The Gods of the time seemingly charged a high price for all those cool pyramids, sexy head-dresses, nice weather and DVD players. And that price is paid for in blood. The sacrifice (unlike in Apocalypto) is a willing one. The dude who gets selected for the duty is effectively treated like a king for a few days, gets to do what he wants, gets down with whomever he wants and is given a pretty snazzy feather cape to chill out in.
One such sucker arrives at the Chichen Itza with the cape splayed open like he’s fucking Shawn Michaels or someone. He slowly ascends the stairs before being stabbed to death by the High Priest Ah Min (Richard Basehart – Knightrider). If Apocalypto’s message was to not leave your heavily pregnant wife and child in an inescapable pit while you were lead off to die, Kings of the Sun is all about how you can still achieve a wondrous civilization without murdering every tenth person. It’s not a subtle message either; this is no David Fincher movie. While the concept of sacrifice or appeasement of an unseen and unforgiving bastard deity is interesting, Kings of the Sun sadly presents it in a silly love triangle storyline that is equal measures melodramatic, tedious and baffling.
Despite it’s big brains the Yutacan tribe is roundly smashed by an opposing group of natives who’ve figured out how to make metal swords. Clearly they shouldn’t have put all their research points into giant pyramids and diversified a bit. Big Bastard Hunac Ceel (Leo Gordon – Fire and Ice) invades, slaying everyone. Hidden in the bowels of a hollow Chichen Itza, new king Balam (George Chakiris – 633 Squadron) decides against leading his remaining wooden sword-wielding subjects in a suicidal attack on Hunac Ceel and instead elects to sail across the Great Waters in the north. Everyone freaks out, saying they’ll fall off the world or get eaten by the Kraken or some shit, but Balam is pretty confident; his old man said that that there was a legend of a fertile and prosperous land across the sea. There they can regroup, learn the riddle of steel (like in Conan the Barbarian) and return in force.
Escaping via secret tunnels, Balam and his people emerge at the coast near a small fishing village. He needs their fish, their boats, their women and kids for his master relocation plan to work. But the village chief is all “nah mate” and no one moves a muscle. The savvy old dude will only agree to Balam’s wishes if the king will marry his daughter Ixchel (Shirley Ann Field – House of the Living Dead). She’s a bit of a looker (with aquamarine blue eyes and an exotic British accent no less), but Balam can’t make it look too obvious he’s hit the jackpot, so instead only begrudgingly agrees to the deal.
Hunac Ceel and his men turn up forcing a mass evacuation by boat. The old village chief is shot in the back, but everyone else makes it it out alive. After some shady days at sea, where Ah Min insists they murder anyone, even if it’s a sickly child to inspire the sea Gods to help them, they spot land. They quickly carve out a settlement, building shit like huts, a throne room, and even a jail cell. Not sure why they’d need that unless they’d need to keep someone locked up…
Next on the agenda was a Blockbuster video, but they’re hot at work finishing another giant pyramid temple first when Ah Min broaches the subject of sacrifice again. It hasn’t rained yet and he figures if they murderize someone they’ll be bang on for a bumper harvest this year. But Balam isn’t convinced. It didn’t help them out at the Chichen Itza, and it didn’t help them at sea. He has other ideas instead. This motherfucker doesn’t need the Gods and their fancy rain. He plans to build a dam at a nearby river so that they can channel the water to their crops. That’s science bitches.
It’s as he’s showing the old priest the river that they are attacked by some badass from the trees. No it isn’t the Predator. Black Eagle (Yul Brynner – Magnificent Seven), the chief of a local and unnamed tribe of native Americans, has been watching Balam and his people for some time. Watching and waiting for the young king to leave the safety of his walls. He figures this is the perfect opportunity to cut the head off the snake.
But Balam isn’t as much as a pussy as Black Eagle suspected, even with a wooden sword. Ah Min is able to gather some guards before the crazed tribal killer can finish the job, and the raving native is subdued. He’s dragged back to the settlement where the “civilized” southerners look on in horror at this savage. Some scumbag guard sticks him with a spear and he’s ripe for death. But Balam, being of the sympathetic persuasion, orders he is cared for. Seizing an opportunity, Ah Min figures out loud that if this man is a warrior chief he’ll make the perfect the sacrifice to the Gods. Everyone sort of agrees in that “oh Ah Min, you crazy twat” kind of friendly way.
Ixchel is chosen to care for Black Eagle. She and Balam have a pretty childish relationship throughout the film. Upon landing he’s all “I’m ready to take my wife”. He’s been on a crowded boat for weeks after all. But she rejects him saying that his vow is cancelled as her father is dead. Talk about friendzoned. There’s loads of moments where both Balam and Ixchel confides with Ah Min about their love for the other, but they can never admit it openly. It’s immensely frustrating to watch. It’s not like they have anything stopping them. He isn’t betrothed to some queen in some other land nor is she too low born for him. This isn’t Game of Thrones. This is a 1963 historical epic where people wear papier mache helmets. As Sonny Landham once said to Arnold Schwarzenegger, it just doesn’t make sense.
But it leaves a space for Black Eagle to swoop in. He spends much of this film in a spacious prison cell in the dark, pretty much naked, and glistening with sweaty sexuality. I’d never appreciated how ripped up Yul Brynner was, but it’s obvious he was in great shape. He’s all super exotic and primal and says what he thinks and what he wants, as if he was the exact opposite of Balam. His sheer magnetism is hugely attractive to Ixchel. But she knows his ultimate fate. Will she tell him he is to be sacrificed? Will his people come to rescue him before that time comes? Will Hunac Ceel find them all and stab them with his precious metal swords?
Kings of the Sun starts off with a pretty cool concept. As I’ve reviewed a whole slew of Native American movies recently, it’s obvious I enjoy films of this ilk, and the Mayan period is seldom explored cinematically. Plus, using an actual ancient wonder like the Chichen Itza in an movie is pretty wild. But Hollywood did crazy stuff back then. The idea about them having to escape across the Gulf of Mexico to avoid destruction tests our sense of realism, but hey, we’ve all see Jason & the Argonauts and Master & Commander – shit on boats can be badass. And even creating a new culture in America can be tolerated. And Yul Brynner as a native of this new and prosperous land – great. So why doesn’t this movie kick ass?
Because the focus is on inane, uninspiring bullshit.
Demonizing human sacrifice is the prime element. It’s the DNA of this movie. It’s like we get it; this is stupid. Don’t do it. But it’s never put into highly dramatic terms. Yeah, Yul Brynner is gonna be put to death and we don’t want that or anything because he’s fucking Yul Brynner and it may spark off a war etc, but it’s framed in the incorrect way. It’s framed as a love triangle between him, Balam and Ixchel. We don’t want him to die because Ixchel will be sad, is what this film is trying to say. And that’s just not interesting enough when it comes to large scale historical war epics. It’s too low-ball.
We’ve got some really primal activity going on here, and by that I don’t mean savage or uncivilized. I mean that the best stories all have primal motivations or forces at work. 127 Hours is akin to Apocalypto purely on the primal desire of it’s protagonists to survive. Kings of the Sun starts with such a setup, but descends into melodramatic political and theological commentary. Look at it this way; you’re some hungry newblood Hollywood writer, young, dumb and full of cum. What movie do you think is gonna sell when you pitch a logline – “Young King proves that extreme religious idealism is not a suitable replacement for peaceful co-existence with a native people” or “Young King has to rescue his people and the woman he loves from vengeful natives from an opposing tribe”?
Balam inevitably chooses to release Black Eagle despite the growing relationship between his foe and Ixchel. But this is borne more from Balam’s new world beliefs than Black Eagle’s actions. We’re never given a sense of how Black Eagle is as a man or a leader until after he’s released. Take a look at Last Samurai which is a similar story. Our boy Tom Cruise is taken prisoner by Ken Watanabe. Over the winter period they grow to know and understand each other before eventually parting as friends. There is none of that here. Instead it’s minutes, precious minutes of Yul Brynner drenched in tanning oil and shadows professing how he’d like his and Ixchel’s children to lead buffalo around by their noses. This is ancient pillow talk, no doubt.
And that’s another big bone of contention. The primary cast are all American/British/Russian. They all speak English and no one has any trouble communicating with the other. Everyone is tanned up and dark haired, but it’s still a white wash. The leading lady has fucking blue eyes! The only people of ethnicity are likely Mexican day laborers and reservation folk who were given a few bucks to turn up and stand around as extras. “You there, Jose, take your top off and run up that hill when I say Action, comprende?”. Considering people are complaining that the actual Mohawk descended lead actress in Mohawk is not 100% native, can you imagine if this film got made in today’s climate? Oh wait, it did. Have you not seen God’s of Egypt?
Yul Brynner is as bronzed as a competition bodybuilder here. But he at least works as the enigmatic savage. Not only was the man a total badass in real life, he drifts through scenes here with an unquestionable magnetism. His piercing, intense gaze and the supple, almost panther-like way he moves elevates him from much of the other dross floating about. Even his accent, honed and softened from years spent on Broadway and in America is commanding and exotic. He’s perfectly cast.
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Chakiris. He’s taken the art of restrained, insular acting and mistaken it for looking like he’s deciding if he needs to take a shit or not. To be fair it’s not all his fault. As was the times, film directors took liberties in certain ways. Like when he’s finally had enough of watching Black Eagle tell Ixchel he’d like to carry her off into the woods, he’s huffing and panting, with sweat visibly pouring from his face. And when I say sweat, I mean as if someone had thrown a bucket of water in his face. How can you act when you’ve just been waterboarded? They used to do this on Thunderbirds when they wanted them to look like they were under pressure or sick. It looks good on puppets. Not actual human actors.
You can’t get a read on Field either. You don’t know if she really loves Balam or Black Eagle. Maybe she’s playing both? Either way, she seems the most out of place in terms of actress, purely for her looks and accent. Richard Basehart has some fantastic wigs in this picture. And that’s all I’m gonna say about him.
Where they do get it right is the scale. This film looks like an epic of the times. Massive sets, wide shots, lavish costumes and millions of extras running around. While the majority of the “action” (if you can call it that) is restricted to their new settlement, you’re also treated the aforementioned scenes on the Chichen Itza, some sea-based boat stuff, and a full scale assault on the fishing village. The costumes are just an insane wash of colour and design, and while likely stylized and based on actual period garments, most of them look cheap and poorly fabricated. As pointed out by blogger Captive Cavewoman, the head-gear alone is eye-opening. It’s difficult to tell if the sheer magnitude of designs and colour absorb you deeper into the movie or displace you further from it. You be the judge.
The action isn’t much better. Hilariously dull weapons and flimsy shields just make it look like some cheap LARP promo video. Only Brynner and Gordon look like they’re really putting in the effort. There’s some large scale battle scenes but they’re nothing special and crudely choreographed. The film climaxes with Hunac Ceel’s men assaulting Balan’s settlement. Their metal weapons tear through the defenses, only for Black Eagle’s tribe to appear and attack the baddies in the rear. However, these Natives are carrying only bows and arrows, but they somehow best the better-equipped Mayans in hand-to-hand combat. I’m not sure why. There’s also a tiny catapult rattling around in the background somewhere. You never see it fired, but it’s the size of a Nissan Micra. It probably couldn’t even launch a human head with any force (as we all know they were used for at the time). Nothing about these scenes will get your blood pumping.
Some of the interior shots are really effective. Specifically those involving Brynner in his cell. The lighting is very dramatic, almost artistic. Cinematographer Joseph MacDonald really nails it here. Equally, I really liked it when Brynner is freed and heads back to his people and they all surround him in happiness. Great stuff. It’s not like director J Lee Thompson couldn’t hit them out of the park. His prior efforts Guns of the Navarone and Cape Fear are stone cold classics. Historical epics were clearly not something he was comfortable with and in all fairness, the script (a blatant vehicle to get Brynner in a loincloth) should never have been made.
Producer Walter Mirisch would later claim that “It wasn’t made for the right reasons, and that is most often an insuperable handicap. Our creative team lacked passion for what we were doing and its commercial values could not overcome that. Not being enthusiastic about it, I should have taken a position. By just letting the project move from one stage to the next, I allowed it to progress further than it should have”. Ouch. It was a commercial failure, despite the star power of Brynner, and is perhaps a film of a different time that should probably be left forgotten.
To bring it back to the context as a Native American movie, I can’t help but admit that this film fails in most ways. The Mayan people did inexplicably fall into decline. Kings of the Sun would have proven as a nice Hollywood coda to their demise. Alas, it’s purely about the need to end human sacrifice. Thompson claims to have been drawing parallels with corporal punishment, which I don’t really get. Here the victims of sacrifice are deified. While that is a foolish pursuit, it’s very different to punishing the wicked with the most terminal of measures. It’s even more foolish to frame this type of message in a love story too. That’s like re-telling the events of Schindler’s List as a dry situation comedy.
Perhaps the only saving grace of this movie is Brynner. Not only does he bring an intensity to the picture, he also elevates the Native Americans to a higher level than their Mesoamerican counterparts. And that’s how I like my natives in these movies. I like them to be badasses. And Yul Brynner is one of the most badass ass-kickers you’re likely to see. Get it watched.