By Murray Dahm
When thinking about movies depicting the medieval world, you would be forgiven for thinking that there is often much the same about them, swords, armour, knights, etc. Of course, this is not really the case, Viking movies and films of the Hundred Years War depict very different outlooks and cultures. At the same time, however, these films are all euro-centric and while we recently looked at Genghis Khan on film, if we cast our eye further afield, we come across a remarkable set of films which depict medieval indigenous cultures. That is, films of cultures before contact with Europeans or, in the case of the movies set in medieval South America, on the cusp of, or early in the history of contact with European cultures. In many cases these cultures had existed for centuries, unchanged before the white man came (and so are genuinely medieval). For the historian of medieval films, these works open up amazing avenues of inquiry.
We’re going to begin by looking at one such film in this article: 1963’s Kings of the Sun from director J. Lee Thompson and starring Yul Brynner. Happily, there are other similar films we can explore in future articles. Kings of the Sun is a fascinating, if ultimately flawed, film. It is almost unique in Hollywood history because it tells an entirely indigenous, medieval American tale without contact with Europeans. Its setting, ‘one thousand years ago’, makes it mid-10th century although it is also given a specific setting in having the villain be Hunac Ceel, a Mayapan ruler who conquered the city of Chichén Itzá in the Yucatán peninsula in the mid-13th century. There are some historical touches such as the name of the Mayan king, Balam, which comes from one of the Mayan chronicles.
For the most part, however, the movie is speculative fiction at best. According to the film, the people of Chichén Itzá only had obsidian weapons and were defeated by Hunac Ceel with metal weapons. Defeated, the survivors sail across the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatán peninsula to Texas. Landing there, they come into conflict with an unspecified Native American tribe (although it was originally intended to be based on the Mound Builder culture based in Texas). The two peoples eventually agree to live in harmony and their combined forces manage to defeat the metal-weaponed tribe which follows the travels of its defeated foe.
One of the film’s themes was opposition to human sacrifice (and it actually continued an anti-capital punishment theme begun by the director in 1956 with Yield to the Night). The film also reveals cultural condescension and bias; whilst praising aspects of Mayan civilisation including mathematics, the calendar, and marvelling that everything was achieved without the wheel, the horse or metal, the film still makes the judgement: ‘in the most important part of their lives, the worship of the gods, they remained primitive.’ The condescending attitude inherent in this statement continued in many other western films until (at least) Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in 2006. The most interesting approaches to this question (a disquieting positive spin on human sacrifice) are to be found in Salvador Carrasco’s The Other Conquest (1999) and Juan Mora Catlett’s Eréndira Ikikunari (2006) which we’ve examined already. Interestingly, condescension was missing from the Kings of the Sun novel tie-in by Harold Calin (Lancer, 1963), instead referring to ‘blood, humbly and freely paid to the gods.’ The language barrier is not explored in Kings of the Sun; both tribes immediately understand one another (speaking English). As we have seen, many indigenous films have entirely embraced their original language and make a statement all their own of reclaiming indigenous culture.
Having a tribe with metal weapons in Kings of the Sun, with which they conquered their neighbours makes the film ahistorical. The pre-Columbian Americas did have copper, silver and gold but these were not generally used in weapon-making. The Purépecha people did have knowledge of copper and may have had copper weapons – they certainly traded copper blades with the Aztecs in limited numbers but these remained rare. The Purépecha themselves resisted frequent attempts at conquest by their Aztec neighbours and this may have been due to their knowledge of copper weapons – they, however, did not conquer any neighbouring peoples and they chose not to fight the Spaniards in the early 16th century. When the Aztecs asked for help in facing the Spaniards, the Purépecha refused.
In Kings of the Sun these metal weapon-bearers are the ‘conquerors from the west’, a fellow indigenous tribe and no European contact is meant (Europeans first came from the east, of course). Bladed weapons in Mayan culture were usually made from obsidian and chert (sometimes bone). The archaeological record informs us that throwing spears (tipped by obsidian points) were most common and these could be thrown with spear-throwers (atlatl or halab’) or without them. We also have stabbing spears, bladed clubs, axes, daggers, chert-tipped arrow heads and darts. It would also seem as if warfare was an elite pastime rather than one engaged in by the remainder of the population. If, as some believe, warfare was undertaken in part to gain high ranking sacrificial victims, and that the status of those victims was important, then this reinforces that warfare was an elite practice and that it was probably therefore small scale. Others believe that there was warfare between commoners, or that they were involved (perhaps of the entourage of elite aristocrats).
Kings of the Sun starred Yul Brynner as the Native American chief, Black Eagle, and he seems to have been the reason for the movie. Another star was Oscar and Golden Globe winner George Chakiris as Balam (more familiar as Bernardo from West Side Story in 1961). Brynner dominates all of his scenes, prowling, climbing and scowling wherever he goes. In 1961, after the immense success of The Magnificent Seven, Brynner signed a three picture deal with United Artists and the Mirisch Brothers: Walter, Marvin and Harold. The Magnificent Seven had been filmed in Mexico and the film’s success led to ideas to film a story about Mexico based on the idea of the Mayan civilisation influencing the Mound Builder culture of North America (the film’s working title was The Mound Builders). The Mirisch Brothers wanted to cash in on Brynner and Chakiris’ recent successes but it didn’t come off.
Brynner has rather too much skin dye (whereas the love interest, Ixchel, played by Sally Anne Field wears virtually none). Kings of the Sun was a failure commercially and critically and Walter Mirisch later blamed that on the idea that the creative team was not enthusiastic. At the time of production (between January and April 1963), however, there was a great deal of enthusiasm, especially from Brynner and United Artists executive vice president, Arnold Picker. The score (by Elmer Bernstein, who had also composed The Magnificent Seven) is fabulous. The film was intended as a vehicle for Brynner (he had just finished Taras Bulba, also directed by Thompson, in late 1962). Brynner praised Thompson’s ability to tell an intimate story within an epic arc but Brynner’s star power could not save the film. The lavish costumes are taken from the Mayan codices, murals, and sculpture and original pyramids are used in the opening scenes.
There are, indeed, epic battle scenes, on a beach and even covering a besieged Mayan pyramid at the film’s climax. The beach battle is reminiscent of two European shield walls clashing but, as so often (and possibly with the influence of Spartacus (1960) in mind), flames must play their part in a set-piece infantry battle. We don’t know enough about Mayan warfare to posit that this was how the armies fought but there are a mix of elite warriors with less well armoured foot soldiers and this probably does not reflect the reality of Mayan warfare. It is possible that each hero had a retinue and that warfare consisted of the heroic warriors engaging in individual martial exploits. This model would make warfare similar to the model we find in Homer’s Iliad but such a model is not recorded in Mayan art. The Maya did have shields made of hide and also small rigid shields which could be round, square or rectangular. Several of the weapons appear to be based on more familiar European swords and shields (the Mayan swords have a particularly ‘pirate cutlass’ look). There is a Mayan catapult depicted which is also ahistorical. Mayan armour was usually made of hide or cotton and packed with rock salt. Some of these (as well as wicker armour) are depicted here. There are reports that conquistadors traded their heavy iron corslets for the more comfortable rock salt armour in the jungles of the Americas.
Kings of the Sun fails despite its promise and star power. If, however, you wish for a medieval film depicting medieval cultures not centred on Europe or Asia, you will find you choices limited to a very few (some of them very good) films. We’ll explore more of them as time goes on.
Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for Our Site. You can find more of his research on Academia.edu or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm
Top Image: Kings of the Sun (1963) © United Artists