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Kings of the Sun (1963)

Yul Brynner’s Dash Is Balder Than Most in ‘Kings of the Sun’ and ‘Taras Bulba’

Kings of the Sun and Taras Bulba aren't "good", but then again, of what use are movies if you haven't a high tolerance for balderdash?

Kings of the Sun shows that in 1963, they were still making ’em like they used to, to the consternation of some and the indifference of others. With novelty, this historical epic takes place in Central America before anyone called it that, and before Columbus and other johnny-come-latelies. Long before Europeans showed up, as the script by novelist Elliott Arnold and James R. Webb (How the West Was Won ) points out, the land was a hotbed of colonial conquest and resistance, immigration, and diplomacy.

George Chakiris plays Balam, the young leader of the Mayans. They’re attacked by invaders equally bird-hatted, but with metal swords more effective than the Mayans’ wooden ones. Are these Toltecs? Aztecs? Wikipedia kindly informs us of tribal conflict led by Hunac Ceel against Chichen Itza around the 13th Century, but it’s still confusing. In short: Balam calls it a day and leads his people over the waters of the Gulf of Mexico to what might be Louisiana. Again, they didn’t know what to call it yet, but the place has swamps and a tribe led by Black Eagle (Yul Brynner).

The pyramid isn’t big enough for both of them, especially when they lust for the same liberated blue-eyed Mayan (Shirley Anne Field). Their negotiations for the girl-queen symbolize Balam’s desire for a new world order, a Camelot that dispenses with that whole “human sacrifice” thing. The elders and high priests (led by Richard Basehart and Barry Morse) say it’s a tradition that’s served them for 1000 years and put Balam on the throne, so the upstart rebel might at least be grateful, and they have a point, but they’re on the wrong side of forgotten history. The coming intermingling in the brave new world is signaled by Elmer Bernstein’s Mexico-meets-tom-tom score.

Surrounded by a cast of thousands of shirtless men, Chakiris wears a royal raiment over his breast but shows a lot of thigh. Brynner is the most gloriously and rivetingly naked, especially when the queen sees him for the first time and the camera travels around him, tied there on the floor by all four limbs, writhing and thrusting and sweating under her ministrations, clad only in a clout that merely calls attention to what it conceals. No wonder those tom-toms are throbbing.

Upright, Brynner’s a dancing animal who commands the screen, and director J. Lee Thompson gets inspired with some shadows on his head and torso. This is hardly a “good” movie, but of what use are movies if you haven’t a high tolerance for balderdash? — and Brynner’s dash was balder than most.

Taras Bulba (1962)

This bit of straight-faced dementia was Thompson and Brynner’s follow-up to the previous year’s Taras Bulba, a widescreen epic celebrating macho bullshit. Brynner plays a great bull of a 16th century cossack who constantly plants his feet wide apart, hands on hips, throws back his head and bellows with laughter. He raises his son (Tony Curtis) to abhor the Polish invaders to the Ukraine. The lad spends half the movie shirtless, wrestling/caressing his dad and brother; it’s hotter than Spartacus, maybe. A big scene is when a whole roomful of half-naked hunks tie him up for a whipping.

DVD: Taras Bulba

Film: Taras Bulba

Director: J. Lee Thompson

Cast: Yul Brynner, Tony Curtis

Year: 1962

Rating: Not rated

US DVD release date: 2014-09-23

Distributor: Kino Lorber

Rating: 4

Extras rating: N/A

Image: http://images.popmatters.com/news_art/t/tarasbulba_dvdblog_brart350.jpg

Thompson incorporates one too-quick subjective shot on a sled barreling downhill; on his later Mackenna’s Gold, he did similar shots mounting the camera on stampeding horses. The opening battle is as over-edited and incomprehensible as anything modern, and I suspect is cobbled from second unit work.

Three or four editors are credited; one drunken dancing spree is edited in rapid montage, and there are a few self-conscious moments of romantic vision when Curtis and his Polish lover (Christine Kaufmann) are surrounded by haze. It almost has enough folk songs to qualify as a musical. Ultimately, as a bit of ironic tragedy loosely based on Nikolai Gogol’s novel, it’s painless enough if you let your mind wander.

Both films, shot in in color and widescreen by Joseph MacDonald, are well-served by HD mastering on these no-frills Blu-rays in Kino Lorber’s KL Studio Classics series. If you’re going to sit through these pictures without going into a theatre, this is the way to do it.

RATING 6 / 10
PopMatters