Secret of the Incas, Jerry Hopper

‘Secret of the Incas’ Is Finally Exhumed from Hollywood’s Tomb

The 1954 Hollywood adventure film Secret of the Incas may have a whiff of Indiana Jones about it to contemporary viewers, but it’s better than expected for a film that’s almost been buried in a tomb.

Secret of the Incas
Jerry Hopper
Kino Lorber
28 February 2023

Secret of the Incas, directed by Jerry Hopper for Paramount in 1954, is a colorful adventure cited as one of the inspirations for Indiana Jones. It was a popular film and boasts a major star in Charlton Heston. You’d think it should have found its way to home video long ago, yet here’s its Region 1 video debut as a Kino Lorber Blu-ray.

The first image we see as the credits begin is a Peruvian Quechuan man in traditional garb playing the flute as a few llamas mill about, looking out upon a vast space below the hill. In a sense, this unidentified extra is claiming the film, almost as though he’s the storyteller recounting this tale of the visitors and trespassers to his land.

If that reading seems unlikely and optimistic for the Hollywood ’50s, I can’t help observing that Secret of the Incas consistently hits this note until the final image presents us with hundreds of similarly dressed Quechua moving majestically up a pyramid in Machu Picchu as one of their number holds up the sacred artifact whose discovery means their recovery to power. It’s a stunning image of a people newly unvanquished.

All this occurs after we’ve seen the modern interlopers heading down the mountain to return to their homes. The adventure heroes, the international archaeologists, and even the Peruvian military official from the city have departed. Nobody says, “Let’s put this valuable artifact in a museum.” Its inheritors have claimed it. Instead of fading out on the hero and his gal in a clinch, Secret of the Incas ends on the majesty and joy of a people who have never once been depicted as ignorant or evil or comic stereotypes throughout the running time and whom we now realize were always present around the edges until they move to the center and dominate the last moments. This is surprisingly progressive, really more than Indiana Jones.

The drama for Secret of the Incas begins with a little emblematic scene of possible collision and negotiation at the bottom of the high hill. A large red pickup truck, full of peasants standing in its bed, approaches a light rail crossing. Approaching at the same time from another angle is a single railcar that we’ll learn is full of Yankee tourists. Before they could collide or jostle for the right of way, they both must stop because two burros are planted in their intersection. Nature dominates, even in humble guises.

Harry Steele (Heston) is introduced as he jumps out of the railcar and speaks fluent Spanish (the lingua franca of the region), as he’ll do several times in the story. He moves the burros with good humor, and the truck proceeds. We’ll shortly learn that riding shotgun by the local driver is our heroine Elena Antonescu, a Romanian refugee played by French import Nicole Maury. We’ll also learn that she’s an illegal, paperless fugitive from the Iron Curtain who’s apparently been working for a few years as a prostitute. Despite this history, she looks as fabulous as any Hollywood starlet fresh from makeup.

Harry chats in the railcar with his tourists, for he’s their guide. We’ll learn that his game is to show up at the airport and inform any American tourists that he’s been appointed as their guide for a daily fee, then whisk them to their hotel and plan their itinerary. He’s a liar, and it’s a racket.

The racket gets deeper. In each itinerary is one or another middle-aged American woman. In this batch, it’s the single lady played by an uncredited Marion Ross. As Harry takes the group to their departing plane and collects his fees, he assures her she won’t hurt his feelings by paying him. “Most men don’t enjoy taking money from women,” she says with hesitation. Plucking the bills out of her hands and giving them a sniff, he replies, “That’s the best kind. It’s the hardest to get and always smells so good.” Then he plants a kiss by her nose and walks away, leaving her flustered and fluttered.

This is a perfect example of how ’50s Hollywood could get away with startling adult implications while remaining deniable. Nobody comes out and says that he’s performed services not itemized on the bill, that he’s shown her around considerably more than the churches of Cuzco, but the audience gets the point. Or they miss it completely.

Our grasp of the situation is reinforced by the next handful of tourists, whose sassy Mrs. Winston (Glenda Farrell) forms an instant understanding with Harry. She remarks on his service, and he says he’s never had any complaints. Then she advises her husband to take a nice long nap at the hotel. Unless he’s a hopeless idiot, the couple must have an Understanding. Later, in front of his wife, he’ll ask about “night life” and Harry hands him the card of a man who’ll “see that you have a good time”.

This is heady stuff, and so is the moment when Harry first sees Elena in a museum. “She reminds me of my mother,” he tells a smirking Mrs. Winston. She replies, “Your mother’s very pretty. You thinking of changing horses in midstream?” He looks her squarely yet charmingly in the eye and says, “Wouldn’t you?”

While all this stuff is entertaining us, the Quechuan Indians remain silent. At the airport, they sit like decorative statues or sit in the background. We can’t help noticing their brightly colored appearance. They seem passive while the drama of foreigners is front and center, yet they must be watching and hearing all.

At exactly the halfway point, after some bother, Harry and Elena arrive at Machu Picchu and meet the rest of the cast. Leading the archaeological dig is Stanley Moorhead, played by a silver-templed Robert Young before his days on Father Knows Best and Marcus Welby, M.D.

Here’s where we learn that the natives can speak for themselves. True, their main spokesman is played by non-Quechuan Michael Pate, a busy Australian character actor who spent half his career as American Indians. Here, he plays Pachacutec as a college-educated, sensitive, dignified man of distinctive appearance.

His sister, Kori-Tika, is played by a genuine Peruvian of the Andes, the great singer Yma Sumac. Publicity claimed her descent from Incan royalty, and while that’s perhaps unlikely, her nearly five-octave range made her the “Queen of Exotica”. In scenes where she sings, the song sounds dropped in from a recording studio’s echo chamber so that she’s surely lip-synching herself. That doesn’t ruin the electrifying effect, nor does the fact that her “traditional” songs are modern creations by her husband, Moisés Vivanco.

Sumac’s presence is arresting, even when she’s not singing. In one interesting scene, she and her mother help Elena undress and bathe. Looking at Elena sternly, the mother uses a Quechuan word to describe her before walking away. Harry will translate the word as “white as a dead fish”.

The screenplay by Ranald MacDougall and Sydney Boehm shows them to be good writers, not only for the snappy dialogue. The Quechuan element is developed carefully, while Harry Steele is a more complex and well-developed character than Indiana Jones initially was. Harry’s a rogue, if not a scoundrel. He’s looking out for Number One, and Heston plays him with glib sang-froid. The writers understand that if we’re to have any sympathy for Harry, he must evolve by comparison with the examples around him. There are three such examples.

The most explicit comparison is made with Morgan (Thomas Mitchell), who functions as a poisonous father figure to Harry. Morgan plays pool in a stained shirt in front of gaudy paintings in the style of Early Bordello, so he’s really some kind of pimp or madam. Morgan admires something in Harry even as they’re at each other’s throats. Elena throws in Harry’s face that he will age into another Morgan. Harry is disturbed by this prognostication. Elena and Harry refer to Morgan as a mirror.

In one of their encounters, Morgan says, “Quite a guy, aren’t you, buster? Big, good-looking, you got everything. Here I am old and tired and fat, and you think that’s all there is to me.” He says, “I was like you once”, and that he came down for a quick million and stayed 14 years. In Morgan’s poignant last speech, he tells Harry, “You should have seen me in the old days, Harry. You get old, Harry. You don’t know when it starts. Then one day, when you’re not looking, gravity gets you, Harry. It pulls you down.” He’s unconscious of the literal meaning of what he’s saying.

The second comparison is with the upright Moorhead, an older solid citizen who instantly proposes to Elena and doesn’t change his mind after she’s discreetly revealed that she’s had to depend on men because she had no money. He says he’s realized that he’s been wasting his time and pursuing a career looking at “old dead things” when he should have been looking for love. When he hears of the proposal, Harry says, “Well, I admire his taste.”

The third comparison is with Elena, who’s clearly hot and bothered with Harry. “A girl like you, you’re made for somebody like me, and you know it,” Harry breathes as he plants one on her kisser before a very expressive fade-out has them spending a jungle night together.

Frankly, Harry means they’re both prostitutes, damaged goods knocked around by life and making compromises. His goal is wealth, while hers is reaching America, which is the same thing for her. The difference is that Elena draws lines she won’t cross, so she can keep looking in the mirror. For Harry, the prize is shifting from gold to Elena’s love (‘something to take its place”), along with self-respect.

Actually, there’s a fourth comparison embodied by the indigenous Peruvians who speak Quechua, a language Harry understands. Kori-Tika says in Quechua that he can’t be trusted, that he’s a thief, that she can tell by looking at him. Harry tells her brother that he’s not offended because he likes honesty, and so he likes her. The natives are also holding up a mirror to Harry, and it will be a literal one when the jewel-encrusted golden Sunburst is recovered.

With Harry, the camera has looked over the faces of dozens of authentic extras who gather in hopes of recovering their sacred object, and Harry reluctantly comes to recognize the power of their claim upon it. While most of them haven’t said a word, their very presence is eloquent, and we may realize in retrospect that this has been the case since the beginning when we were introduced to that man playing the flute, and Sumac’s voice first graced the soundtrack.

Remastered in a 4K scan from the 35mm Technicolor strips, the print on Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray looks and sounds terrific. The Peruvian footage, shot by Irmin Roberts, is gorgeous, never more than in the majestic mountain-top ruins of Machu Picchu. This is probably their first appearance in a feature. Because Hopper and Heston went to Peru with the second unit, the location footage feels consistent in style and tone, with the main portion shot in Hollywood by Lionel Lindon.

More importantly, story and style remain engaging on their terms in Secret of the Incas, not just as Indiana Jones trivia. That particular element comes from the fact that Harry Steele spends the film wearing a brown leather jacket and beat-up fedora, that he can fly a light aircraft, that he hunts for a precious artifact by cracking archaeological clues and using lights and mirrors, and that he romances a spunky lass along the way. Other than that, the properties have nothing in common.

Secret of the Incas turns out better than we might have expected for a film that’s almost been buried in a tomb. The only extra is a commentary by Toby Roan that sounds straight from IMDB and Wikipedia. We haven’t seen an Australian Blu-ray from last September with different extras, but some online sources indicate the print isn’t as perfect.