Charlton Heston sets off for Fortune and Glory in Ancient Peru



One of the great joys of digging into cinema’s past is how the process can uncover links to later, seminal work.  Consequently, if 1954’s Charlton Heston-led adventure outing Secret of the Incas were known today for only one thing, that would have to be its altogether unhidden precursorship to Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  One look at Heston’s man of action Harry Steele, outfitted in khaki pants, a dark brown jacket, pouch, revolver, and a trusty fedora, and it’s entirely clear.  (Never mind that white ascot, please).  Another quick look at Secret of the Incas’ opening credits, and yet another seeming discovery is made: by extension, Indiana Jones was dressed by none other than famed Paramount wardrobe genius Edith Head.

While such connections were likely noticed and discussed by the old guard of film journalism when Raiders was first released, myself (I was eight in 1981, and got to see it theatrically) and those younger quite likely only ever heard about how Spielberg and George Lucas had been influenced by weekly serialized cliffhangers of the 1930s and ‘40s.  And while that influence is entirely valid, that validity is in terms of the essential breakneck zip-zap-zoom! pacing of the thing- but not the aesthetic.  That’s where Secret of the Incas, with its sea planes and hidden villages and yellow rafts and Peruvian ancient caverns with hidden treasure come in.  The Raiders Map Room sequence was basically lifted wholesale.

But those approaching Secret of the Incas in hopes of discovering a proto-Indy thrill machine will come up disappointed.  While indeed an action picture by 1954 American studio standards, they simply didn’t tick along like today’s overly packed adventure flicks do.  Nor was there any expectation that they should.  The film’s three or four all-out action scenes are judiciously spaced across its ninety-eight-minute running time.  They’re not bad, but whether viewing Incas in 1954, 1981, or 2023, imperfect pacing was/is apparent.  (And hey, the same criticism can be leveled at today’s bevy of action-adventure treasure hunt/exotic lands extravaganzas for the exact opposite reasons.  I’m looking at you, Black Adamso embarrassingly incapable of going five minutes without a massive fight scene!) There weren’t all that many A-level “high adventure” movies like this in its day, and Paramount stock director Jerry Hopper never quite takes ownership or full command of what’s being attempted.

That leaves the cast to carry the picture, which they darn near succeed at.  Heston is immediately in the groove as Harry Steele, more of a Han Solo than Indiana Jones.  He’s a competent scammer and ladies’ man who dreams of one day discovering a lost, priceless Incan sunburst made of gold and encrusted with jewels.  You and I know, however, that he’s really just searching for the heart of gold that’s buried deep within himself.  The Steele character would’ve been a natural for sequels.  Alas, they didn’t happen, though young Heston certainly managed to land on his feet.  It really is too bad about his unibrow in this film, though.  

The venerable Thomas Mitchell plays Ed Morgan, the devil on Harry’s shoulder and eventual villain.  It’s legitimately nice to see Mitchell as something other than a drunk, although looking at the huge meatball stain on his vest that persists through the entire movie, one wouldn’t be off base in questioning this character’s sobriety.  Really though, he’s just terribly greedy.  Forced along for the ride is “the girl” of the film, Elena, played by Nicole Maurey.  Maurey fills the role nicely, projecting a competent mid-century agency with her fine-cut woman’s suits, proto-Marian Ravenwood native blouse, and perfect eyebrows.  Robert Young plays the expository brains of the story, and singer Yma Sumac is good for a few showstopping numbers.

Visually, the version of Secret of the Incas on display here is something to behold.  Remastered in HD by Paramount Pictures from a 4K scan of the 35mm original camera negative, KL Studio Classics has saved North American film buffs the hassle of obtaining the inferior recent Australian version.  (Although in either case, it’s our first shot at seeing Secret of the Incas in decades, as it’s been unavailable on all popular home formats until now).  Here, the film is presented in its native 1:1.85 aspect ratio, with all that Peruvian location photography with its abundance of sun, sand, sky and convincing ancient caverns looking particularly grand.  Sumac’s unique singing and the original exotic theme music by composer David Buttolph (which should be familiar to fans of The Big Lebowski, in which it was later used) sound extra good here.

Film historian Toby Roan has an audio commentary on the KL Studio Classics’ Blu-ray.  While an info-packed and inoffensive outing, it can fairly be said that the first half of it is a little bit of a disappointment.  Roan remains personable, although his delivery of the endless requisite filmographies and factoids gets pretty dry pretty fast.  Only in the second half does he switch gears to focus on more scene-specific interaction and deconstruction.  This approach goes much further for a movie like this, which is so rich with now-familiar tropes.  It’s this portion of the commentary that is the keeper.

Up front, Roan makes quick mention of the Raiders connection before shuffling onto concentrating on Incas proper.  It’s as though he consciously decided to leave the Indiana Jones connection out of this so that Secret of the Incas can stand entirely on its own for once.  While that would be a noble if shortsighted notion, he does in fact later fully cast himself into Spielberg & Lucas’ particular Well of Souls.  Mostly, he is speaking up to distance the two films, making points that even Heston’s iconic outfit was sported previously in variation by Alan Ladd and Ronald Reagan up to a decade prior.  (So maybe I was too quick to credit Ms. Head?)  I do not detect a hint of distain for Raiders on behalf of Roan, but rather an inclination to give Incas its due.  Amusingly, though, for as rich as Roan claims the movie to be, he actually runs out of commentary with twelve minutes or so left on the running time.

If adventure has a name… it must not be Harry Steele.  And that’s okay.  Secret of the Incas is a decent anomaly for its own moment in the desert sun.  It’s also okay, however, to look at it as a vital component in the piecemeal slab that would become Raiders of the Lost Ark.  It’s that film, not this one, that achieved immortality.  Nevertheless, no one can argue that Secret of the Incas belongs in a museum.  We, however, will gladly settle for Blu-ray.