Secret of the Incas - 1954

Proto-Indiana Jones adventure with Chuck Heston up against the limits of his own obsession to find a hidden treasure, an evil competitor with an even greater obsession, a refugee who needs his help, and the vast high altitude landscape of the Manchu Picchu area in the Andes mountains of Peru.

Charlton Heston as Harry Steele and Thomas Mitchell as Ed Morgan are competing American tomb raiders in Peru trying to find a fabled "mask of the sun" which is an ancient Incan treasure encrusted with precious stones and made of gold. Getting near to where the mask might be hidden means going to the mountainous Machu Picchu, but getting there takes money and transportation, something neither man has.

Fleeing Romanian refugee Elena Antonescu (played by Nicole Maurey) shows up in town with a lustful Romanian diplomat in hot pursuit piloting his own private plane, determined to take her back to Europe, and Heston's character gets an idea: he'll steal that airplane and fly it to Machu Picchu. This not only shows us that Harry Steele's ethics and morals are rather flexible (something also highlighted by his interactions with Glenda Farrell as a married American tourist with a wandering eye), but that he'll manipulate the refugee woman so that somehow the pilot keys can be stolen.

For Harry Steele, pulling this off and getting to Machu Picchu first would also mean beating Ed Morgan, even humiliating the older man, as the two obsessive adventurers are in a lethal contest over who will achieve success first, because in actual fact they're both nearly broke and except for Harry Steele's sometimes tour guide work, he'd probably be in outright poverty. But dreaming of a huge payoff for illegal archeological digging is what keeps both men glued to Peru.

Waiting for his chance to get to the mountain where he believes an amazing treasure could be found is starting to drive Steele crazy (and it's apparently done so already to Ed Morgan) so Harry proceeds to coax the Romanian refugee to cooperate with his plan. He is promising to help her reach America, a place where "Abe Lincoln chopped down the cherry tree" or so she tells Harry to show off how she has studied and prepared for reaching the USA, and Harry doesn't correct her mangled, but heartfelt, civics knowledge.

Only problem, she is far from certain Harry is trustworthy (he isn't). One of the remarkable things about Secret of the Incas is how unscrupulous and shady the Heston character is, despite being our film hero, and though Thomas Mitchell's character is a far worse scoundrel, all the same it is interesting how far the scriptwriters were willing to let their hero get out on a (moral) limb before "gravity" (both as a metaphor that gets talked about in the film and also as a fact of some importance on high up mountains) starts to pull him back, and in this way there seems like a bit of the grittiness of 1953's Wages of Fear, another film set in South America, in the mix of Secret of the Incas.

If you've seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, then Secret of the Incas will seem like a primer on Indiana Jones, right down to the outfit and side-bag (but no bullwhip!) and some of the tricky archeological knowledge needed to find treasures that a regular archeologist overlooks, a contrast shown to us by co-star Robert Young, who plays a Boston academic who does a dig by the book. He falls head-over-heels for the beautiful Romanian refugee, not a good idea at 8,000 feet elevation.

We also get to hear and watch Yma Sumac sing, a Peruvian singer who has a style that is so unique (and with an octave range of five) that her music can be mistaken for an avant garde concert. Also, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Peruvian extras in native dress and, of course, lamas galore.

The Kino Lorber blu ray disk of Secret of the Incas isn't perfect. What we see is probably reflecting that the source print material is somewhat faded. It looks like this was compensated for by increasing contrast and sharpening, but whatever technological efforts were made to improve what seems like a less than great source, Secret of the Incas is still a very good looking movie with a lot of beautiful location shooting in Peru, and it makes me wish there was a perfectly preserved version of this film in 4K.

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Original Page February 6, 2024