From the film’s IMDB.com page citation:
“An adventurer searches for hidden treasure in the Peruvian jungles.”
As is often the case with so many of IMDB.com’s plot summaries, that one is both correct and incorrect when applied to 1954's Secret Of The Incas. In the guise of ‘Harry Steele,’ screen legend Charlton Heston is and isn’t all that much of an adventurer – certainly not the caliber of which it’s been said that the role inspired (which I’ll get to momentarily). He’s part hunk, part con man, part guide, part tomb raider, and part swindler (you might say). But – ahem – adventurer? Well …
For those of you who are caught a bit unawares, Steele has long been cited as being the inspiration behind the wildly successful Indiana Jones franchise of films that emerged from the collaboration between Hollywood heavyweights George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Watching the film for the first time, I found it easy to see the connection: beyond the signature leather jacket, occasional fedora hat, and tan khakis, Heston damn near sounds like Harrison Ford (or is that vice versa?) in a few spots. Throwing in the fact that Incas is, largely, set in dense jungles of Peru – the film was shot at the revered Machu Picchu – and there are archaeologists busy exploring some ancient ruins, I think it’s pretty clear that the Heston picture figured strongly into the founding dynamic of Raiders Of The Lost Ark (1981) and maybe some bits and pieces of the sequels … but the association ends there.
Heston’s Steele is, otherwise, a pretty significant narrative stretch away from Ford’s Indiana Jones.
Indiana Jones was a bit ruthless and relentless in his pursuit of important antiquities, often making the right and proper choice on behalf of preserving artifacts for historical posterity. Steele, by comparison, is much more a grifter. He’s shown in Incas’ opening sequence as being not quite pure, conning a few folks here and there out of a few bucks as well as strong hints to his nature as a philanderer with ladies who might have something to offer him in return for his – ahem – “services.” To be specific, Steele was not an archaeologist by trade. In fact, the script suggests he was in the tomb raiding business almost exclusively for the financial rewards it could bring him. Granted, he does make the noble decision in the flick’s big finish; but he’s still rewarded when his act of selflessness gives him the heart of the girl instead of the cool cash.
You know what they say: imitation is the most sincere form of flattery around. And it shows!
Nonetheless, there is surprisingly very little adventure aboard Incas, and that’s probably owed more to the Hollywood requirements of its era. While some might argue that the film’s backbone is the search for some lost objet d’art, I see it more as a romantic melodrama set against the backdrop of the traditional heist film. Steele is unarguably chasing his own pot of gold, but that wouldn’t even have been possible without the central love story: Romanian refugee Elena Antonescu (the lovely Nicole Maurey) is fleeing her nation’s authorities, one of which arrives in a private aircraft, exactly the kind of thing Steele needs to – ahem – ‘steal’ in order to go after his pearl. Back in the 1950’s, studios required love interests for their big heroes, and it’s pretty clear that the characteristic banter between Harry and Elena was intended to be the theatrical driving force in this jungle-set potboiler.
Hell, one might even suggest that screenwriters Ranald MacDougall and Sydney Boehm plucked a few pages out of 1942’s landmark Casablanca in order to make all of this work. In Casablanca, Ilsa Lund was the lovely refugee who needed Rick Blaine’s assistance to avoid capture; and it’s this energy that fuels the Harry/Elena scenes. Likewise, Casablanca introduced Ilsa’s much-older husband – Victor Lazslo – to fashion a love triangle for their script; in comparison, MacDougall and Boehm’s story cast TV star Robert Young as the much older archaeologist who – albeit briefly – steals Elena’s heart. Honestly, I could go on with a few more similarities, but I hope I’ve made my point: Incas feels very much like a studio-produced formulaic picture that fits into the requirements of the day.
Lastly, I’d also point out – as have so many – that perhaps the real star in all of this is Peru. The vast percentage of the film includes location shooting in the country, and it’s a very impressive effort that looks grand, much in the same way the Jones adventures take audiences on their own world tour. Though my problems with the picture may not amount to a hill of beans much less the quest for fortune and glory, it still boasts some great screen charisma from Heston and Maurey. I’ve no doubt that fans watching it can appreciate exactly how big a footprint it left in order to make a blockbuster derivative so profitable decades later.
Make no mistake: Indiana Jones franchise fans have solid reason to rejoice as now with Secret Of The Incas’ release on Blu-ray – with its remastering in 4K from the 35mm YCMs – can be seen in all its glory. Long rumored to have been one of the chief inspirations behind the whole Raiders’ legacy, it looks grand … and yet I can’t help wondering if the end result might be a bit more collective disappointment than anything else. Billed as a “thrilling action yarn,” it’s largely everything else, and I can say that as one who has viewed many dated action films from the bygone era. It’s more melodrama than anything else – with the archaeological caper taking a firm backseat most of the time – but, yes, I’m still glad I’ve seen just where oh where Mr. Lucas and Mr. Spielberg may very well have come up with their idea.
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at Kino Lorber provided me with a complimentary Blu-ray of Secret Of The Incas by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review; and their contribution to me in no way, shape, or form influenced my opinion of it.