Kings of the Sun Review
In Kings of the Sun, Yul Brynner plays Indian Chief Black Eagle, another role ideally suited to his physical attributes. Stripped to the waist the whole time, bronzed and brooding, he exemplifies the idea of the noble savage, in tune with the ways of nature but able to hunt and fight with lethal agility. The story is a heady blend of Mayan history, war, cosmology and religion, including human sacrificial rites, together with American Indian tribal culture, all taking place in Yucatán, Mexico.
When Mayan King Balam (George Chakiris) flees his enemy Hunac Kell (Leo Gordon) by sea, he finds a new land for his people and builds a city, but the territory already belongs to Black Eagle and his tribe. The two factions move through phases of conflict and co-operation, but as much as politics, the driving force behind it all is the mutual interest by the two leaders in a woman, Mayan Princess Ixchel (Shirley Anne Field).
Watching the film today, what is fascinating is seeing how such an historical piece is tackled within the movie conventions and mores of the era in which it was made, reflecting that society, and how the plot lines are shaped so as the whole resembles an offbeat western. There are no difficulties of communication as Mayans and Indians speak the same language (English). Russian Yul Brynner's portrayal of an Indian is very effective, but in addition Caucasian actors Richard Basehart and Barry Morse play Mayan priests, George Chakiris is of Greek extraction and Shirley Anne Field is English, and their mingling with the more ethnically authentic extras does jar to some extent.
The love contest between Balam and Black Eagle puts Ixchel in control as a woman who must be wooed correctly and has it in her power to make a choice between the stuffiness, inhibition and misplaced pride of the former and the passionate, expressive primitivism of the latter - very 60s zeitgeist. Whatever their differences, warriors are always fearless in battle and self-interest is put aside for the greater good. Ultimately everybody acts in a morally upstanding way and the unfortunate Mayan practice of human sacrifice is viewed as a vice to be overcome.
Yet despite these underlying paint-by-numbers qualities, Kings of the Sun remains an enjoyable, well-achieved adventure epic. Like Taras Bulba it is directed by J. Lee Thompson and his flair for large-scale battle scenes and hand-to-hand combat is evident again in some superb set pieces when the swords and arrows fly. The intense light and vivid colours of the Yucatán land and seascapes compliment the smouldering emotions of the protagonists and the Mayan costumes and architecture make for a pleasing variation on the standard Greco-Roman look of the sword-and-sandal epic. Throughout, the action is enriched by a loud and strident Elmer Bernstein score that fuses Mesoamerica with the American West and which finally becomes a kind of grandiose trademark, just like his score for The Great Escape, made the same year. But it is the commanding presence of Brynner himself that makes the movie, totally believable as a tribal chieftain, displaying a range of strengths and vulnerabilities in a heroic way that transcends the bathos that is so often the pitfall of this kind of role.
Like Taras Bulba, the film is presented in anamorphic 2.35 : 1, as per the Panavision original. The transfer looks particularly good, almost free of artefacts and, in this case, its vivid colours - the intensely blue Mexican seas and skies, the burnished flesh tones - harmonise well with the film as a whole. Again the audio is a good mono to stereo conversion, similarly loud and gutsy, with the music score heavily in the foreground.
A trailer has been included by way of an extra, which makes for an interesting quality comparison with the main film. Its print is well worn, dirty, soft, the colours milky, the sides cropped to 4:3, so it shows all the classic faults of unsatisfactory sources for older movies, of which the film itself is thankfully free.
This is an excellent transfer of a not well-known film, but along with The King and I, The Magnificent Seven and Westworld, it is one of Yul Brynner’s best and a perfect showcase for the idiosyncratic brand of otherness he brought to movies. Losing out on the role of Spartacus was one of the big regrets of Brynner’s career; his Chief Black Eagle is perhaps the next best thing.