Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Cost of Faith

Author's sidenote: It's been a while since last I posted, but I am still here, still watching movies, and still have an opinion. I'm doing my best.

It is not often that I am moved or delighted enough by an old movie to even bother attempting to thrust it upon my friends, most of whom couldn't be bothered to watch anything but their newest Netflix or 'The Game.' So I am thrusting it on you lucky folks. Don't you love me?

Dating a film as "old" is like calling a 1980 Dodge Aspen a "classic car". It is all very subjective and there are no REAL guidelines, just every different group/person's arbitrary ones. So please, those of you alive in 1969, take no offense to me calling "The Royal Hunt for the Sun" an Old Movie. While I enjoyed the film, I cannot in good conscience call it a 'Classic.' As a stage play, perhaps, but the film fell marginally short for me.

The film by Irving Lerner is based on Peter Schaffer's Classic play, and has historical basis in the fall of the Inca Empire. There is a good measure of accuracy in it, as far as the core facts go, but the story is not really meant to be about the socio-political destruction of a civilization. While the events of Spain's conquering of Peru is an interesting tale, Schaffer's script focuses on the dynamic struggle between the opposing leaders of the war, Francisco Pizarro and the Inca God King Atahualpa, and each man's respective faith in God and in himself.

To summarize history and the plot, in 1532 Francisco seeks to find a city of gold with which to honor his king and prove his place in court. The king refuses to fund the expedition, nor offer any men to aide it, but will gladly take his cut, of course. Francisco finds in Peru the Inca Empire of Atahualpa and with his 167 mercenaries wipes out 7000 Inca (of a population of some 80-100 thousand). Taking the God King captive he swears to free the man if Atahualpa can fill a room with Gold in two months time. Although Atahualpa succeeds and provides his own ransom, Francisco's men determine that he cannot be freed and must be executed. During the time of imprisonment Francisco and Atahualpa have formed strong bonds of friendship and mutual respect and this decision tears the General apart. There will be war if Atahualpa is set free, the death of a civilization if he is not, and either way Francisco's Faith, Loyalties and Convictions shall be casualties.

War stories are always exciting. Blood. Agony. Destruction. The proofs of man's conniving nature carefully plotted across land and sea. Brother killing brother.

The very best war stories, without doubt, are those of the men. Heroes and Demi-Gods overcoming all trials to win, be they Hercules or Lincoln. Foot soldiers battling in the mud and the trenches for the greater good, or merely for their lives, willingly or by draft. It is the men that make the difference. Without the men there are no stories. Even more compelling still are the battles we do not see, the battles twisting men's hearts and souls in the stillness between the skirmishes. Battles of Loyalty, of Conviction, of Faith.

What do you do when you capture a god? That is a question that not many people have faced in their lifetime.
- Francisco Pizarro

Our battling heroes are Francisco Pizarro, an illiterate General of the Spanish army who has lost favor with the king, though he has devoted his life to the crown. Played by Robert Shaw, with energy and passion, Francisco is portrayed as a man that came from nothing and though he feels he deserves significant honor, his peers still look at him as if he were nothing. Shaw is not an actor that many younger generations recognize easily (hence I've supplied the visual reminder below), and I admit, I find this disappointing. As with Francisco, Shaw often played roles of tormented men, men that struggled with self worth, loneliness and disillusionment. Francisco is a man abandoned at birth by his mother, raised by a pig farmer, and disrespected by his peers for his lack of education and birthright regardless of skills as a soldier and his devotion to the king. A soldier who seeks only to find further glory for Spain, his determination is neither praised, nor rewarded, forever known only as 'The Bastard.' As a result, he struggles with his faith in his God, his King, and the fundamental values upon which his entire life has been founded.

Christopher Plummer and Robert Shaw

Second, only in appearance on screen, is the captured Inca God King Atahualpa. An alternately regal and demented figure, he is the bastard son of the previous king, and murdered his brother and taken the crown. Although born of human parents, he believes without question that his True Father is the Sun and his mother the Moon. Portraying this undisguised Christ-like character is a young and sexy Christopher Plummer, who lends what at first seems to be madness to the role, but for those who follow him through the tale find a brilliance missed by many. Plummer's antics are at first amusing and bizarre, but like Francisco by Atahualpa, you are drawn in. The Inca God King is not an idiot, although the ignorant and boastful Spaniards would assume him to be, and through his foolishness he causes dissent amongst the leaders. Although history writes Atahualpa as the loser of the war, his people captured and killed, his lands seized, Atahualpa himself was always and died a God.

Another figure plays into this tale. His is a smaller role, a character used almost as a trophy to be won between the General and the God King. A youth of the court named Martin is hungry for adventure and glory and in Francisco he sees a hero to follow, from whom to learn. Although he is a student, he is enamored with the life and glory of 'The Soldier', just as young men today are eager to be an "Army of One." Martin is played by Leonard Whiting, a passionate young actor of the time, whom anyone attending high school before 1996 will likely recognize from Franco Zeffirelli's 1968 Classic film rendition of Romeo and Juliet. Martin's character grows significantly throughout the story, and learns to see past the flash and glamor of BOTH men's lies...those they tell themselves and those they subscribe to. He comes to make his own decisions, like a man, and ceases to be a child.

I was told once by a professor that in every story there is the Confident Man, the Uncertain Man, and the Innocent (or Impressionable) Man. The titles are rather loosely defined, but in this story the characters are clear. Each of these different archetypes exists to show a different outcome to the same basic concept, which in this film is truly: Man vs Self.

One thing many of my non-cineaste friends have difficulty with when watching older films is the more theatrical aspects. The extremes of the visually saturated colors or that its black and white, the bigger soundtracks, the less realistic "much too pretty" costumes, and the somewhat melodramatic acting. So many are turned off by what seems very much like over-acting to us now-- I say this wryly as I imagine Al Pacino ranting about a woman's ass. The medium/art has changed over the decades. Our tastes in dramas and certainly historical dramas now leans far more toward the gritty, dirty, perceptions of realism. Sometimes, I think, however, that we believe now that it is only realistic if it is unpleasant to look at. This isn't always true. Sometimes unpleasant is just unpleasant.

Atahualpa hears the word of God

Francisco: (to Atahualpa) So you believe if you die, when the morning sun touches you, you will live again?
A man dying then coming back from the dead is impossible, sir! It's impossible!
Francisco: What does your scripture say, boy?
Martin: But it's impossible!
Francisco: What does it say?! Christ was crucified and--
Martin: --and he did die and was buried. And upon the third day he arose from the dead. But it's impossible!
Francisco: So you say you do not believe your Christ story?
Martin: Yes! Of course I do! But....
Francisco: But it's impossible...
(note: transcribed from memory...may not be exact.)

Royal Hunt for the Sun details an engaging story of three men as Peter Schaffer imagined them to be when history converged upon the Inca. At this moment a man unwavering in his belief in the Sun was faced by those who would break him, their own faith in the Son coming into question instead. It isn't a man's beliefs that define who he is, but rather his strength of conviction when those beliefs are challenged. There is power in many things. Kings neither have nor make power, Atahualpa teaches them. Power is what makes and embodies a King. Only a God can possess power. To have faith in such things makes a man great, but no one can know the solidity of that faith but the man and God. What then is the cost to prove it?

Atahualpe faces the Garrote, Death by Strangling

1 comment:

Sara said...

Hubba Hubba Christopher Plummer, wow... I have seen the play a number of times (amateur theater). My mother played the wife of Atahualpa. No lines, she just had to stand around scantily clad in body paint. I was between the ages 5 - 8. I do remember the story though and can even recall some of the staging.

I may have to check out the movie. :)