Originally written for the stage by Peter Shaffer, this story tells the tale of the Spanish led by Francisco Pizarro and the capture of the Incan empire leading to the subsequent imprisonment of their chief Atahuallpa.
In 1965 on Broadway, Christopher Plummer played the role of Pizarro and David Carradine the native leader. For this film adaptation Plummer switched parts taking on the role of the Inca chief. Robert Shaw was cast as Pizarro.
The film begins in 1528 with Shaw pleading his case before the Spanish King played by James Donald for his blessing on a third journey across the ocean in search of gold. Upon receiving it Shaw begins his journey with Nigel Davenport as his second in command and the guidance of the church represented by priest Andrew Keir. They’ll travel across oceans, snow capped peaks and deserts to reach the city of the Incas.
Upon the arrival of Plummer and his army the film is quite colorful with the costume designs and the great parade of men leading their king into the Incas city courtyard. Sadly it comes off as a bit of high camp when Keir attempts to convince Plummer of the power of the Bible and his God. The somewhat campy scene will take a somber tone soon enough.
With murder and greed in their hearts, Shaw and his men with the blessing of priest Keir begin the slaughter of Plummer’s army. Soon the man considered a God by his people will be surrounded by their corpses.
While the first third of the film had hopes of being a grandeur epic production, it is often betrayed by perhaps budget and the look of a latter day Sword and Sandal quickie from Italy. Once it settles itself into a verbal sparring over ethics and right and wrong it plays much better for the final half.
“Gold is the sweat of the sun.” says Plummer’s King. Should he fill a large chamber with the prized ore he will be set free. Shaw gives his word. It’s a statement that will set the tone and the inner conflict that will torture Shaw’s character for the remainder of the film.
As an actor I would imagine this was a rewarding role for Shaw as he comes to grips with his admiring Plummer’s leader and finding they are somewhat alike. He verbally fences with Keir’s representation of the church and the Spanish Courts’ representative who both want him to put Plummer to death and lead his army to safety once the gold has been turned over as pledged and finally melted down.
Shaw is caught between his duties and his conscience which are represented by supporting actor Davenport and his young charge Leonard Whiting.
The film only has one viable ending and it’s all rather sad.
While Robert Shaw looks nothing like a Spaniard I do like him in this role in the latter half of the film when his character and the inner demons plaguing him begin to take over. It’s Plummer who has the role that rides the line to easily towards high camp and comes off less than first rate. To be kind, I’m not sure if the role lends itself all that well to film versus the stage. Having not seen it performed I can’t say for sure.
With the subject material and the underused location shoot in Peru it’s hard not to think what Werner Herzog might have done with the material over the first half of the film. Take some of the imagery he gave us with Aguirre and splice it in would have made for a much more harrowing and realistic journey for the treasures Shaw and his men seek.
I hadn’t seen this film since I was quite young so it was like seeing it for the first time other than a few recollections. The one thing I do recall is my reasoning for staying up late at a young age to see it the first time. The TV Guide stated that it starred Robert Shaw. That represented the Jaws connection. I needed to see anything that had Captain Quint in it as that character and the actor who played him were and still are in my consciousness to this day.