Not too long back, I got to see the Christopher Plummer starrer The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969), an unusual and sensitive take on the European conquest of the Americas. When I heard about this film, also based on the same subject—and starring the delicious Tyrone Power, to boot (how on earth did I leave him out of my eye candy list?!): well, I had to see it.
The film begins in sunny Spain, in Jaen, where a young caballero, Pedro de Vargas (Tyrone Power) offers to help search for a runaway slave. The man who owns the slave is Diego de Silva (John Sutton), who’s livid at the escape of his property, and is in pursuit with hounds and huntsmen. Pedro suggests the group split up—de Silva and his men one way, Pedro on his own the other way—and when de Silva agrees, Pedro sets off on his own.
He has a brief encounter with a passing girl, Catana Perez (Jean Peters, in her debut role). Catana works at an inn and is on her way to wash a bundle of laundry, which Pedro searches through to check if she’s taking food to the escaped slave. She isn’t, so Pedro lets her go and continues on his quest. While he’s drinking water at a small pool, he meets the slave, who sneaks up on him and tries to kill him before both men recognise each other as old acquaintances. The slave, it turns out, is an Indian (as in native of Central/South America) called Coatl (Jay Silverheels).
Coatl is an old friend of Pedro’s, so Pedro gives him some money and helps him escape. Pedro himself rides back towards town, and on the way comes across Catana again—she’s now being harassed by two of de Silva’s men, who have let their dogs loose on Catana’s laundry. They’ve ripped a tablecloth to shreds, and Catana is scared that the innkeeper will have her hide for it. Pedro rescues her—he chases the dogs away, then lets fly at the men—and offers her a lift back to the inn.
At the inn, Pedro meets another interesting character, Juan Garcia (Lee J Cobb). Juan has just returned from the Indies and is flush with gold, which he scatters about fairly freely. The Indies are the place to be, he tells Pedro. That’s where the money is, that’s where a man can be what he wants to be.
Pedro is impressed, but not sold on the idea: it’s fine for people who need wealth and stature and a place in the world. He doesn’t need any of that; he’s got it all.
So, after bidding Juan farewell, Pedro goes back home to his parents and younger sister. The family is sitting at the dining table when they get an unexpected visitor: de Silva. He’s discovered that Pedro helped Coatl escape, and he’s very annoyed at being thus thwarted.
He tries to complain to Pedro’s father, Don Francisco de Vargas (Antonio Moreno), but the older de Vargas refuses to cower—not even when de Silva reveals that he is a powerful official in the Spanish Inquisition and can level charges of heresy against Pedro. The meeting ends in acrimony and overt threats on the part of de Silva.
Later that evening, Pedro goes to meet his lady love. This is an insipid beauty named Luisa de Carvajal (Barbara Lawrence), who demurely sits in the garden and talks to Pedro in the forbidding presence of her duenna. When it is time for Pedro to leave, Luisa, on his begging her to do so, gives him her lace handkerchief so that he might have a keepsake until he meets her the next evening—with her duenna’s permission, of course. Pedro is obviously quite besotted with the girl.
On his way home—still clutching Luisa’s handkerchief and exulting in his possession of it—Pedro is brought down to earth with a bang. Catana, along with her brother, stops Pedro in a dark alley and warns him not to go home, because de Silva has set a trap for Pedro at the de Vargas villa. Pedro’s parents and his sister have already been arrested on a charge of heresy.
Pedro tries to get help from an old friend of Francisco de Vargas’, but to no avail; he ends up in prison too, and is finally hauled up along with his parents and sister before de Silva. De Silva tries to bully the de Vargases into owning up to heresy, but they stand firm. Then he tries another tack: he has Pedro’s sister taken into a separate room to be tortured. Pedro and his mother plead desperately with de Silva, but he doesn’t recant, and before they know it, the girl dies.
Pedro and his parents are taken back to their respective cells, and later that evening, Pedro receives a surprise visitor: Juan, the man returned from the Indies. Juan’s mother too has been incarcerated in the prison and is to be burnt at the post, so Juan’s killed her to save her that fate. Juan gives Pedro a sword and promises to come later that night to get him and his parents out.
The sword Juan had left behind with Pedro comes in use: that night, the evil de Silva comes to Pedro’s cell. There’s a duel (what do you expect in a Tyrone Power film?! He’s fantastic, as ever) and Pedro stabs de Silva in the chest before escaping. Pedro thinks he’s killed de Silva, but the man is only wounded.
What follows is a hell-for-leather chase across the countryside, on horseback, along with Catana, Juan, and a man whom Catana’s hired as a guide—she’s promised him herself in exchange, even though she is secretly in love with Pedro. Pedro doesn’t have the vaguest notion about Catana’s feelings for him, and is too busy ensuring that his parents get safely to Italy.
With de Silva’s men on their heels, Pedro decides that the way to succeed is to part ways: while his parents ride off with the guide and Catana towards Italy, he and Juan will create a diversion by drawing off de Silva’s men. It works, Pedro’s parents escape, and Catana manages to stay back and get taken up by Pedro on his saddle. (Naturally. If I had the chance to choose between Italy with two old fogies and a lecher on the one hand, and Tyrone Power on the other, I know which I’d pick).
Juan, Pedro and Catana decide that the New World is for them, and so they go off, washing up next in Havana, where Pedro runs into an old friend of his father’s: Hernan Cortez (Cesar Romero, looking very impressive). Cortez is recruiting men to take with him to the continent looming ahead, and both Pedro and Juan sign up. As does Catana, who’s too much in love with the still oblivious Pedro to stay behind.
Next, Cortez’s army arrives in what is present-day Mexico. Cortez is helped by a beautiful interpreter, Marina (Estela Inda), who translates for him every time the local Aztec chiefs come with valuable presents—gold, gems, and more—begging Cortez to turn back, rather than go on to meet the ruler, Moctezuma. But Cortez is determined, and greedy: this is just the gold; he won’t be satisfied with anything less than the mine from which the gold came. And that mine is Moctezuma.
So they plod on, making their way across Mexico, with Catana trying desperately to attract Pedro’s attention:
And mutiny brewing amidst a section of Cortez’s captains, who’ve realised they don’t want to go any further against the wishes of the Governor of Cuba—who hadn’t sanctioned any of this.
Where will it end? On a larger scale, and on a more personal level for Pedro and Catana and Juan?
What I liked about this film:
The grandeur of it all. They shot most of the film—or at least the parts set in Mexico—in Mexico itself, as often as possible at the location mentioned in Samuel Shellabarger’s novel on which the film was based. The costumes, the sets, the scenery: all of it is splendid, as is Alfred Newman’s Oscar-nominated score. And the climax of the film, shot against the backdrop of a volcano with plumes of dark smoke drifting up from it, is nothing short of awesome.
Tyrone Power. Mmm.
What I didn’t like:
The end, which left me feeling very unsatisfied; it came abruptly and made me wish there’d been more.
I am, finally, not sure I liked Captain from Castile much. Yes, it’s entertaining. It looks great, and there’s some good action in places—sudden twists in the story, lots of fighting and surprises, even a pretty erotic dance—but there’s something missing. Perhaps it’s the fact that there are too many important stories going on simultaneously: Cortez’s single-minded pursuit of wealth in the Americas, the mutiny festering among his men, the despair of the native people, and (of course) Catana and Pedro’s relationship. All are great stories, and deserved more than the cursory treatment they get because of being crowded into the same film. Unfortunately, Henry King (the director) concentrates on visual magnificence and substantial doses of adventure, but that’s about it.
If you want to watch a good film about the impact of the Europeans on the native Americans, watch The Royal Hunt of the Sun. If you want romance and adventure (and mingled together perfectly, too) see either of Power’s two brilliantly entertaining swashbucklers, The Mark of Zorro and The Black Swan. If you want to see an erupting volcano, watch the National Geographic channel. But Captain from Castile? Maybe not.