For a kid in the 1970s, Mormon-themed media was pretty scarce. So I was nothing less than astounded one Saturday afternoon to turn on the TV and discover a movie about the Nephites and Lamanites!
Of course, they weren’t called by those names, but they fit the images perfectly. There was a group of “whiter,” more civilized Indians — new settlers in the land — who were building a city centered on a temple/pyramid (the Nephites). Outside their walls lurked a group of traditional Hollywood Indians, loincloth-clad and living in teepees (the Lamanites).
Even better, the Lamanite chief was none other than Yul Brynner. In my family, Brynner held an essentially canonical role in Cecil B. DeMille’s scriptural epic The Ten Commandments.
Although I only caught the movie already in progress, it left an indelible image in my mind: there was a Book of Mormon movie starring Yul Brynner! But I never knew its name and I never saw it again…until now. Although tracking down the mystery had previously been too difficult a chore, when I remembered it again more recently, technological advance had reduced the effort to nothing. A brief glance at Yul Brynner’s IMDB entry revealed the movie’s name: Kings of the Sun.
I’ve now watched Kings of the Sun through with adult eyes and I thought I’d share a brief summary and my reflections.
The story is not just a dichotomy (Nephites vs. Lamanites), it’s actually a political ménage a trios. The “Nephites” are supposed to be the Mayans of Chichen Itza. The Lamanites are Indians of an unnamed tribe. But there is also a group of unnamed invaders with “metal weapons” — presumably meant to be the Toltecs — who thoroughly overpower the Mayans.
Hunac Ceel, king of the Toltec invaders, scales the pyramid at Chichen Itza and kills most of the Mayans. The old Mayan king dies, but his dashing young son, prince Balam, succeeds as king. Balam is played by West Side Story’s George Chakiris. He’s distinguished by his personal distaste for human sacrifice, his Fabianesque doo, his midriff-bearing fashion sense, and his unavoidable chin dimple.
Fortunately the pyramid at Chichen Itza possesses not only a large secret basement, but also a very effective back door, allowing Balam and his people to make their escape. They plan to flee by boat to the north and they come to a fishing village.
In exchange for their boats, the elder of the fishing village successfully arranges to have Balam vow to marry his lovely daughter, Ixchel (played by Shirley Anne Field).
After crossing the Gulf of Mexico in their fishing fleet, the Mayan exiles come ashore and begin to build their new city. En route, the village elder has died and Ixchel refuses to marry Balam because the betrothal was made under duress. Balam meanwhile, though lovelorn, won’t go to her. “I am a king; I cannot beg.”
The Mayans are immediately observed by the indigenous Indians led by Chief Black Eagle (Yul Brynner), who observes, “strange boats carry strange people.” Black Eagle leads a two-man reconnaissance party. He comes upon Balam, who is outside the walls looking for a place to build irrigation works. The two fight and Black Eagle is about to win when Mayan reinforcements arrive, save their king, and capture the Indian chief.
While tending to Black Eagle in prison, Ixchel falls in love with the gallant chief, creating a love triangle (that mirrors the political triangle). Meanwhile the priests have been itching to sacrifice somebody to their gods and they are very confident offering up Yul Brynner’s beating heart is going to make some god really happy. However, it’s not going to make Ixchel happy (Yul is too dreamy!), it’s not going to make King Balam happy (remember, he’s a sensible guy who thinks the gods are a waste of time!), and it’s obviously not going to make Chief Black Eagle happy.
When the day of the big sacrifice comes, Black Eagle is able to talk King Balam out of it primarily by use of the intense stare of shame. Balam stands up to the priests, the sacrifice is cancelled and Yul is set free — and not a moment too soon because the Indians have come en masse and are surrounding Balam’s new settlement.
Ultimately, they all decide to live in peace and harmony. The Indians even set their teepees up just outside the settlement’s walls. Then everyone lives happily ever after — except wait, we didn’t resolve our love triangle. And, oh yeah, there’s those rotten Toltecs!
Hunac Ceel arrives just in time to spoil everybody’s now peaceful paradise.
Hunac Ceel’s boats carry an invasion fleet that disembarks and immediately attacks everybody. Although the Mayans haven’t dealt with their technological inferiority (if anything their new Indian allies are more primitive than the Mayans), it seems that the lessons of friendship they have learned allow them to slaughter their metal-wielding Toltec foes.
Ultimately it comes down to some exciting king-on-king action as Balam and Hunac Ceel fight it out atop the pyramid. Balam wins (of course), but only after Black Eagle gives him his own weapon at a critical moment… leaving himself defenseless in the face of multiple Toltec attackers.
Mortally wounded, Black Eagle dies, demanding as his dying wish that the Mayans renounce human sacrifice. Meanwhile, with the end of the Toltec threat, Black Eagle’s death also conveniently resolves our love-triangle. Balam and Ixchel (and the Mayans and Indians) are able to live together in peace and harmony for ever and ever — until the pilgrims come to Plymouth “Pyramid” and encounter the technologically advanced Maya-Indian civilization that has taken root in North America… but that story is left to the sequel.
In the end, Kings of the Sun is a fun movie. A cast of hundreds (if not thousands) with attractive costuming and elaborate sets — it’s not the Ten Commandments or Cleopatra, but it certainly beats most old Tarzan movies. Visually, its production design is almost Arnold Fribergesque, which no doubt added to my youthful association of the tale with the Book of Mormon — and ultimately I do think it evokes a picture of the way the Book of Mormon was visualized by Mormons in the 1950/60s, in the same way that the Ten Commandments was a fantastic expression of how people envisioned the Exodus in that era.
One reviewer on Amazon called Kings of the Sun “A Biblical Epic without the Bible.” I thought this comment astutely illustrated how “scriptural” stories can effectively be set outside the traditional limits of scripture.