Review and Analysis of Secret of the Incas by Nicholas E. Limansky
From Yma Sumac - The Art Behind the Legend
used with permission - all rights reserved, © Nicholas E. Limansky
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Harry Steele: Charlton Heston
Dr. Stanley Moorehead: Robert Young
Elena Antonescu: Nicole Maurey
Kori-Tika: Yma Sumac
Ed Morgan: Thomas Mitchell
Mrs. Winston: Glenda Farrell
In a thumbnail sketch, the plot centers around the (appropriately named) character of Harry Steele played by Charlton Heston. Steele is an adventurer who attempts to steal a sacred gold sunburst found in a newly discovered tomb of an ancient Incan priestess in the ruins of Machu-Picchu. During the course of the movie, he relents and returns the treasure to the native Peruvians and winds up with Nicole Maurey, (Elena) while Yma, standing atop Machu-Picchu wails at the top of her lungs, rejoicing in ecstasy that the treasure has been returned to her people.
In Yma's short scenes, which suggest that even Hollywood was at a loss with what to do with her, she portrays Kori-Tika, formerly a member of the village of "Machu-Picchu", but now, after formal education in America, an exotic lab assistant to Dr. Moorehead (Robert Young). Moorehead is the archeologist responsible for unearthing the tomb of the "Mama K'una" - once high priestess of the ancient city. Kori-Tika is, naturally, well versed in Incan folklore and just happens to be able to sing the obscure, forgotten ancient chants with her beautiful (and phenomenal) four-octave voice. A fact that goes completely unnoticed by the other characters - who listen nonchalantly as Yma sails through her multi-octave voice during the movie's songs. Yma's three musical numbers, "Taita Inty" (Hymn to the Sun), "Ataypura" (High Andes), and "Tumpa!" (Earthquake!) - which is often cut from the movie today due to editing - were choreographed while the singer lip-synced (rather poorly) her previous 1950 Capitol recordings. The most interesting and artistically inventive scene is the "Taita Inty" sequence which shows Yma in authentic Peruvian festive dress, kneeling in homage before an effigy of the Mama K'una, offering an overflowing bowl of fruit as she sings the opening, high, chant-like phrases. As the music builds, Yma launches into various dramatic gestures (like those she used in concert performances of the piece) which fit in nicely with the mood created by the music. The "Tumpa!" sequence is also fascinating because it shows authentic Peruvian dances as well as shots of the accompanying musicians (including Moises and Hernan) while Yma trills and dances her way through the number. (One sweeping, bowling gesture is distinctly odd.)
Yma's finest work, however, takes place in a non-singing scene. It is when Elena (Nicole aurey) visits Dr. Moorehead (Robert Young) in his laboratory. He is working on the tomb findings with Kori-Tika (Yma) and Elena has come to him to have him sterilize a wound she had just received from a slight fall.
After introducing Elena to a silent, disapproving and stone-faced Kori-Tika, Moorehead begins to examine the wound. He is obviously quite taken with the beautiful Elena, just as it is obvious that Kori-Tika is not. When he asks Kori-Tika for some disinfectant, she replies stoically, "Iodine? Lots of Iodine!" "No", he replies, "something gentle." "No Iodine?" asks Kori-Tika, obviously disappointed. She leaves to get the medication. She returns, silently hands a bottle to Moorehead and stands by, watching expressionlessly as he applies it to Elena's wound. "Oh!" cries out Elena in obvious pain as Kori-Tika, with a triumphant smirk, states emphatically; "Iodine!"
The Washington Post wrote that the soundtrack was able to "pick up some of (Sumac's) notorious thrusts at the sound barrier," while the Christian Science Monitor commented, "One striking figure emerges, that of Yma Sumac, the Peruvian singer...both the upper and lower reaches (of her voice) are exploited here, along with her darkly dramatic appearance."
The New York Times reviewed the film on May 29, 1954m noting:
"...(Secret of the Incas) is basically interesting because of its authentic and truly colorful locales...
"But it is the location camera work of Irmin Roberts that is the film's highlight. The towering Andes; the actual ruins of Macchu Picchu, the Inca city rediscovered some forty years ago; the hundreds of Indians in exotic costumes and headgear who were filmed in ceremonial dances and wending their way up the lush mountains, and the spectacular singing of Yma Sumac, whose multi-octave range runs the gamut from baritone to coloratura keening, are visual and aural treats."
Within a few years of the movie's release, however, "Secret of the Incas" ran as a grade B movie. Now usually shown on late-night television the colorful background of Peru and the incredible ruins of Machu-Picchu still make it worth the effort to stay up and see.
Around the time of the movie's release, comedian, Imogene Coca did her now famous impression of Yma singing "Lament" on the Show of Shows television Show. Done in good natured fun, Coca mimicked Yma with startling clarity while dressed in her own version of "Virgin of the Sun God" robes.
The Yma Sumac company completed the English phase of their tour with a performance in Liverpool, after which they took a ferry to Ireland. Concerts were given in Dublin (at the famous Royal Theater), Galway, Waterford, and the European tour was completed with a gala concert in Cork.
Webmaster's Note: although theatrical posters such as the one above show Yma Sumac and the others in a dramatic flight from scores of angry natives, this scene was not a part of the film's story
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