I thought I should dig through the collection for a Mayan-themed film to watch, what with the Mayan apocalypse approaching and all. I only turned up one: The Captive God (1916).
In pre-conquest Mexico, a young Spanish child is the only survivor of a shipwreck and is found washed ashore by the Maya. They call him Chiapa (or Tonga in my print, in some other prints he’s called Chiapato – William S. Hart) and regard him almost as a god.
The Aztecs are at war with the Maya. During a raid, the commander of the Aztec army (P. Dempsey Tabler) captures several Mayas, presumably for sacrifice. Chiapa follows them back to their capital, but is spotted and shot by an Aztec archer.
Meanwhile, the victorious commander, Mexitli (or Matho), has an audience with Montezuma (Robert McKim). Montezuma, greatly pleased with the results of the raid, says that whatever Mexitli wants will be immediately given to him. Mexitli asks for the hand of Montezuma’s daughter, Princess Lolomi (or Tacki – Enid Markey), in marriage.
Lolomi “would rather die than marry that man”, she says, as she storms off into the palace garden. There, she discovers the wounded Chiapa. Lolomi takes pity on him and hides him in an out of the way house. Mexitli follows Ohanita, Lolomi’s maid, as she’s bringing food and discovers Lolomi and Chiapa together. In a jealous rage, he rushes in and would kill Chiapa, but to spare him – at least, temporarily – Lolomi reveals that he’s a captive Maya and, as such, his fate lies solely in the hands of Montezuma.
Chiapa is taken before Montezuma and is, unsurprising, sentenced to be sacrificed. To add insult to injury, he’s to be sacrificed at Lolomi and Mexitli’s wedding. Lolomi bribes the prison guard to see him one last time shortly before his execution. Chiapa takes the cross from around his neck (…that he was evidently found wearing after the shipwreck) and tells her that, if it could somehow be got back to the Maya, they would know the Aztecs held him captive. Lolomi gives it to Cassio, Ohanita’s husband, who rushes away with it.
Now is the point you should stop reading if you don’t want the ending spoiled, but given how difficult it is to obtain copies of this film, I’ll finish the story:
Chiapa is led up the pyramid and stretched across the altar. Just as the priest lifts the dagger in the air, a horde of Maya warriors come streaming over the hillside and generally bust up the ceremony. In the confusion, Chiapa grabs the dagger from the priest and runs down the pyramid and into the palace. He finds Lolomi, cowering from Mexitli, and “the two rivals” duke it out. After a brief but spirited struggle, Chiapa succeeds in flinging Mexitli from the window to his death. He sweeps Lolomi up off her feet and goes to join the Maya invaders, who receive him jubilantly. The film ends with the Maya marching away in triumph “to give praise to their sacred gods, guarded in their granite temples”.
Hart didn’t mince words when it came to this picture. He thought it was by far the worst film he’d ever appeared in. And it does show in his performance. Hart was never one to emote – indeed, his whole gimmick was his unchanging, ambiguous expression that at once could be read as tender or as threatening depending on the context of the scene – but it’s evident how much he despises the role and how little effort he’s putting into it. Markey and Tabler give it their all, but while I wouldn’t go as far as Hart, I will agree that there isn’t much depth to any of the characters and even the enthusiastic actors had their work cut out for them.
The costumes are great and even look vaguely authentic. Chiapa has a recognizably jaguar warrior look going for him. Montezuma’s dress is clearly modeled on how he was depicted in the Codex Mendoza. I can’t say much for the rank-and-file, who mostly just wore short shorts and little else, but all in all, I was impressed.
The sets are decent, but suffer from their small scale. The pyramid, for example, exists only as a section of steps and as the altar at the top. You never see a shot of the whole thing at once. All of the palace scenes appear to be filmed in different corners of the same room, and the garden is literally just a wall with a few plants in front of it. Still, by Kay-Bee standards, they’re well-dressed and suit the story.
I’m going to disagree with Hart in my assessment. The Captive God is far from a masterpiece and is a bit frustrating because you get the feeling that, with a little more time spent fleshing out the story, and with a little more money and effort put into the production, it could have been a very good film. But even as it is, I still enjoyed it and would recommend seeing it. It’s something different from Hart’s usual fare.
My rating: I like it.