Sunday, January 25, 2009

Plunder of the Sun

Plunder of the Sun posterPlunder of the Sun (1953), based on the novel by David Dodge (To Catch a Thief), begins in Havana, Cuba, where tough-talking Al Colby (Glenn Ford) has run out of money and awaits a cheque in the mail so he can pay his mounting hotel and bar bills. One afternoon he is approached by a beautiful young woman, Ana Luz, who leads him to the home of a self-described “antiquarian”, an old wheelchair-ridden man named Thomas Berrien. Berrien has a proposition for Colby: Colby must transport a small package by ship to Oaxaca, Mexico and he will receive $1000 as payment. Berrien and Ana Luz will also be on the ship. Colby is very suspicious, but he needs the money, so he agrees.

On the voyage, Berrien dies of mysterious causes. Suddenly, a variety of characters are pursuing Colby for the package, which he discovers contains three pages of an ancient Zapotec treasure map and a small jade carving. One of these characters is Ana Luz, who wants to give the manuscript to an aristocratic Mexican treasure-hunter and her adopted father, Ulbaldo Navarro. Another is the mysterious Jefferson, a ruthless blonde Irishmen who will not hesitate to resort to violent measures to get the manuscript. There is also the troubled American party-girl Diana Lynn, who throws herself at Colby and manipulates whatever situation she finds. Once in Oaxaca, Colby dedicates himself to learning more about the Zapotecs and the treasure to which the mysterious manuscript potentially holds the key. He visits the ancient Zapotec ruins of Monte Albán and decides that the map may really lead to treasure. He creates a hidden code for the manuscript and takes the code to Navarro, asking him to translate the individual words without giving him their order so that he can keep the document’s meaning a secret. Meanwhile, the sinister Jefferson makes a few failed attempts at stealing the manuscript from Colby; eventually he tries another approach and asks Colby to form a partnership with him so that they can find the treasure together and split the spoils.

Once Navarro has translated the words of the manuscript from ancient Zapotec and Colby and Jefferson have put them together, they employ the help of a local Mexican and his burros and go to the ruins at night to find the treasure, which according to the manuscript contains valuable gold, silver, and jade. Following the map, they find the treasure in the wall of the high-priest’s temple. When they have just about finished packing it up on the donkeys, Jefferson shoots Colby and leaves him for dead in the ruins, taking all the treasure. When Colby awakes from his unconsciousness, he is in Navarro’s house being nursed back to health by Ana Luz, Diana Lynn, and Navarro himself. They found the near-dead Colby at the ruins and now need his help to find Jefferson and the missing treasure. Navarro wants these precious artifacts to be put in a Mexican museum, where they can be studied. Colby and Ana Luz, on a hunch, find Jefferson hiding with the treasure in the Zapotec museum’s storehouse in Oaxaca. After a rough fight and shootout, Jefferson is crushed by a huge Zapotec head, and Colby and Ana Luz recover the treasure. Colby is rewarded $25,000 for finding the treasure by the Mexican government. He and Ana Luz leave Oaxaca together to live it up in Havana.

All of the characters in the film are morally ambiguous, including our protagonist Al Colby. Is Al really willing to rob Mexico of its priceless cultural heritage for his own money troubles to be solved? The film emphasizes the fact that the Zapotec treasure rightfully belongs in the hands of the Mexican government, and that it is wrong for a couple of gringos to steal it for their own gain. The film was shot on location in Oaxaca and Monte Alban, and the colourful (even for a black and white film!) streets of Oaxaca as well as the sweeping, impressive shots of the Zapotec ruins, show a romantic and beautiful side to Mexico. The Mexican characters are diverse and well-integrated in the film: from the aristocratic and courteous Navarro, or the beautiful and kind Ana Luz, to the rough and disgusting Mexican who is Jefferson’s henchman. They treat the gringos with wary respect, evidently aware that some of the tougher ones will use and exploit their country for their own success.

In Havana and Oaxaca, the loner Colby finds his niche: it’s a tougher world, a hotter and more exotic world than his own, but he is just fine hunting for treasure, beating up bad guys, and winning the heart of the innocent local woman. Latin American culture allows him to flourish, to succeed, and to be free. It’s an adventurous, exciting world, and perfect for a fast-paced treasure hunt.

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