Films and Archaeology (IV): The Flying Serpent (1946)

I was eager to do another review on an old classic archaeology film and realized, perhaps too late for the time I have been in business, that it is very difficult to write this section of the blog without a mummy. Poster_of_the_movie_'The_Flying_Serpent'This has sparked my curiosity and I promise that sometime in the future I will do some stats on this, but in the meantime let me take advantage of my Southwest homesickness and review a film that takes place in New Mexico.

The Flying Serpent is a 1946 horror film (hence the muppet) directed by Sam Newfield, and starring by George Zucco, Ralph Lewis, Hope Kramer, and Eddie Acuff. The names may not be familiar to you, but I am sure if you like old films you will recognize the evil scientist George Zucco as the Moriarty of the excellent The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939), opposite Basil Rathbone, and several thriller and horror films such as The Cat and the Canary (1939), The Mummy’s Hand (1940), The Mummy’s Tomb (1942), The Mummy’s Ghost (1944) or Tarzan and the Mermaids (1948). A star of the genre.

The action takes place in San Juan, New Mexico, and the nearby Aztec Ruins where an evil archaeologist (we are not the good ones in this one, for a change) hides for himself the lost treasure of Montezuma and kills anybody getting close to it by controlling a Quetzalcoatl. It may be a surprise to many of you not used to the archaeology of the Southwest region of the United States to find the reference to an Aztec site in NM. There is a city called Aztec in the area and even a National Monument (where the treasure is hidden) call Aztec Ruins… It just happens it has nothing to do with the Aztecs (I prefer Mexicas). This otherwise real archaeological site is an Ancestral Puebloan site dated between the 11th and the 13th c. that, following the infamous tradition of not recognizing the culture of the native Americans by white settlers, was assigned to the Aztecs. The name was not enough for the producers to link the site with the Mexica culture, so you can see fake Mesoamerican pyramids in the background of many scenes taking place in the site.

Aztec_Ruins_National_Monument_by_RO
Ancient Puebloan structures of Aztec Ruins National Monument.

 

The Feathered Serpent was a prominent supernatural entity or deity in many Mesoamerican religions. It was called Quetzalcoatl by the Mexica, Kukulkan by the Yucatec Maya, and Q’uq’umatz and Tohil by the K’iche’ Maya. We find representations of this serpent in the Olmec culture (c. 1400-400 BCE) and Teotihuacan, where we find the Temple of the Feathered Serpent (dated 150–200 CE). The Mexica Quetzalcoatl was the deity of wind and rain, bringer of knowledge, the inventor of books, and associated with the planet Venus. Although blood rites of different kinds were practised among Mesoamerican cultures, all this vampire-like background story has nothing to do, with the best of my knowledge, with the cult of this god.

The film still has this flavour of the pulp stories of the interwar period, and although it is not one of the best films of the genre, but it is an entertaining way of expending a Sunday afternoon. If you have 58 minutes to spare and need to take a break, watch this struggle of intellect among archaeologists, ornithologists, journalists, and of course the local sheriff. If you want to keep your own copy, there is a file at archive.org waiting for you.

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