Reviewed by JONATHAN LEWIS:
DAVID DODGE – Plunder of the Sun. Random House, hardcover, 1949. Paperback reprints: Dell #478, 1951, mapback edition; Hard Case Crime, 2005.
PLUNDER OF THE SUN. Warner Brothers, 1953. Glenn Ford (Al Colby), Diana Lynn, Patricia Medina, Francis L. Sullivan, Sean McClory. Screenplay: Jonathan Latimer, based on the book by David Dodge. Director: John Farrow.
Sometimes, it’s a whole lot of fun to plunge into an adventure story, replete with intrigue, shady characters, and historical references to ancient civilizations. And gold. Sadly, stories with plots focusing on the search for treasure in exotic locales are not written very much anymore. Perhaps they are considered passé; perhaps there just aren’t enough contemporary readers for these yarns.
But if this type of fictional adventure does happen appeal to you, you really can’t go wrong with Plunder of the Sun. Written by David Dodge, author of To Catch a Thief, the story follows the South American treasure seeking adventures of American expatriate Al Colby, our first person narrator. It’s both a fun little suspense tale and an introductory course in Peruvian geography and history.
The book’s opening places the reader right into the heart of the action. The story’s narrator, Al Colby, is in Santiago, Chile, where he meets up with Alfredo Berrien, a sickly man in a wheelchair, and his nurse, Ana Luz. Berrien has a proposition for Colby. He wants him to transport a small package on board a ship heading from Valparaíso, Chile to Callao, the Peruvian seaport. Once there, Colby is supposed to return the package to Berrien and to get paid.
As you might imagine, things don’t go quite as planned. After a series of potentially sinister characters show up on board the ship, Berrien is found dead in his cabin. Naturally, Colby becomes curious as to what’s in the package. Turns out it contains parchment fragments that tell, you guessed it, of buried treasure.
The rest of the novel follows Colby in his quest to decipher the manuscript and to deal with a scheming man from the boat named Jeff. He also runs across Naharro, a Peruvian expert in antiquities, and his son, Raul. There’s also Julie, who was originally also on the boat and manages to be around at both the wrong and right times. There’s plenty of scheming afoot, a deal made, and a double cross. Plus Colby may or may not have feelings for Ana Luz.
Al Colby’s an interesting character, but the real star of the show is Peru. Dodge clearly knew the country well. His descriptions of the places, the people, and the culture all give Plunder of the Sun an authenticity that many other adventure tales from the era lack. There are numerous references to Incan history, particularly the Spanish conquest of Peru. The work is also filled with what I presume to be Peruvian-dialect Spanish.
Given how central Peru is to the book’s plot, I was skeptical when I learned that the film adaptation, directed by John Farrow, was set in Oaxaca. I expected just another adventure film set in Mexico. I was both pleasantly surprised and somewhat disappointed.
There is no doubt that Glenn Ford was well cast as Al Colby. He’s a good actor and he plays the role convincingly. Likewise, Patricia Medina portrays Ana Luz well. Sean McClory portrays the villain, Jeff, as Jefferson, a serpentine creep who slithers his way in and out of Colby’s presence.
Setting the film in Oaxaca rather than in Peru allowed the filmmakers to shoot on location. Turns out that was a great decision. There are some amazing visuals in the film, managing to give the viewer a glimpse into the ruins without making the film seem like a documentary.
And although it’s not a film noir, at times Plunder of the Sun does feel like one. There’s a claustrophobic aspect to the film, particularly in the first half. This is notably the case when Colby (Ford) first meets the wheelchair bound Berrien (Francis L. Sullivan). One wishes that Sullivan’s character didn’t have to die so quickly, for he seemed to be one of the more intriguing personalities in the story.
The problem is this. After a great setup, the story just kind of plods along, notably during the second half of the film. Colby and Jefferson fight, they make up, they fight again. It all just gets a bit tedious. Indeed, without the on-location setting, the film really wouldn’t be particularly interesting.
As it is, the book tells a much more fascinating story than the movie manages to tell. The film adaptation of Dodge’s work, despite a screenplay by veteran mystery writer Jonathan Latimer, somehow comes across as being both rushed and somewhat dull, turning what could have been a very good movie into a slightly above average adventure film. The film tells Colby’s story in what are supposed to be flashbacks or reminiscences. It’s a narrative technique that doesn’t quite work in this context, giving the movie less a sense of immediacy than the book.
In conclusion, David Dodge’s Plunder of the Sun is a fun, engaging read. It’s steeped in Peruvian geography and history, with well-developed characters, and enough mystery and intrigue to keep one guessing as to what is going to happen next.
While the film version isn’t bad, it does come across as something of a missed opportunity. The Oaxaca scenery does, however, almost makes up for the fact that the screenplay isn’t as strong as it could have been. Almost.