Representations of Aztec Character and Religion in The Pumaman
The Pumaman, released in 1980, tells the story of how Professor Tony Farms (Walter George Alton) discovers that he is the descendant of the Aztec "God From Other Worlds." The movie opens with a flashback to the God From Other Worlds leaving a gold mask on Earth. "With this mask, I will always be with you!" he intones from his spacecraft. Geography is clearly not the God's strong subject, because even though the opening text clearly states that this is an Aztec legend, the God is leaving the mask at Stonehenge (or an emaciated papier-mâché representation thereof). The God decrees that his son and his son's descendants will be the mask's custodians and they will have the powers of a man-god—a Pumaman. The movie then cuts to the modern day.
Kobras (Donald Pleasence) acquires the mask and wastes no time in establishing his status as the villain; he uses the mask to take over the will of Jane Dobson (Sydne Rome), the woman he hired to decipher the mask's Aztec inscription. (This causes a plaster representation of Jane's head to appear on a shelf.) Since the inscription warns that the mask is under the protection of the Pumaman, Kobras decides that the Pumaman must be killed. He sends his goons around London to throw potential Pumamen out windows.
Vadinho (Miguel Ángel Fuentes), the Aztec high priest, defenestrates Tony before the goons get there to do it themselves, and Tony lands on his feet unharmed. Vadinho runs after him and proclaims, "You are the Pumaman," before vanishing. Kobras decides that throwing prospective Pumamen out of windows is inefficient; instead he sends Jane to confirm Tony's Pumaman status. Jane invites Tony to come to her home that evening. The plan, of course, is that Kobras and his goons will kill Tony while Jane distracts him.
Fortunately for Tony, Vadinho shows up at Jane's house to rescue him from the thugs. While Tony has shown rudimentary puma powers up to this point (he can sense danger (unless the plot requires otherwise) and can see in the dark), he doesn't attain full Pumaman status until he puts on the mystical belt Vadinho provides. Tony is then able to escape by flying. Vadinho explains the Pumaman legend and Tony's other new powers, which include a form of astral and/or physical projection (the movie never makes this clear), the ability to use his hands as claws, and puma-like jumping.
When Tony finds and invades Kobras' mansion, Kobras looks at Tony through the mask, gaining control of him and causing another plaster head to appear on the shelf. Tony escapes, but Kobras takes away his powers and orders him to kill himself. Vadinho helps Tony escape the suicide order by guiding him to use his power to feign death. (This power was not removed because Kobras didn't know it existed.) Kobras is fooled, but Tony has no way of regaining his other powers. Vadinho goes to the mansion with explosives strapped to his body. Kobras looks at Vadinho through the gold mask. Vadinho hands the explosives to a nearby thug then promptly punches said thug in the nose. During the ensuing fight, the plaster head representing Tony falls to the floor. Jane, who has inexplicably fallen in love with Tony, smashes it, and Tony is free to use his powers. Tony "projects" himself to the mansion, jumps around like a moron on a pogo stick while Vadinho fights the henchmen, then goes after Kobras. Tony almost manages to look at Kobras through the mask, but Kobras drops through a trapdoor and escapes by helicopter. Tony pursues him. The helicopter crashes and explodes.
Next we see Vadinho, Tony, and Jane at
Papier-Mâché Henge Stonehenge. The God From Other Worlds arrives in the spaceship to take the mask and Vadinho home to the temple, and the viewer is left to imagine that humankind will be safe as Tony and Jane start working on conceiving the next Pumaman.
The Pumaman was written and directed by Alberto De Martino, whose career was founded on directing movies with titles like The Triumph of Hercules, Holocaust 2000, and Miami Golem (imdb.com). In my mind, this conjures an image of someone whose movies were meant to entertain teenagers at the drive-in, not someone who has a penchant for skilled cinematic storytelling. While I was unable to find any source which explicitly states De Martino's reasons for making The Pumaman, film critic Albert Walker of The Agony Booth speculates that the primary reason was to quickly cash in on the superhero craze generated by the 1978 release of Superman: The Movie (agonybooth.com). Given the presence of a flying superhero and the fact that this superhero's powers are a result of his alien heritage, this seems as plausible an explanation as any. The story may also have been designed to take advantage of the popularity of “ancient astronaut” theories put forth by authors like Erich von Däniken in his 1968 book Chariots of the Gods. These theories speculate that the "gods" of ancient people were actually extraterrestrial in nature, not divine or spiritual (Wojciehowski 30).
Vadinho, the Aztec priest who guides Pumaman in the use of his powers, is the only non-white character in the entire movie. In some ways, Vadinho is a walking stereotype of a Native American. Physically, he's a large muscular man with the sort of face which gets an actor typecast as a bodyguard, henchman, or caveman (and Fuentes' acting résumé does bear this out) (imdb.com). His voice is deep and he speaks slowly, which is common in movie portrayals of male Indian voices (Meek 98). Vadinho is spared the indignity of speaking in broken, non-grammatical English, but his English is not as easy or fluid as that of the American characters around him. Still, since Vadinho is not from an English-speaking region, it would be unfair to characterize his English as stereotypical.
Vadinho has many traits of the “noble savage” and “Indian guide” stock characters. He has a special connection with the gods which the whites around him lack. He does not have an affinity for nature, as noble savage or shaman characters commonly do, but he is still the keeper of secret knowledge (media-awareness.ca). In spite of Vadinho’s insistence that the Pumaman’s power is meant to protect the Aztec people, all of his own wisdom and knowledge are devoted to helping the white Pumaman. Vadinho is the hero’s mentor but is not allowed to be the hero. Vadinho’s death is not required as the end result of his guide work, as it was for the Indian guides created by authors like James Fenimore Cooper, but he is still relegated to a supporting role (Averbach 76).
Vadinho’s actions, however, turn the popular stereotypes on their heads. He is a far more efficient fighter than Tony. Vadinho seems far more intelligent than Tony throughout the movie, and it is Vadinho who is prepared to sacrifice himself to stop Kobras through a suicide bombing. Even so, the movie undercuts the possibility that an Aztec man is the true hero by implying in several ways that Vadinho is not actually human at all, but is instead one of the Gods From Other Worlds. At one point, Vadinho says that Tony is the worst Pumaman he has ever seen. Vadinho and Tony appear to be approximately the same age, so if the Pumaman role is strictly hereditary, how many Pumamen could Vadinho have seen in his lifetime? Vadinho also has the ability to heal himself of cuts and bruises by the use of an amulet. Unlike the other characters, he is able to resist coming under the control of the gold mask. When the spacecraft arrives at the end of the movie to take Vadinho and the gold mask back to the temple, Tony asks if Vadinho is one of the gods. Vadinho, who has stressed humility before the gods up until this point, replies very non-committally that "We all are, a bit." Vadinho’s earlier dialogue gives every indication that if he were not one of the gods, he would refer to himself as “a humble servant of the gods,” or something of that nature. The movie seems to hint that the genuine Aztec descendants are unimportant as their mythology plays out in the modern day; their story is given to a white man and a god in disguise.
The version of Aztec religion depicted in The Pumaman is unique, to say the least. There do not appear to have been any puma gods in the Aztec pantheon, or if there were, they were minor. In the first fifty results from a Google search for puma Aztec, twenty-three listings pertain to this movie. Others are for soccer, video games, and shoes. Not a one of the first fifty mentions Aztec myth.
Perhaps the legend of the God from Other Worlds who left the Earth was based in part on the Aztec belief in the feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, who is said to have gone into the east after promising the people that he would return someday (León-Portilla 26-27). Still, many religions, including Judaism and Christianity, mention a god or godly figure who will someday return to the world. There is not enough detail given about the god in the movie to identify him with Quetzalcoatl.
Masks did play a role in Aztec religious ritual, but they were not intrinsically powerful. A mask was sacred because it was part of a priest’s ceremonial regalia, not because it was directly connected to the god it was supposed to represent (Brundage 1985 44). Vadinho’s role as the mask’s guardian does seem to fulfill at least part of the Aztec expectations for their religious leaders; one of the Aztec words for a priest is teopixqui, which means “he who keeps or guards the god” (Brundage 1985 101).
Vadinho emphasizes humanity’s free will throughout the movie. He tells Tony that the gods can not take the mask from Kobras because they do not interfere with humanity. When Vadinho is captured by Kobras, he is able to resist the mask’s powers by chanting the mantra, “Each man is a god; each man is free.” The historical Aztecs would not have recognized this concept. The Aztecs developed a warrior culture to obtain human blood and hearts to appease the sun god (Brundage 1975 40). They believed their purpose in life was to fulfill their debt to the gods who allowed them to live, even though this debt could never be repaid. The debt was one of blood. One way to pay was to slay enemies in battle or capture them for sacrifice on the sun’s altar, but another was to mutilate one’s own body (Brundage 1985 157, 188-189). Furthermore, the Aztecs believed that their fate was set at birth. The intercession of a benevolent priest could ameliorate unfortunate birth portents to an extent, but there was no way to entirely escape fate (Brundage 1985 180-181). Vadinho’s gentle New Age philosophy bears little resemblance to the blood-soaked rites of the classical Aztecs.
It is entirely possible, however, that the writer mixed up the Aztecs with the Incas. The movie’s opening text calls the God From Other Worlds an Aztec legend and Jane refers to the mask as an Aztec artifact, but Vadinho never calls himself Aztec. In fact, he says his home is in the Andes Mountains. The Mexican Aztecs certainly did not live anywhere near the Andes, the Incas did. Inca and pre-Inca artwork depicts priests shapeshifting into jaguars (Steele and Allen 161) (if we’re going to speculate that the filmmakers mixed up Incas and Aztecs, we can also wonder if they mixed up jaguars and pumas). The pre-Inca temple of Chavín is decorated with paintings of felines in human-like poses (Urton 15). Some historians claim that the Inca city of Cuzco was designed in the shape of a puma’s head, though this may have more to do with their leader Pachacuti wearing a puma skin as a symbol of strength than with any mythological event (Steele 162). The puma was also considered a powerful spiritual being who endangered the moon goddess during a lunar eclipse (Cobo 29).
Since a brief mythological survey makes it obvious that pumas (and jaguars) were more important to the Incas than to the Aztecs, it is tempting to try to make sense of The Pumaman by thinking that the filmmakers said “Aztec” when they actually meant “Inca.” I find it difficult to believe that this is a simple matter of mistaking one culture for another. Consider the lack of historical research. Jane refers to the mask as a 3000-year-old find, even though neither the Aztec nor the Inca cultures reached power before the early fifteenth century (León-Portilla 83; Urton 10). Consider the shoddy production values in evidence throughout the movie. The sarcens of “Stonehenge” bear only a passing resemblance to stone. The spaceship of the God From Other Worlds looks like a Christmas tree ornament. When Tony "flies," it looks like the crew used a fishhook through his waistband instead of a harness to suspend him in front of the bluescreen. His Pumaman costume consists of a navy blue sweatshirt with a gold mask on the front, a cape, and a pair of khaki slacks. The background music sounds like something you would hear if you walked up to an electric keyboard and pressed the “demonstration” button. Given all this, I find it hard to believe that the filmmakers did enough research into any of the subject matter to actually have any knowledge to mix up. Instead, I must conclude that they just didn’t care.
If I wanted to make a movie like this, I would start by making sure I either pulled the background from actual mythology or created a completely fictional culture. I would let Vadinho be the human hero and eliminate whiny Tony completely. If I didn’t have enough of a budget to create the special effects my story needed, I would instead hint at mystery offscreen and let the story and acting carry the movie. Spectacle and entertainment are not the same thing.
I chose to work with The Pumaman in large part because I think it’s one of the most hilarious bad movies I have ever seen. (In fact, I first encountered it as an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000.) On a deeper level, I liked the way Vadinho defied the traditional sidekick role to do most of the heroic work himself. I wanted to work with a “lowbrow” movie because the movies made for pure entertainment value are reflections of the culture and time which created them, maybe more so than the films considered great works of cinema (Rotella 12-13). I also have a strong interest in religions of other cultures, and I was hoping I would find some seed of an Aztec myth which the filmmakers had used for their background. I found no such story, but I can’t say I was really surprised. Even though none of my research uncovered a key with which I could make sense of The Pumaman, and even though all the meaning I could find led back to the dollar signs in the director’s eyes, at least I can still laugh at it.
Averbach, Márgara. "The return of the Indian guide: New formulations of the Indian guide at the end of the 20th century." Comparative American Studies: An International Journal 2, no. 1 (2004): 75-90.
Brundage, Burr Cartwright. The Jade Steps: A Ritual Life of the Aztecs. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1985.
---. Two Earths, Two Heavens: An Essay Contrasting the Aztecs and the Incas. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975.
Cobo, Bernabé. Inca Religion and Customs. Translated and edited by Roland Hamilton. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990.
Internet Movie Database. "Alberto De Martino." Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0210130/ (accessed November 23, 2007).
Internet Movie Database. "Miguel Ángel Fuentes." Internet Movie Database. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0297450/ (accessed November 23, 2007).
León-Portilla, Miguel. The Aztec Image of Self and Society: An Introduction to Nahua Culture. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1992.
Media Awareness Network. "Common Portrayals of Aboriginal People." Media Awareness Network. http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/issues/stereotyping/aboriginal_people/aboriginal_portrayals.cfm (accessed November 19, 2007).
Meek, Barbara A. "And the Injun goes 'How!': Representations of American Indian English in white public space." Language in Society 35, no. 1 (2006): 93-128.
Rotella, Carl. "Pulp History." Raritan 27, no. 1 (2007): 11-36.
Steele, Paul R. and Catherine J. Allen. Handbook of Inca Mythology. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, Inc., 2004.
Urton, Gary. Inca Myths. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999.
Walker, Albert. "The Pumaman: a recap by Albert Walker." The Agony Booth. http://www.agonybooth.com/pumaman/default.asp?Page=1 (accessed November 20, 2007).
Wojciehowski, Eric. "The Return of Ancient Astronauts." Skeptic 5, no. 1 (1997): 30-33.