Conquistador II: Francisco Pizarro in the movies

By Murray Dahm

We saw in the last article, the movies about the conquistador Hernán Cortés; this time we look at another famous conquistador, Francisco Pizarro, who led to the Spanish conquest of Peru.

The second conquest of the New World explored on film is that of Francisco Pizarro who is credited, between 1532 and 1533, of conquering the Inca Empire. Essentially Pizarro began the conquest of an empire of an estimated 16-24 million subjects with an army of only 167 conquistadors. The Inca Empire, spanning modern-day Peru and parts of Ecuador, Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile, was the largest of the pre-Columbian empires. Although the conquest was begun in the 1530s, the final stronghold only fell to the Spanish in 1572.


Who was Francisco Pizarro?

Pizzaro himself was an illiterate soldier of fortune who had sailed to the New World in 1509. In 1513 he participated in the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama to the Pacific and was mayor of Panama City from 1519-1523. Hearing of the riches of Peru, Pizarro undertook two unsuccessful expeditions in 1524 and 1526. The Spanish reached the borders of the Inca empire in 1528 at Tumbes, the northernmost Inca stronghold.

Pizarro returned to Spain in 1529 to seek the king’s permission to conquer Peru (the administration of Panama, at Castilla de Oro, wanted him to return to his duties). Permission for the conquest was gained from the king and Pizarro left Panama City in 1530. He built a settlement in Peru, San Miguel de Piura, but the Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, refused to condone the Spanish presence and brought his army against Pizarro. At the battle of Cajamarca, in November 1532, Atahualpa himself was captured by Pizarro. Atahualpa had a large (80,000 strong in some accounts) and experienced army. Atahualpa had succeeded in, but not concluded, a civil war with his older brother Huáscar who had been emperor since 1523. The civil war had raged since 1529 and only ended with Huáscar’s defeat in May 1532.

The recent civil war, still-present tensions, and divided loyalties allowed Pizarro to pit the two sides against one another and gain allies for his conquest, just as Cortés had done against the Aztecs. At Cajamarca, Atahualpa intended to awe Pizarro (and his small force) with the size of his own army but when the emperor approached, unarmed, with a retinue of about 7,000 courtiers, Pizarro ambushed him in the town plaza, took him prisoner and slaughtered the attendants. Atahualpa’s army, encamped outside the town, scattered in confusion. Atahualpa was treated with respect in captivity and was allowed to have his wives join him (one of them would later become Pizarro’s mistress, after Atahualpa’s execution). Pizarro and other forces plundered the temples and towns nearby and held Atahualpa for a ransom of gold and silver at Cajamarca.


The ransom was delivered by May 1533 and melted down into bars, but Atahualpa was then put on trial (for fratricide, polygamy, incest, and idolatry) and found guilty. Despite accepting baptism, Atahualpa was garrotted in August 1533. When news of this reached the Spanish court, King Charles V was greatly displeased at the putting to death of a king, especially in the name of justice (and probably because it was done by men of such low birth). Pizarro and an enlarged force of 500 men then advanced on Cuzco, the Inca capital and took it in November 1533, almost a year to the day after they had captured Atahualpa.

Pizarro installed his candidate as emperor, first Huallpa, then Manco. These princes (both younger brothers of Atahualpa and Huáscar) had joined Pizarro when he entered Incan territory to avoid being killed by Atahualpa in the aftermath of their civil war. Huallpa died in October 1533 before the capture of Atahualpa and Manco would escape in 1535 and rule the Neo-Incan empire and lead a resistance to Spanish rule until 1544. His son, Amaru, would be the last Inca ruler, and lead the resistance until 1572 when he was murdered by the Spanish. Initial resistance was offered in the un-conquered areas of the empire, led by Atahualpa’s generals.

Lima was founded by Pizarro in January 1535 as the capital of Spanish Peru (the previous choice was too far from the sea).  In 1536, the Inca besieged both Lima and Cuzco but were unable to take them. Instead, they withdrew their forces intact and withstood Spanish attempts to defeat them, inflicting several defeats and withdrawing further and further into the mountains as necessary. It did not take long for the Spanish to squabble over their new territories and fall into a civil war of their own. Pizarro was appointed governor of New Castile (in the north) but had Diego del Almagro appointed as governor of New Toledo in the south. del Almagro had joined Pizarro’s 1533 expedition with his son, Diego del Almagro II (known as El Mozo ‘the lad’). Arguments soon arose as to in whose territory Cuzco fell and, in 1537, del Almago seized Cuzco after breaking Manco’s siege. He then imprisoned Pizarro’s brothers, Gonzalo and Hernando, when Pizarro was in the north.


Pizarro raised an army to relieve Cuzco but Hernando was released and Gonzalo escaped. They raised an army and retook the city, summarily executing del Almagro. When Hernando returned to Spain in 1539, he would be imprisoned for twenty years for executing a noble. El Mozo took his revenge in June 1541, staging a coup and gaining access to Pizarro’s palace in Lima and killing Pizarro in the ensuing battle. El Mozo fled to Cuzco and was defeated, captured, and then executed in September 1542.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun

The main account of Francisco Pizarro on film is actually the movie version of Peter Shaffer’s 1964 play The Royal Hunt of the Sun which explored the clash of cultures between its main characters: the last Inca Emperor, Atahualpa, and Pizarro. The emperor of the Incas, the Sapa Inca, was regarded as the son of the sun and sun worship was central to Inca belief. Shaffer admitted that his main preoccupation was worship – a theme across many of his plays – as well as different forms of right (both Pizarro and Atahualpa can be right).

Shaffer had been impressed reading William H. Prescott’s The Conquest of Peru (1847) and the clash between Inca and Catholic beliefs. Royal Hunt was then filmed in 1969. The play is still occasionally performed by theatre companies – after its performances in the 1960s, it was revived in 2006 by Trevor Nunn and most recently it was produced by the Gryphon Theatre in Wellington, New Zealand, in 2019 reversing much of the entirely male cast to a female one (so we had Francesca and Martina). The play was only Shaffer’s second script and a ground-breaking experiment in Total Theatre. In its original production the Inca and Spanish casts were rehearsed separately so that they would only meet for the first time on stage during the dress rehearsal. The play explored the factual Pizarro conquest of the Inca between June 1529 and August 1533 and a (fictional) journey of discovery of Pizarro’s own faith (he begins as an atheist but finds hope in Atahualpa’s unshakeable faith in his own divinity – if that can be true (Pizarro thinks) then Christ’s resurrection might also be true and he can believe).


The play was intentionally visually stunning and used exotic instruments for its soundscape as well as Inca costuming. The themes were the worship of gold (and the sun), power and belief, and the decay of chivalry, glory and honour as two worlds came into conflict. Others have seen the themes of the play as religious intolerance, greed, and a lack of concern for human life. These were considered urgent and relevant in 1964 (and still have tremendous contemporary resonance). The political parallels of differences between imperialism and communism may have lost some of their edge although the exploration of the use and abuse of power still holds. The play was an immense success and led to Shaffer’s career as a playwright, with works such as Black Comedy (1965), Equus (1973), Amadeus (1979). The play itself includes two battle scenes (considered ambitious along with much else of the play in 1964 – the original producer apparently took the play on because it contains the stage instruction ‘they cross the Andes’).

The film did not keep some of the concepts of the play and cut characters and vast swathes of the script. Several of these changes alter the story of the play fundamentally. The film attempts to make up for these changes with its visuals and the use of epic Spanish and Peruvian locations. It also has a score by Marc Wilkinson (whose score Peter Shafer considered integral to the play). With its English actors, it sounds very much like the court of Henry VIII rather than Spain despite the Spanish names. There are only a couple of Spanish words uttered – the (accurate) battle cry of ‘Santiago!’ being one. At the same time, there is much untranslated Inca speech which is a nice touch and when the Inca characters encounter the Spanish ones, the transition to an English translation is well handled. At the same time, the use of interpreters (as was the norm for most interactions and in the play) is also referenced.

The equipment and arms (and banners) all look correct and, without being dirty or dented, the armour appears authentically well used. There is also a range and variety of clothing which provides an authentic lack of uniform (despite the use of similar helmets and cuirasses). Likewise, the Inca dress seems authentically done. We also see artillery, arquebus, crossbows, and the actual small numbers of men and horses. Robert Shaw is impressive as Pizarro, a mix of bravado and brooding which ties in with the question of purpose which comes later. The existential crisis so vital to the play, however, seems underdone and the pragmatic Pizarro of the film seems unlikely to actually go through the crisis of doubting himself. It also makes the film seem much more a tale of political and religious expediency, exploitation and betrayal rather than any kind of personal journey of faith or discovery. The climax pits Pizarro (holding his word to not to harm Atahualpa) against the rest of the expedition who condemn Atahualpa to death.

The film was shot on location in Spain and Peru and this adds another level of authenticity. The use of Peruvian Inca ruins (especially the interior of the temple courtyard) is authentic although as we’ve noted before, in their modern, ruined, state they don’t give a real sense of how they would have actually appeared at the height of their splendour. All are plain stone rather than bursting with colour as they would have been. The arrival of Atahualpa to the temple complex is impressive with hundreds of Peruvian extras bursting with the colour and pageantry of traditional dress. This matches the historical record, even if there aren’t quite the seven thousand attendees Atahualpa brought with him.


Christopher Plummer takes on the role of Atahualpa (he had performed Pizarro in the play on Broadway in 1965 with David Carradine as Atahualpa). Shaw asked Plummer to do the part and Plummer took inspiration from David Carradine’s performance. This European casting of indigenous Inca may be considered objectionable today but was de rigeur in 1969. What is peculiar are the bird-like mannerisms and noises Atahualpa makes – perhaps this was intended to emphasise the Inca emperor’s inhuman detachment. It is not clear if the language Atahualpa speaks is any kind of indigenous language (it does not sound like it) and nor is it from the play (where he speaks only in English). This runs a gauntlet of sounding like mockery or condescension of Atahualpa or the Incan culture. Luckily, the film does not descend into mockery – in fact Atahualpa makes a great deal of modern sense – but the performance could be interpreted in such a way.

The ambush of Atahualpa’s unarmed attendants is complete with cannon, arquebus, and cavalry charges. The scene then breaks into slow motion to show the Inca being cut down with an entirely different (and bizarrely jaunty) soundtrack.

Given that we will be seeing more conquistadors when we explore films of El Dorado and the pursuit in the New World of other myths such as the Fountain of Youth, there are surprisingly few films which explore the actual Spanish conquest of America in what you might call a ‘straight’ way. Nonetheless, these films give us much to ponder and enjoy. Happy Viewing.

Murray Dahm is the movie columnist for You can find more of his research on or follow him on Twitter @murray_dahm

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Top Image: The official poster for the film The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1969).


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