“Chariots of the Gods” occupies an uneasy position that can easily embarrass anyone interested in the use of cinema as a vehicle for non-fiction filmmaking. A 1970 German production that, incredibly, received an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary under the strange title “Memories of the Future,” the film turned up in U.S. theaters in 1974 via the tiny Sun International distribution company. Unlike most documentary distributors of the period, Sun International heavily promoted this title via a noisy television advertising campaign and a tie-in with a paperback reissue of the hitherto obscure Erich Von Däniken text that served as its source material.
The aggressive marketing campaign, coupled with the decision to put the film into wide general release rather than limited art house distribution (I saw the film back in the day at the Dale Theater in the Bronx, N.Y. – a cozy neighborhood venue that normally specialized in Hollywood fare), helped make the film a commercial hit. It also managed to kick off a craze for film and television productions that insisted on connections between the Earth cultures and unidentified extra-terrestrials who made mysterious visits to our planet.
As for the film itself, “Chariots of the Gods” is a painfully benign piece of speculation that offers the mere suggestion that the ancient cultures of Egypt, Central America and Easter Island were incapable of creating any significant architectural, artistic or mechanical invention without the aid of experts who came from beyond the stars. At the very least, it is a typical example of Eurocentric boorishness – obviously, the creators of Stonehenge or the glories of ancient Greece and Rome had the brains, tools and muscles to move and sculpt huge chunks of stone into fancy upright designs, whereas their cousins across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic did not.
At worst, the film provides a careless pondering that shuffles about without an iota of evidence that any spaceships ever landed on Earth. There is talk of supposedly ancient airports at Nazca in Peru, but no proof that any vehicle actually touched down. There is wonderment at the marvels of the Mayan and Incan ruins, but no explanation of how aliens could have passed on their engineering knowledge to a supposedly primitive people (consider the language barrier, at the very least) or a purpose regarding why they would even want to share such knowledge.
The film points to a number of different sacred religious texts, including the stories of Moses, Ezekiel and Elijah in the Old Testament, with their vivid descriptions of chariots coming down from the heavens and then flying away. Yet almost every religious tradition is rooted in some sense of the supernatural descending from a higher plain - both literally and figuratively - to enlighten the supposed dullards of Earth.
“Chariots of the Gods” never overtly claims that aliens were running around the ancient world. Instead, it merely hints that the combination of unusual religious stories and funky structures around most of the world may suggest that otherworldly visitors came by to share insights and ideas. However, there is no explanation as to the exact reasons of their visits and why they never bothered to return.
In terms of style, the film has little to offer. Director Harald Reinl is satisfied to stitch together stock footage of rocket ships in flight, atomic bombs in mushroom-shaped clouds of destructiveness, and endless aerial shots of ancient monuments. Part-found footage, part-travelogue, fully ridiculous, yet strangely naive in making claims it cannot defend, “Chariots of the Gods” is a charming old-school fraud. They don’t make films like this anymore, and we should be glad for that.
"Chariots of the Gods"
Directed by Harald Reinl