Monday, February 22, 2010

Reeling Backward: "King Solomon's Mines"

Stewart Granger was the biggest film star in England before 1950, but few in the States had heard of him. "King Solomon's Mines" turned that around overnight.

The most famous adaptation of the novel by H. Rider Haggard was not the first one, or the last. Cedric Hardwicke played hunter/adventurer Allan Quartermain in a 1937 version, and people of my generation think of Richard Chamberlain as that character from the 1985 version. There have also been numerous foreign cheapies, an Italian Hercules crossover, and a Patrick Swayze TV movie.

Interestingly, all the film versions have sexed up the book by adding a female character for Quartermain to woo. In Haggard's original story, it was pretty much an all-male affair, except for some native women they meet on their journeys. Quartermain is hired to lead an expedition in search of a Captain Goode's brother, who wandered into the African desert in search of the fabled diamond mine.

In the 1937 and 1985 versions, the Goode character is changed to a woman and the lost relative is her father. For 1950, Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) is searching for her missing husband. This adds an extra layer of intrigue, since she and Quartermain fall for each other during their journey, but must restrain themselves because of social mores (not to mention Hollywood's Production Code).

Capt. Goode is still around, although he got decommissioned into Elizabeth's brother, along for the journey.

My biggest problem with the movie is that it's 90 percent journey and 10 percent adventure. Quartermain et al spend so much time getting to the mines, my eyes glazed at the thought of yet another shot of crocodiles sliding into a river or giraffes leaping across the plain. I suppose this was pretty novel stuff 60 years ago, but for me it got old rather fast.

The most interesting thing about the film now is its depiction of African natives. On the whole, directors Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton and screenwriter Helen Deutsch -- who also wrote "The Seventh Cross," recently featured in this space -- paint a fairly progressive portrait of the native tribes.

Yes, there's a lot of gee-whiz shots of them in strange outfits and dancing around, but the film seems to respect their culture while clearly exploiting its entertainment value.

Khiva, Quartermain's right-hand man, is shown to be a respected friend rather than a mere employee. Umbopa, the freakishly tall stranger who offers to be a bearer for the expedition, is revealed as a prince in exile returning to claim his throne.

It's notable that for the climactic showdown at the end of the film, Quartermain is a mere spectator. The duel is between Umbopa and Twala, the evil king who has usurped the throne.

Can you imagine Indiana Jones being a mere cheerleader for the big fight?

I was fascinated how the characters seem to be utterly disinterested in the riches of Solomon's mines. After being taken to the mines filled with diamonds -- where the skeleton of Elizabeth's husband is found -- they are sealed into a cave by the tribal witch doctor. (In the book, this was a female witch.) They escape through an underground river, but no one is shown filling their pockets with precious stones (as in the novel).

Once the fighting is all over, Quartermain, Elizabeth and Goode ride off into the sunset, leaving Umbopa and his tribe in peace, the riches of the mines intact. That's about how I feel about the film, one with great potential that remains unplundered.

2 stars

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