Saturday, March 13, 2010

King Solomon's Mines (1950)

"King Solomon's Mines" (Compton Bennett and Andrew Morton, 1950) The classic H. Rider Haggard novel, the first in the adventures of Allan Quatermain* has been filmed several times,** but this one is the best known, earning several Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and inspiring all sorts of African set adventures throughout the '50's.

This version boasts dazzling Technicolor cinematography as well as
a vast array of wild-life photography including an impressive stampede of zebras, gazelles, even giraffes that threaten to trample the explorers mid-way through their travels to find the husband of Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) who has been lost in unexplored Africa (unexplored by whites, that is). It also featured Stewart Granger (he was known as James Stewart in Britain, but changed it so as not to be confused with the American actor) as Quatermain, who's a bit of a stiff, but still manages to be a commanding presence, as he's always the "smartest guy on the veldt."

But, for all the talk of the mines,
there is very little time spent in them, as it is used (as in the book) as a trap to contain the colonialists while royal political struggles are going on outside. Where in the novel the Brits are trapped for days, they almost escape immediately in the film (some trap—but a lot of time-compression goes on in the film as a daunting trek seems to take no time at all, with not much wear on the explorers—nobody so much as rips a shirt).

Another worrisome aspect is the sense of a time; there is none. Despite the presence of pith helmets and stabs at period dress, there is no indication that the film is going on in the 19th rather than the 20th century. In fact, Haggard's novel and Quatermain's character are a bit more advanced than the film is willing to go, taking out any references to an interracial romance in the party and Quatermain's expression, though condescending, of admiration for some natives over Europeans. ***

This one is for the exotic locales and for the testy romance that occurs between Curtis and Quatermain (Curtis is a man looking for his brother in Haggard's novel and needless to say there isn't any romance!). But it would be interesting to revisit the story, make it truer to the source—and that includes not making it an "Indiana Jones" ride as in the 1985 film. I'd also like to see a film of
Haggard's combining of his two great creations, "She and Allan." One would hope that they'd be better than this.

* That's how you spell it, though not necessarily how you pronounce it. Among other egregious liberties taken with the character, the film adaptation of Alan Moore's "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" featured the character (played by Sean Connery) and a mis-spelling of his name as "Quartermain."

** Including the heinous two-part version done for laughs by the Golan-Globus studios that featured Richard Chamberlain as an Indiana Jones re-write of the character, and Sharon Stone moments before she would become a star.

*** One other good thing about it (as revealed in an IMDB thread written by a native Kenyan) is that the languages are accuracte swahili and kikuyu—spoken well by Granger—and that members of the indigenous tribes were used for the African parts.

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