Nether Regions 08.17.10: King Solomon's Mines (1937)
Posted by Chad Webb on 08.17.2010
The first big screen adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's popular novel. This version includes musical numbers, bubbling lava, ancient witch doctors, and riveting journal entries!
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
KING SOLOMON'S MINES
Starring: Paul Robeson, Cedric Hardwicke, and Roland Young Directed By: Robert Stevenson Written By: Michael Hogan, Charles Bennett, Roland Pertwee, A.R. Rawlinson, and Ralph Spence Running Time: 80 minutes Release Date: July 26, 1937 Missing Since: 2001 Existing Formats:Region 1 DVD, VHS, and IMDB VOD Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Rare
H. Rider haggard's 1885 adventure novel, King Solomon's Mines, has been adapted into a film officially 6 times. There have been a handful of related films that follow Allan Quatermain in separate stories. The first version was released in 1937, and it is that which will be the focus of this week's article.
As famous as the story is, I never paid much attention to any particular adaptation. With franchises like Indiana Jones and National Treasure (among others), my adventure seeking fix was fulfilled. I stumbled upon this title because of the legendary Paul Robeson, whom I have grown to greatly admire. After viewing a mammoth Criterion box set featuring most of his vehicles, I caught up with King Solomon's Mines and Show Boat, two of his more popular efforts, both of which are ironically out of print. The latter will appear in this column soon enough. Up until that point, my only cinematic familiarity with Allan Quatermain was his contribution to The League of Extraordinary Gentleman from 2003. Uh oh.
The story begins in 1882, and follows Patrick O'Brien (Arthur Sinclair) and his daughter Kathy (Anna Lee) who have failed to strike it rich in the mines of South Africa. They agree to finally settle down, and ask white hunter Allan Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke) for a lift to the coast. He reluctantly agrees, and along the way, they encounter a wagon with two men that are bad shape, presumably due to a lack of water. One of them, Sylvestra (Arthur Goullet), dies, but before he does he brags that he knows the path to the fabled Solomon mines. The other individual, Umbopa (Paul Robeson), survives. Patrick and Kathy locate their map, and Patrick sneaks off in the middle of the night alone to pursue it, unable to risk his daughter's life. Initially, Kathy cannot persuade Quatermain to follow him, but Umbopa's eagerness to help her sways his decision.
Quatermain meets up with two clients, Sir Henry Curtis (John Loder) and Commander Good (Roland Young). Kathy tricks Curtis into relinquishing one of the wagons under Quatermain's nose. Once he discovers this, and catches up with Kathy, she refuses to go back until she finds her father. Once again, despite much arguing, they agree to accompany her on the quest. The journey proves to be an arduous one across the desert. In the meantime, Kathy and Sir Henry develop feelings for each other, Umbopa reveals a secret, and a wicked tribe of natives make the trek difficult with a witch doctor.
This is a dated film, but a fairly engrossing tale nonetheless. It is very faithful to the novel, yet condenses numerous characters and sub-plots into a brisk 80 minute running time. The primary complaint is that the transfer floating around currently is less than stellar. The copy is incredibly grainy and faded, while the audio is terribly difficult to make out at times. Once you grow accustomed to that handicap, King Solomon's Mines becomes fun and never loses its wit or energy.
Interestingly enough, Paul Robeson receives top billing here. The movie was produced by the Gaumont British Picture Corporation. Most of his films were made in England. Robeson did it all, and was one of the few African American actors that didn't have to take minor or comic relief roles. He was an actor, singer, athlete, orator, social activist, lawyer, and more. In this yarn he is Umbopa, though he describes himself as having many names. From the beginning, Umbopa is an enigmatic figure that is smarter than he lets on. Robeson is proficient at conveying that gleam in Umbopa's eye that shows he has a hidden agenda. His commanding presence is felt throughout the story, and Robeson is perhaps the only person that can look large next to a mountain. He sung in many of his films, whether or not the plot needed it. That is the case in King Solomon's Mines where he has four different numbers, all of which are terrific from his deep bass voice, but they are also out of place and disrupt the flow of the film.
Sir Cedric Hardwicke, reportedly one of George Bernard Shaw's favorite actors, is exceptional as the famed hunter Allan Quatermain. He says he dislikes killing animals, but does it for the money. He's always smoking, and seems determined to go on with his normal routine without hassle, even though hassle finds him one way or the other. Hardwicke gives the best performance, and shines because of how convincing he is at portraying a wise adventurer that is not fazed by much of anything. Quatermain would receive romantic interests in later versions, but it's better to leave that to supporting characters. He establishes chemistry with every member of the cast, and each moment he goes toe to toe with Robeson is an absolute pleasure to observe. Hardwicke can also be seen in a bunch of Universal horror titles, but he is excellent alongside Charles Laughton in Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Anna Lee simply tries too hard as Kathy O'Brien. This is one of her early parts, but she stumbles continually throughout the film, and is extremely weak next to such a strong cast. She resorts to that old school technique of staring too intently at another actor or looking off in the distance for no reason. Her Irish accent goes in and out on more occasions than I could count, and in one strange scene Kathy cuts a few inches off her hair, which ultimately leads nowhere and is never mentioned. Her romance with Sir Henry Curtis is tolerable though and thankfully is not given an excessive amount of screen time. The adventure is the focus, as it should be. As a neat bit of trivia, Anna Lee played a character named Lila Quatermain on General Hospital, and had a son named Allan.
The comic relief is provided by Roland Young, who has such perfect timing with each line. His scenes are silly, but he plays them off in such a nonchalant manner that it's impossible not to chuckle. The native tribe spots him without pants on and consequently perceives him to be a white God from the sky because of his white legs. Later, when the group is threatened by the tribe, he asks Quatermain if he should snap his trousers off to help. John Loder steals some of Quatermain's hero shadow towards the end as Sir Henry Curtis, but Loder is solid and fits well with Hardwicke and Young. Loder's career would sink into B-movie roles once WWII hit England. Robert Adams and Sidney Fairbrother deserve mentioning as the tribal leader Twala and the witch doctor Gagool.
There are a number of instances that will induce unintentional laughter, or perhaps will cause the viewer to shake their head in disbelief. They are slight spoilers, so be forewarned. Patrick O'Brien, who traveled on his own, presumably on the same course the group eventually takes, disappears for most of the film, and then finally pops up alive and well. How he survived the torturous trek that the others did on his own is beyond me. The other two include the group being saved by surprising circumstances right at the last minute, one of which is just ridiculous, but I have to award points for creativity.
The film begins with narration from Allan Quatermain? That is a shot in the dark since we only hear the voice over once, and the party never introduces himself. Throughout the rest of the story a journal sporadically appears, though never in full and it usually fades away quickly. The writing is not easy to read and the viewer is never totally sure if they should be reading it or not. A voice over of the readings would have been welcomed.
The director is Robert Stevenson, who would receive most of his recognized work later in his career for Walt Disney (Mary Poppins). Around this time he was employed by David O. Selznick at MGM, but Selznick never used him, only loaned him out to other studios. As his family fare would show, Stevenson is a filmmaker that can attract all ages. He thrives on entertaining anyone and everyone, and King Solomon's Mines certainly accomplishes that. His control of the camera and the crew is slick and confident. The sandstorm, battle sequences, mountain climbing, and volcano eruptions are all competently staged. The special effects have aged rather well, and were unquestionably noteworthy for 1937.
One of the rare film posters.
King Solomon's Mines makes wonderful use of authentic African locations and performers, a fact that gained the respect of many upon release. It did not win over everyone however. C.S. Lewis, a fan of Haggard, hated this version because Kathy's character was so irrelevant. I would wager he probably would not have adored later adaptations either. Despite Lewis' opinion, this is still a lively and charming piece of escapism. It is far from flawless, but then again Haggard's novel has yet to translate as a classic on the big screen. The cast is tremendous and the action is consistent and compelling.
Haggard's yarn has been adapted many times. The most popular stab was in 1950 starring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger. This involved Quatermain charming his co-star Kerr as Elizabeth Curtis. Both characters are unlikable and snotty, while the film itself acts as a safari tour of Africa for the first three-fourths. Only in the final portion does it pick up speed. In 1985 those pesky mines of King Solomon appeared with Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone in what can only be called hilariously awful. The most recent version occurred in 2004 in a TV mini-series starring Patrick Swayze, which I have yet to see.
The word is that Sam Worthington plans to star in a picture called Quatermain, so maybe that will prompt a double dip of this out of print DVD, but I wouldn't hold my breath. Still, I'd like to see it in stores again.
--After a nice vacation, it is good to be back writing random thoughts again. I know all of you were not the same without your weekly dose of mini-ramblings.
--On vacation I watched, listened to, and read about Orson Welles a great deal. I finally watched his documentary/essay F for Fake, which I greatly enjoyed, and I also dove into one of the versions for Mr. Arkadin, which wasn't perfect, but still very enjoyable. I also recommend This is Orson Welles, a set of cassette tapes where biographer/director Peter Bogdanovich interviews Welles on his career. I could go on. Soon I will replace Bogdanovich as leading Welles biographer.
--I read Bryan lee O'Malley's Lost at Sea. He is the writer of all the Scott Pilrgim graphic novels. This particular book follows an angry, disillusioned, and shy teen who hitches a ride with some kids back to Canada where she lives. At times it's a nice coming-of-age tale, but some of aspects of the story are too weird to be taken seriously, and the end of the book lacks sufficient closure. Still, it is has a lot of moving monologues and some solid Pilgrim-like humor. It is worth checking out if you enjoy O'Malley's work.
--Over the next few weeks I'm going to try and tackle some of the longer films in my collection, a couple of which are silent pictures. I also have a lot of Shakespeare on the horizon.