C. S. Lewis, a fan of H. Rider Haggard since boyhood, cordially disliked Robert Stevenson’s 1937 take on King Solomon’s Mines. Among its offenses Lewis listed “the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman” (Haggard’s tale explicitly states at the outset that there are no [European] women in it!) and the revisionism of the finale at the mines, where Haggard’s chilling deathtrap becomes a swashbuckling obtacle course with collapsing cliff walls and volcanic eruptions.
Lewis would have been left equally cold to subsequent screen versions of Haggard’s story, all of which give Haggard hero Allan Quatermain a female foil (who is always, except here, a love interest), and none of which capture the deathly spell of the mountain tomb (though the classic 1950 version is the least objectionable on this point).
But the original 1937 adaptation, though dated, and hardly faithful (even the hero’s name is misspelled “Quartermain” in a handwritten note!), is still of interest to fans of vintage Saturday-matinee fare. Its production values and special effects are impressive for the period, and like the 1950 version it makes good use of authentic African locations and performers, with real African natives as extras. Only the evil witch doctor Gagool is played by a European (Sydney Fairbrother) in blackface — though she is nevertheless the only adequate Gagool in any screen version of the story.
As Quatermain, Cedric Hardwicke makes a rather professorial protagonist; but top billing rightly goes to Paul Robeson, son of a former slave and a celebrated performer and activist, who is an impressive presence as the mysterious Umbopa, and sings a few obligatory songs in his powerful baritone.
Recent knock-offs have been especially lame: A 2004 Hallmark Channel version starring Patrick Swayze shows some initial promise before losing its way in the second act amid boring plot twists and PC alternative spirituality (lots of talk about “having faith in the ancestors,” and the evil, ancient witch Gagool is reinvented as a benevolent young shamaness!). About Sean Connery’s recent turn as Haggard hero Alan Quatermain in the almost completely inspiration-free League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, not to mention the 1985 version, a campy Raiders of the Lost Ark wannabe starring Sharon Stone, the less said, the better.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.