There has never been a remotely faithful movie adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s African adventure tale King Solomon’s Mines.
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.
The best film made from Haggard’s novel remains the classic 1950 version with Stewart Granger as safari guide Quatermain, a clear improvement over the original 1937 adaptation (also worth a look). Technicolor location shooting in east Africa turns the African landscape and wildlife to maximum advantage, and even in these Discovery Channel days its Oscar-winning cinematography remains worthwhile as sheer spectacle.
With his broad-brimmed hat and rugged mien, Granger’s Quatermain is clearly the prototype for Indiana Jones; and there’s a breathless stampede sequence that probably inspired a similar sequence in Jurassic Park. King Solomon’s Mines hasn’t got anything like the wall-to-wall excitement of Raiders or Jurassic Park, of course, but on the other hand there’s no CGI and the whole film has the feel of a real expedition into the wild, as opposed to an expertly crafted illusion.
Both Quatermain and obligatory romantic interest Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr), the conflicted Englishwoman who hires him as a guide, have unusually complex motives for attempting a journey into unexplored territory. Their predictable progression from conflict to attraction plays out adequately; much more intriguing is the towering Watusi giant Umbopa (Siriaque), whose strikingly angular hairstyle and enigmatic sense of purpose provides much-needed tension and mystery.
In the end, if King Solomon’s Mines doesn’t quite fulfill its promise, that’s in part because the title destination is too obviously a MacGuffin, a mere plot device in which the film ultimately doesn’t even feign mild interest. The exotic tribal conflict with which the third act is substantially concerned is certainly spectacle enough, and it’s fascinating to see these African natives, many of whom apparently had no previous exposure to Western culture, acting in a film. But directors Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton are so eager to get back to Umbopa and his nemesis Twala that they can’t be bothered with the awe and dread of the mines themselves. It’s a miscalculation from which the film can’t really recover.
It is here, more than in the wall-to-wall excitement, that Raiders of the Lost Ark decisively surpasses its forerunner. Not first of all because Indiana Jones clings to the underside of a Nazi truck (although that’s good too), nor because Harrison Ford has far more appeal than Granger (though he does), but because in the end Steven Spielberg knows what to do with the ark of the covenant while Bennett and Marton don’t know what to do with King Solomon’s mines, King Solomon’s Mines, though enjoyable, falls short of the film it helped inspire.
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).
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