I don’t do “retro” reviews in the print Amazing Stories, so I decided to do this review here, online. The person you see at left, Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925), mostly invented the “lost civilization” sort of story. (There were others; I have somewhere an Australian version of a lost civilization book written in the 19th century, but I don’t know where it is, and I’ve forgotten who wrote it!) At the very least, Haggard popularized the genre; his second book, King Solomon’s Mines, was written in three months and became extremely popular—and spawned imitators, as any extremely popular book is wont to do. He had other well-known books, such as She and Alan Quatermain, as well.
One of the reasons I’m reviewing this is that my wife (the Lovely & Talented Lynne Taylor Fahnestalk) and I were looking for something to watch on our LG smart TV, and this movie (same title as book), King Solomon’s Mines, was available. Having read the book many years ago, I thought I might enjoy the movie, so we watched it. And it seemed very unfamiliar, except for the characters of Umbopa and Alan Quatermain. So I found the book, which is available online from many sources, and discovered that the screenwriters had made numerous changes, some of which I’ll detail here.
The Haggard book was published in 1885 (just about the time my maternal grandmother was born), and this film was made in 1937, which means it’s only a bit over 50 years between writing and this, the first of several filmic adaptations. As an illustration, 50 years ago this June, Apollo 11 first landed men on the moon, so you can see how “recent” the film was to the book. When the book was written, Queen Victoria was still on the throne of England, and much of Africa was a mystery to the Western world (less so in 1937, however); in fact, much of the world was unexplored except to those who lived there. But the mindset of the Victorian age was that if white men didn’t do it—most often British white men (and yes, I mean men rather than men and women)—it hadn’t been done.
Which partially explains why the book has no female protagonists—except for the “old witch,” Gagool, who doesn’t count, being female and a native African. But the film has a female star, Anna Lee—playing Kathy O’Brien, a character who, with her father, was made up out of whole cloth for the movie. After all, I’m sure the studio reasoned, we wouldn’t want to neglect 50% of the audience-to-be.
A quick description of the movie, to begin. O’Brien (first name never given, played by Arthur Sinclair) and his daughter Kathy have come to the South African diamond fields to make their fortunes; we find out through dialogue that this is only the latest in a series of get-rich-quick schemes he’s tried over the years, and always with the same result—the giant diamond he tries to sell to the trader is just a big hunk of quartz. “Darlin’,” he tells his daughter, “I hear there’s a fortune in ivory to be had.” She puts her foot down and tells him they’re going to go “straight”; they’re going to go to the coast, where she’ll get a job as a schoolteacher. But between them, they have less than a pound, so need to hitch a ride on a wagon (“waggon,” in the British).
O’Brien sees a wagon leaving with a middle-aged figure, Alan Quartermain (Cedric Hardwicke, not yet knighted) driving. You’ll note they also changed his name slightly, “Quartermain” being more euphonious to audiences, I guess. (SF film fans will note that in The Quatermass Experiment the first part of the name is pronounced “kwayter” and in this movie, it’s pronounced “kworter” with a soft British “r”, which would be exactly how “Quatermain” would probably be said anyway. So changing the name made no sense to me, anyway.) He asks Quatermain for a lift, and is told “no” in no uncertain terms; Kathy, upon hearing this, says to her father, “What kind of Irishman are you, anyway?” and tries to talk Quatermain into a lift, eventually persuading him with a bogus tale about an ailing sister who’s dying in Kilkenny, so they need to get to the coast.
Long story short: on the way they meet another wagon being driven by Umbopo (Paul Robeson) with a delirious Portugese owner, Silvestra (Arthur Goullett), inside. They find out that Silvestra, who dies almost immediately, has been searching for the fabled King Solomon’s mines with a map that was made 300 years before; O’Brien makes a copy of the map and, while the rest of the camp is asleep, steals Silvestra’s wagon and heads north to find the fabled diamond mines of the Biblical king, leaving his daughter with Quatermain.
Quatermain’s companions (Commander Good—Roland Young; and Sir Henry Curtis—John Loder), who have paid him to be a guide on their African hunting trip, tell him they want to pursue O’Brien; Umbopo tells them he knows the country because he was from there originally. They end up in a desert region and have to abandon the wagon because the oxen can drink up all their water in no time at all. So they head off, following the map, onto the “burning sands” on foot. (In the book, Quatermain, who’s been an elephant hunter for years, knows better, and they go only at night in the desert.) Umbopo sings them on their way (Robeson was, at this point, an international star—his “Old Man River” was the hit of the British version of Showboat—and he’s actually got the biggest credit; this film is a vehicle for him, rather than just an attempt to film Haggard’s book.)
Eventually they almost die of thirst but reach an area where they can dig into the sand and find water; they eventually cross the “Suliman” (Arabic for Soloman) mountains—with Umbopo singing them along—and are captured by the natives who live there. (For some reason the natives are impressed by Good’s “white legs” and half-shaved beard, but make no mention of the blonde woman, surely the first blonde woman they’ve ever seen.) Quatermain tells the natives that they’re white gods, but they have to surrender and are taken to meet King Twala (Robert Adams).
Twala asks them if they’re looking for the white rocks, and they are taken to meet the witch Gagool (Sidney Fairbrother) and are shown the cavern—in an active volcano—that contains the diamonds that have been mined. But King Twala is a real jerk, in modern terms, and we find out that he took the throne illegally, the real king being Umbopa—he has a nifty snake tattoo on his body that proves it. Twala has Gagool, in her role of “evil finder” call out our heros for assassination—and a civil war ensues, with Umbopo revealing his true identity and Twala calling neighbouring tribes for assistance.
The tribes unite under Umbopo and the expedition’s people all go into the cavern to find O’Brien, who’s broken his leg and has been lying there the whole time. Oddly enough, lying in a volcanic cavern has not caused him any breathing problems! Gagool, who is the guardian of the mines—she controlled a marvelously counterbalanced rock that concealed the entrance, but our heroes propped it open—follows them in and, in a fit of revenge, sets something burning that eventually collapses the cavern entrance, trapping our intrepid heroes (and heroine) as well as hoisting herself by her own petard, when the collapsing cavern falls on her.
The falling rock also triggers a volcanic explosion because, as Quatermain explains, pools of lava are inherently unstable. (?) Eventually, Umbopo manages to shift a big rock and they all—carrying O’Brien with his broken leg—escape the cavern. Good, being nobody’s fool, manages to scoop up a handful of gems on his way out, so we know that somebody, at least, will be rich as Croesus when they get back to “civilization.” They head across the mountains back the way they came, minus Umbopo, who’s got some “kinging” to do, but who sings them on their way.
The movie is relatively inoffensive; I wouldn’t say that the 1930s were culturally enlightened, but certainly more than the 1880s, when the book was written. I’m not sure I would recommend the book to younger readers—even though I first read it as a child—simply because it violates any number of today’s social mores. For one thing, the native Africans are referred to, by Quatermain the narrator, as “Kafirs.” (If you’re a Wilbur Smith reader, you may have seen this as “kaffirs”; both spellings derive from an Arabic word that means “unbeliever.”) The word is extremely derogatory—as bad as, or worse than, the American “n-word”; and it implies that the natives are less than human.
The Victorian attitude towards non-white populations is worse in the book than in the movie; at one point in the book Umbopo addresses Sir Henry, calling him “Incubu,” a word that means “elephant”; implying that he is larger than life. Quatermain gets really upset, saying in his narration that it was not fitting that natives should address a white man familiarly that way, using one of their “heathenish appellations.” The movie isn’t as bad in that way; for example, in the book, all the natives (before they reach Twala’s group) call the whites “Baas,” which literally means “boss,” or “master” in Afrikaans. In the movie, the whites are called “nkosi,” which has some of the same connotations, meaning “chief”—but the former to me smacks of the pre-Civil Rights era in which I grew up, and which horrified me.
Another way the book disturbed me in today’s terms is the casual way the white hunters kill game. The movie Quatermain tells O’Brien he despises diamond miners because they strip the land for greed; the book Quatermain casually kills many of a group of elephants they encounter not because they are hungry, but because of their ivory. Victorians (whether British or American—many African hunts catered to Americans too) had the attitude that animals were there for their sport; casually shooting hundreds of animals only for trophies. (And don’t get me started on American attitudes towards nature in the 1800s!)
I’m not a vegetarian; I eat meat—and if necessary, I would kill what I had to for food—but I don’t believe in killing for sport. I think most animals are—if not intelligent, certainly self-aware—as subject to pain and suffering as we “higher” animals are. It’s my opinion that most so-called “primitive” cultures were only primitive in technology or, perhaps, social structures—I have my own views on any number of our own “advanced” social structures. But most so-called primitive cultures were adapted to living with nature and not taking more than they needed from their surroundings. We, in large part, have lost sight of that.
Anyway, I’m digressing here. The book is worth reading if you’re old enough to understand the social implications of the attitudes expressed in the book both by the narrator and other characters; it’s not one of the best of the “lost civilization” fantasies (one of my favourites is Abraham Merritt’s The Face in the Abyss), but it’s not one of the worst.
The film, though the first filming of this book, is not the best either—and again, not the worst. And it’s spawned a heap of imitators and, perhaps, tributes—like the Indiana Jones movies, for example. I haven’t seen it for a number of years, but a lot of people think the 1950 version, with Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, was one of the best. One that was worse, in my opinion, was the 1985 remake with Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone. But tastes differ. I’ll have to rewatch the others in coming months to see which one I prefer.
By the way, there are any number of other genre connections in this movie: for example, it was co-written by, and all the dialog is credited to Roland Pertwee. He, as you might guess, is the father of Jon Pertwee, one of the Doctor Whos, and the grandfather of Sean Pertwee, who plays Alfred Pennyworth in the TV show Gotham. The film’s director, Robert Stevenson, would go on to be a Disney director, doing dozens of movies like Mary Poppins, Herbie Rides Again, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Absent-Minded Professor, and so on.
Roland Young, of course, will be familiar to viewers as Cosmo Topper in films like Topper and Topper Returns; he also played Watson in Sherlock Holmes (1922).
Film rating is two and a half flibbets! ¤¤
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