Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Dr. Jones, I Presume?: The Golden Age of KING SOLOMON'S MINES


As much as some misguided people like to think that Indy’s father was a Scottish guy who looks remarkably like a British secret agent, a Russian submarine captain and err... a Spanish peacock, he was not.

The real paternal relation has to go to H. Rider Haggard. Haggard, born in 1856, was an English novelist and poet whose real life experiences in Africa while in his 20s led to a series of novels on his return to England.

Inspired by his own experiences in colonial Africa and the real life adventurers/explorers Frederick Selous and Frederick Russell Burnham, Haggard’s brother bet him that he couldn’t write an adventure yarn that would surpass the success of Robert Louis Stevenson's “Treasure Island” (1883), which was the contemporary, literary equivalent of STAR WARS (1977). Haggard wrote the novel “King Solomon’s Mines” intermittently over the next four to sixteen weeks, detailing the adventures of the best big game hunter and explorer in Africa, Allan Quatermain. After being rejected numerous times over a six month period, Haggard’s book finally saw the light of day in 1885 and was released with the humble ad-line "The Most Amazing Book Ever Written". Take that Bible! It was instantly successful, so much so that the publisher was unable to keep up with the demand. The bet was won and Haggard’s book was so influential as to pave the way for an entirely new literary (and subsequently film) genre referred to as “Lost World”, until recent years. Now we just call them “Indy rip-offs”. Cue muted horns.

Haggard’s novel was not only groundbreaking for its approach to the adventure genre, but had the unique perspective of being somewhat sympathetic to the indigenous peoples that he was writing about. His hero, Quatermain, refused to use derogatory slang toward the natives and claimed to prefer some of them to the company of white men. Pretty daring stuff for its day and going forward as well, since none of the film adaptations retained this character trait. Another element that was considered daring and that was excised from every film adaptation was the romantic angle between a rather self-sufficient native girl, Foulata, and one of the main white men that Quatermain is guiding, Captain Good. Even so, the romance is not exactly championed and Haggard kills off her character near the end as a way of solving this perceived moral quandary.

ALLAN QUATERMAIN (1919) was the first film adaptation of Haggard’s novel. Produced by a South African company, the only evidence that remains of the film is a few stills in the South African film archive as well as a few publicity print advertisements. Haggard himself attended a private screening of the film on Halloween (or All Hallow’s Eve) and wasn’t overly thrilled, writing in his diary “it is not at all bad, but it might be a great deal better.” If I had to guess, I would assume that his pushing of the racial envelope was probably dumped wholesale, though it appears from one of the ads, that the Foulata character might actually be in the film.

In 1937, on the 50th anniversary of the first publishing of Haggard’s novel, a second adaption saw the light of a projector bulb. Titled KING SOLOMON’S MINES, Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke) is portrayed here as a fearless “white hunter”, except he is rather more portly than one would expect but he is graced with a fine set of whiskers, which we all know is the mark of a great adventurer. This version deviates from the novel in several ways, one of which, ironically, is to embrace the popular prejudice of the era; hatin’ on the Irish. Quatermain, while traveling through a small African town before setting out on a safari for Cmdr. John Good (Roland Young) and Sir Henry Curtis (John Loder), runs across an Irish father, Patsy (Arthur Sinclair), and daughter Kathy (Anna Lee), who are down on their luck as diamond miners and are looking for a ride to the next town. After much cajoling Quatermain grudgingly accepts them as travelling companions. When the daughter admits that her claims of having a dying grandmother was a lie, Quatermain replies “I know it was. I’ve met the Irish before.” What?! May your obituary be written in weasel's piss, ye bastrad! (yeah, that was my best Irish brogue)

As they continue on their journey they come across a broken down wagon containing a dying Italian explorer ranting about the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. The Italian has a native named Umbopa (Paul Robeson) with him, who as it turns out is not his servant, but a man looking to go near the fabled mines for his own reasons. After Patsy finds the Italian’s map to the mines he decides to run off and find his pot o’ diamonds while Quatermain dismisses it as a fool’s errand. Umbopa and Kathy take off to follow Patsy on foot and after Good gets rather moon-eyed about Kathy and Curtis exclaims several wat ho’s for adventure old chap, Quatermain grudgingly (again) decides to make a day of it… or rather several weeks of it!

Surviving the desert and jungle of darkest Africa with amusing uppercrust English optimism provided by Curtis, the group finally catches up with Kathy and Umbopa and set off to find Patsy. One morning the party is discovered by a tribe of natives who witness Curtis removing his monocle and are so impressed with this that they, naturally assume, he is some sort of white god. Yes, H. Rider Haggard is the man to blame for this well used and embarrassing cliché, though in the novel he had Curtis fiddling with his false teeth. Close enough. After the usual worshiping of the white god we discover that the tribe is under the control of a witch doctor and Umbopa is the rightful heir to the throne. Of course Quatermain must right wrongs and run into the mines to save the ill-fated Patsy, while surviving the treachery of the witchdoctor.

In spite of the fact that it deviates from Haggard’s novel in a rather odd way, this is a surprisingly well aged adaptation. To be sure, some of the mechanics are considered very clichéd, and the several cheery “negro” song numbers (obviously tailored to Robeson's famous singing skills) are really embarrassingly dated, particularly since Robeson himself was one of the first civil rights activists. Even so, the pacing is swift, which is not something the other adaptations are known for, and the acting solid. Hardwicke’s interpretation of Quatermain is rather stoic and begrudging, but the always entertaining John Loder does a nice job bringing some comic relief to the proceedings with his dry satire of the English elite. Interestingly Umbopa is portrayed as an independent masculine figure with maturity and intelligence, unlike the two adaptations that followed. Granted you aren’t going to get multi-million dollar thrills out of this picture and some of the tribal segments go on way too long, but it’s still pretty damned entertaining over all.

In 1945 Columbia Pictures freely adapted Haggard’s novel into a 15 chapter serial titled JUNGLE RAIDERS. When I say “freely adapted,” I mean blatantly ripped off as the plot, characters and settings are all in place but have been tweaked just enough to omit crediting Haggard as the source. Written by the legendary George H. Plympton, this may be a bastard child and a bit backwards to boot, but it sure is a lot of fun.

A woman, Anne Reed (Janet Shaw), is searching for her missing father, Dr. Reed (Budd Buster), who travelled into some uncharted territory in search of a diamond mine. While searching for him she runs into Bob and Joe (Eddie Quillan and Kane Richmond), who have just left the military and were to hook up with Dr. Reed and set out in search of a rare plant that could be used to create a wonder drug more powerful than penicillin (pronounced “penn-IH-sul-un”). Unfortunately for the good doctor, he is being held captive by some ner-do-well’s at a local trading post who know that the plant resides near a hostile tribe of natives who guard the way to cache of treasure. For the most part the serial follows the adventures of Anne, Bob and Joe as they follow Dr. Reed’s presumed path.

Interestingly while the trappings are all African safari, the location is supposedly an island in the pacific and the natives here are idol-worshipping heathens, dressed in a weird pastiche of Arabian, Polynesian and American Indian inspired garb, talking like the Indians in westerns of the era! This last bit leads to some seriously wince-inducing (but damn funny) scenes where in the “hidden village of the lost Arzaks” some translation services are required when the doctor needs to tell the chief’s son that they need to head back to the car to get his doctor kit so that he can try to give the chief an antidote for his poison. The doctor’s assistant does so by saying “send men back to cars, get box, medicine man will help your father.” To which the witchdoctor and his cronies reply “naw, naw, naw” while shaking their heads. Phew! Good thing he is on hand to translate into the native dialect!

The serial uses King Solomon’s Mines as a springboard for all sorts of outlandish pulp silliness, campy cliché and cheap action without being too worried about making it a “serious film spectacle” as the studios would have wanted to do with the same concept in a typical movie format. As a result the episodes move at breakneck speed and are a real hoot in spite of all the obvious budgetary, errr… shortcomings.

Speaking of “serious spectacle;” 1950 saw the next adaptation, KING SOLOMON’S MINES, come to light as a grand epic in full color from MGM. At the time MGM was producing A movies with lots of serious drama or light comedy. With visions of Oscars dancing in their heads, they viewed King Solomon’s Mines as less of a ripping yarn of machismo, bravado and derring-do, but more of a sweeping epic drama with romance and intrigue set against the lush backdrop of the wilds of Africa.

Here screenwriter Helen Deutsch, inspired by the bickering, sexual tension of the screwball comedies of the ‘40s shifts around Haggard’s plot catalyst of Sir Henry Curtis’ search for his brother to boost the romance angle and add a strong (white) woman to the cast of characters. Here Sir Henry Curtis becomes the husband of Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr), a strong-willed woman who is determined to find her missing husband, who went searching for the legendary titular mines in the wilds of Africa. After having heard of the great Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger), she seeks him out and has her brother John Good (Richard Carlson)  implore him to take her on an expedition to find her clearly not-so-better half. Quatermain’s outbursts of “a woman?! On a safari?! No thank you!” fall on his deaf ears as Good manages to talk Quatermain into doing the job and leaving his pet howler monkey at home. Can you see what’s coming? Yep, this here is the trend-setting character device that would influence generations of adventure films to come, from the famous (and far more charismatic) pairing of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in THE AFRICAN QUEEN (1951) straight through to ROMANCING THE STONE (1984) and erm… JAKE SPEED (1986).

After setting out on their adventure, we are treated to quite a bit of travelogue footage that feels like it was nicked out of the archives of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, except we don’t get to see Jim high-tailing it away from a pissed off rhino with a dart in its ass. Also we get some rather unsettling footage of real safari kills that are pretty unpalatable these days. In between that we have lots of sexual tension between the two leads who, while being fine actors in other films, don’t seem to really muster the sparks of later efforts in the same vein. Granger certainly has the hair and a tan that came from the same bottle that Chuck Heston borrowed for A TOUCH OF EVIL (1958), he is not exactly rugged and the scenes where he’s supposed to look tough and brave while shirtless are pretty much snicker-inducing.

The real weak point of the film is the bizarre, totally xenophobic reworking of Umbopa’s character (here played by Siriaque). Gone is the strapping, whip-smart, exiled king, instead we have his character re-imagined as a painfully skinny, emaciated, seven-foot tall, spear wielding freak with his fro shaved into a crazy cross-breeding of a Mohawk and a pompadour. When the party stumble across him, they treat him with aversion and distrust, but decide to let him tag along because, hey, what could he do to the superior white man?

After a long trek through the desert, they finally come to the village guarding the mines and meet up with the witchdoctor usurper. Everyone in the village is skinny, tall and has the same weird-ass haircut, so you know Umbopa is in the right place. In order to get into the mines Umbopa must prove that he is the rightful heir to the throne by showing his scars and challenging the usurper to a duel. This duel is something to behold. Two of the frailest, tallest weaklings ever to do battle, badly faking it with an undercranked camera. It’s almost painful to watch. I say “almost” because the only thing more painful than that fight scene is the big, long, choreographed musical tribal dance number that follows!

Of course Quatermain and company get into the mines only to find Henry’s skeleton with a sword in its back and jewels in its hands, clearing the way for Quatermain to properly romance Elizabeth. While this entry resonated with audiences at the time and is fondly remembered by many, I feel this is a pretty weak adaptation. In addition to feeling that Granger is badly miscast, there is way too much time spent on stock footage of safari hunts and to make matters worse the film was shot 1.37:1, which doesn’t present any stunning vistas, though MGM didn’t start shooting in scope until 1953. Even for the time there is little action, lots of talk and it seems far more interested in portraying the natives in a condescending light than even the 1937 version. Quatermain’s preference of some natives to white men is changed to a preference of some animals to men, mainly from the looks of it, his pet monkey.

Clearly Spielberg and Lucas were keen on this film in particular. Both are obsessed with their own ‘50s nostalgia and this film was a big one at the time, nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and winning two, one for editing and one for cinematography. Granger not only sports the necessary hero-shellacked hair, but a snap-brim fedora that looks mighty stylish and is clearly the inspiration for Indiana Jones. So now that we know what inspired them, the circle is about to be complete with Allan Quatermain borrowing a page or two from Indy's well used book...

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