Nearly 20 years after the last cinematic adventure of Mr. Quatermain, the time was right to bring him back to the silver screen. 1965 had seen Hammer Films release an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s most popular book SHE with international success, in no small part due to the casting of Ursula Andress as the tit-ular character (oh, stop groaning!).
Low-rent, high-concept uber-producer Harry Allan Towers apparently decided not only was the time right to exploit Haggard's work, but all three of Haggard’s great novels in one fell swoop! I’m not sure what Towers was planning to do for a sequel, not leaving himself much to work with if the need arose, but I suspect he figured that he’d burn that bridge when he got to it. Apparently he was not the only one high on the idea, as Towers managed to assemble a reasonably impressive cast of not-quite A-list English actors and signed on Canadian-born, British TV director Alvin Rakoff. Uh oh, did I say “TV director”? That can only mean one thing... this well-trod ground might be a bit more parched than usual.
The story is told in flashback by the senior member (Wilfred Hyde White) of an English gentleman’s club in a scene that looks as if it was completely lifted by Ngai Kai Lam for the opening of THE SEVENTH CURSE (1986). Allan Quatermain (John Colicos) is shown hunting a taxidermied leopard that is poking it’s head up and down behind some rocks. Quatermain moves in for the kill and… hey, it is a dude in a dead leopard skin! Quatermain shoots him, grabs his spiffy medallion and heads back to jolly old England. Sir Henry Curtis (David McCallum) examines the medallion back at the gentleman’s club and declares it to be Phoenician. He decides that an expedition is in order to find the origins of said medallion and that all the chums should jolly-well do it. John Good (Patrick Macnee) wants nothing to do with another one of Quatermain’s hare-brained adventures but is roped in after losing a game of billiards. Supposedly Good is along for the ride as the navigator, but clearly seems to do little more than use the group as guinea pigs for his experiments in French cookery. This is the ‘70s after all and French cooking was a hot pop-culture topic… ten years ago.
Once in Africa, after being attacked by Good’s recipe for Hungarian goulash with “a trifle too much pepper”, the party is attacked by natives! Before you can say “poor man’s ZULU”, servants are being stabbed by spears, white men are ducking and a covered wagon careens over a rock and explodes in a ball of flame! Ummmm… I guess that was the dynamite cart. Right Alvin? Showing up out of nowhere is Quartermain’s old friend, the axe-wielding Umslopogaas (the ever reliable Ken Gampu) to hack the crap out of the bad natives with his army of good natives. In one “wtf” moment, two natives are shown rolling around on the ground with one biting the other one on the thighs and ass. For a minute there I was wondering if I had gotten the right film in the mail!
For some reason the persistent thought kept nagging me, “why wasn’t this in 3D?” Man, it would have been perfect and a great way to fix the damn walking scenes! Granted in one of the scenes they discuss wine pairings to keep you riveted to the screen and throw in more yuks such as a monkey stealing a priceless bottle, chugging it and belching. Phew! Comic relief, you are a cruel mistress. Admit it, a wine chugging monkey would be much more entertaining in 3D. Plus, cheesy monsters, I think, demand 3D. When the party get their boats stuck, by chance they also happen upon a surprisingly lumpy brontosaur. After a stroke of brilliance, they decide to tie ropes to their boats and to the bronto’s tail and then scare it into moving. A feat which is only achieved by whistling with a blade of grass. It seems a shame that if you are going to do a claymation dinosaur scene, they couldn’t think of something just a bit more interesting to do. C’mon, I’m not expecting Harryhausen here, but honestly, if Scott Speigel and Sam Raimi can make it happen on Super 8, I'll be turning a deaf ear to Towers’ excuses.
As if to make up for that rather dull dino scene, the party are attacked by a hoard of giant crabs with glowing eyes! One snaps a claw around Curtis’ leg. Umslopogaas hacks the entire claw off and Quatermain throws it away! What the hell dude? Man, you have a French chef and a giant crab claw. Do the freakin' math! You and Curtis have been bitching about the food the entire trip. What are you thinking? Eh, maybe they were out of butter.
Finally they find the mysterious city of the Phoenicians ...in Africa. It’s been a while since I took an anthropology class, but weren’t the Phoenicians in the Middle East? Like everything biblical? No matter it’s the Phoenicians: white guys who speak English and whose guards dress like Roman centurions. Sure, makes perfect sense. The group is told that the city is surrounded by a moat of poisonous snakes! Awesome! We then cut to a close up of six snakes squiggling around in the dirt. Bogus! Once in the city, they find that Queen Nyleptha (Britt Eklund) digs gold lamé, English twits and fruit and cheese courses. What she doesn’t like is the crazy leopard priest dude (Sam Williams) that has any strangers who get near the city killed. The Phoenician’s seem to have come into possession of the treasure of King Solomon’s mines and have hidden it away, thus abolishing greed and therefore abolishing all strife. Except for the greed of strangers and the strife of killing them, I'm assuming.
or a cryptic map to the hiding place of Solomon’s infamous stash. Curtis doesn't hesitate for a second to leap at this once in a life-time opportunity to get filthy rich! Suddenly the priest decides to stage a coup with his squad of plumed leopard dudes, just as the volcano over the city begins to erupt. Man, did they steal my 6th grade science project? Baking soda, red food coloring and vinegar, right? This is easily the highlight of the film as the city falls apart and citizens run directly under falling masonry while our chums idly try to decipher the clues to the location of the gold. Interestingly the location of the treasure is revealed by the sun hitting a crystal which focuses a beam of light on the correct obelisk which is covered with Egyptian hieroglyphics. Ok, so it ain’t exactly the Tanis Map Room, but damn the similarity is pretty damn eye-brow raising.
This is certainly not the best adaptation out there, but it managed to hold my attention, mostly due to the cast and rampant silliness. At the same time, the ridiculous amount of padding and general uneventfulness of major portions of the film really make this something I can’t really rave about. I think the most disappointing thing about the film is the casting of John Colicos as Quatermain. He doesn’t need to be a pretty-boy like Stewart Granger, but damn, he looks more like a cranky plumber than a rugged adventurer. Even so, that would be fine if he had some decent acting chops or some screen charisma, of which he has neither and is constantly outshone by every one else in the cast. Brother, if you are the lead and David McCallum is stealing your scenes, there’s something seriously wrong. Clearly these video companies felt the same way: