Tuesday, April 29, 2008

King Solomon's Mines (1950)

“King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) is a splendid adventure film, as well as a beautiful travelogue of African sights and sounds. It was one of the most popular films of 1950 and it holds up well today.

The story is simple enough. Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger), a hunter and safari guide in colonial Africa, is hired by Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) to take her and her brother John (Richard Carlson) into an unexplored part of Africa to follow the trail of her husband, who was seeking the fabled diamond treasure of King Solomon. Quatermain initially refuses, but the promise of a 5,000 pound payment quickly changes his mind. The party treks across hundreds of miles of uncharted territory to come upon the treasure, and the fate of Elizabeth’s husband.

M-G-M spared no expense in bringing the famous tale to the screen. The entire cast and a Technicolor camera crew went on location to Africa to film the famous tale. The scenery is breathtaking, and gives a good account of the various types of geography that make up the Dark Continent. Every kind of animal is on display, as are various African tribes.

The story of “King Solomon’s Mines” emerged from the fervid imagination of British novelist H. Rider Haggard. It was one of the first of the “lost kingdom” adventure stories and was an instant success upon population in 1885. Haggard’s main character Allan Quatermain, a hunter and safari guide in Africa, proved one of his most popular characters, so much so that Haggard wrote more than a dozen other novels and stories featuring the character.

In junior high, I read quite a bit of Haggard, but “King Solomon’s Mines”, probably his most famous book, eluded me. In the 1940s my mom had given her brother a set of beautifully illustrated Haggard novels, but he didn’t want them, so she kept them. I read them and was quite enthralled. I loved “She” (the other great Haggard masterpiece), and “The People of the Mist.” I was amused to read in one of Ray Harryhausen’s autobiographies that he long wanted to do a film version of “People of the Mist” but he couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere! He could have called me, I have a copy sitting on my shelf.

My favorite H. Rider Haggard novel was “Eric Brighteyes” a lusty Viking saga full of battles, romance and lots of supernatural elements. An absolutely marvelous read which would make a great movie if anyone had the foresight to film it. There are so many great books written through the years that would make good movies, instead of the rash of remakes and retreads of old TV shows we’re getting now.

Back to “King Solomon’s Mines.”

I was surprised at how modern the film is, in many ways. Atypically of so many films of the era, there is no musical score. Rather, native songs, chants and drumming make up the musical accompaniment. It’s interesting, but the film could have benefited from a full-blooded musical score. There are long stretches of film showing the safari hiking through Africa where music would have moved things along. M-G-M staff composers Miklos Rozsa or Bronislau Kaper could have added some marvelous musical color to the proceedings. In fact, Rozsa scored the “King Solomon’s Mines” trailer, and gives a good idea about what he could have brought to the film.

Also, Quatermain is respectful of the natives. He does not talk down or condescends to them. He respects them as equals. The final action scene is a duel between two warring chieftains, and though our sympathies are with the deposed king, Quatermain and his party do not interfere, but merely act as bystanders. No white man saving the black man here.

Quatermain is also an ecologist. He doesn’t kill for sport, but for survival. In an early scene showing his prowess as a hunter, he prevents one of his paying customers from needlessly shooting an elephant.

Kerr is marvelous of course, as she always is, and Granger is fine. In fact, it’s likely his Allan Quatermain is probably his best role under his M-G-M contract. But he was never one of my favorites. He lacks the warmth and zest that Flynn and Fairbanks brought to their adventure roles. I always found him too smug for my taste. He never looks like he’s enjoying himself. However, in the marvelous John Wayne western comedy “North to Alaska” (1960), he’s a lot more relaxed, and I wish he had bought some of that sense of fun to his 1950s swashbucklers. (Compare his “Prisoner of Zenda” to Ronald Colman’s and you’ll see what I mean).

Still, there’s so much to enjoy here, especially the scenery. I won’t soon forget the fleet of natives in their canoes carrying the safari upstream, the marvelously staged animal stampede sequence, or the simple loveliness of Deborah Kerr washing her hair in the African sunlight.

Rating for “King Solomon’s Mines”: Three and a half stars

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