I probably shouldn’t call it a genre, but one type of film that always appeals to me is the ‘journey film’: people, often strangers, setting off on a journey together. The motive or need for the journey can be varied, from the very dire necessity of staying alive (Lifeboat, Ice Cold in Alex) to making a new life for oneself (Westward the Women) to – well, what else – tourism (If It’s Tuesday, This Must be Belgium). And this, pure and simple adventure.
King Solomon’s Mines is based on the novel of the same name by Rider Haggard. I haven’t read the book yet, though from what I’ve heard, it’s quite different from the film. Not that I mind; this is an entertaining, visually very pleasing film, and a must-see for any fan of Stewart Granger’s, which I certainly am.
The year is 1897, in some unidentified part of sub-Saharan Africa. We meet our hero Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) while he’s out on a hunting trip, leading a pair of pale, flabby, superficially ‘brave’ white hunters into the bush for a shot at an elephant. The contrast between the outsiders and Quatermain is stark: he’s genuinely courageous, treats his bearers and trackers with compassion, loves the land and the life it nurtures – and is openly contemptuous of the men whom he’s being paid to guide and protect.
One of the African bearers dies on this trip, crushed by an elephant in the aftermath of a disastrous shot by one of the touring hunters. Quatermain mourns the dead bearer, and that evening decides that he’s had enough of this life. He hates what he’s doing to such an extent that he’d much rather a hand-to-mouth existence than this. Quatermain’s friend, Eric (Lowell Gilmore), the local district commissioner, tries to talk him out of it, but Quatermain’s adamant.
As luck would have it, though, it is Eric who introduces Quatermain to a visitor, John Goode (Richard Carlson). Goode has come all the way from England with his sister Elizabeth, in search of Elizabeth’s husband, Henry Curtis. Quatermain remembers Curtis: a mad Englishman, all fired up with the zeal of searching for lost treasure, who’d come by 18 months earlier. There has been no word of him ever since.
John Goode has an explanation and an intriguing piece of paper. It seems a very old map, pointing the way to a fabled diamond mine, had come into Curtis’s possession, and that mine was what he was trying to find in Africa when he went missing. Goode shows Quatermain a copy of the map (sent in a letter from Curtis to Goode before he vanished). He asks Quatermain if he will undertake to guide Goode and Mrs Curtis to the mine, or to wherever Curtis can be found.
Quatermain refuses outright. The map goes deep into unexplored territory, in a region beyond that inhabited by the fierce Kalauana tribe – so fierce that even the Africans, let alone white men, are wary of going anywhere near them. Quatermain will not risk his neck on what promises to be a very dangerous wild goose chase, no matter if Mrs Curtis has her heart set on finding her husband.
Later that evening, though, Allan Quatermain has another visitor: Mrs Curtis (Deborah Kerr) herself. She tries to persuade Quatermain too, telling him of her deep love for her husband, which will not allow her to rest easy until she has found him. When she sees that this is all water over a duck’s back as far as Quatermain is concerned, she turns mercenary: will Quatermain guide them for £5,000?
Quatermain now admits to her that though he is no lover of luxuries, he does need that money. It turns out that ever since the death of Quatermain’s wife six years earlier, his sole concern has been his son, who is in school in England. Quatermain knows that as a guide and hunter in Africa, he’s living on borrowed time; any day could be his last. If he could leave behind a nest egg for his son’s education and to give him a start in life… for that, he would be willing to go along with the Curtis-Goode madcap safari.
And so they set off.
But just because he’s agreed to Mrs Curtis’s proposition doesn’t mean that Quatermain must like her for it. On the contrary, he resents her for having offered him the one incentive he can’t refuse, and so he ends up resenting everything about her: her Victorian sensibilities, which make her go swathed in yards of suffocating clothing even when it’s broiling…
… her nervousness when it comes to wild animals, especially those that sneak about the camp at night; and the fact that she keeps falling behind.
But they trudge on, Elizabeth Curtis obstinately refusing to turn back. Quatermain, Goode and Elizabeth, with their African bearers, led by Quatermain’s trusted servant Khiva (Kimursi). Through swamp and forest, grassland and desert and crocodile-infested river, till they’ve faced everything from stampede to a charging rhino, to a tribe that might possibly be cannibalistic.
In the process, Elizabeth, despite her resolve to find her ‘beloved’ husband, finds herself instead much attracted to Quatermain:
And long after the majority of their bearers, too scared to go deeper into unknown territory, have deserted them, they make the acquaintance of the very tall, very mysterious Umbopa (Siriaque), who offers his services as a bearer for the rest of their journey:
– which will take them through the wildest of Africa, through a village where a white man who calls himself Smith admits to having met Curtis… and Quatermain realises that Curtis may well have been onto something big.
While looking at the imdb page for King Solomon’s Mines, I came across numerous comments about what a very disappointing adventure film this is. I have my own opinion on that. It depends a lot on how much leeway you’re willing to give a film that claims to be adventure. Must it always be at breakneck speed? Must it not let up on the action for a moment? Must it be chockfull of mysteries, twists and turns and sudden surprises? If that is absolutely all you’ll accept out of an adventure film, then this one isn’t for you. If, on the other hand, you don’t mind an adventure that takes time out now and then to focus on the scenery and the wildlife, to crack a few jokes or show the development of a romance – or to revel in some local colour – then this is a mustn’t miss.
What I liked about this film:
The gorgeousness of it all. Africa is one continent I’ve never visited (though I’ve been wanting to tour it ever since, at the age of five, I saw a photograph of giraffes below Kilimanjaro). King Solomon’s Mines reminded me of that photo – full of absolutely breathtaking shots of countryside and wildlife, each more spectacular than the last. Look at this, for instance:
I don’t know where that is, but I think it’s beautiful. Or this:
The film, incidentally, was shot in Tanganyika, Kenya, Uganda and Belgian Congo, and it won an Academy Award for Best Colour Cinematography.
The people, the clothes, the music, the dancing. In particular, the finale of the film, which includes a scene in a Watusi village, with a group of mesmerising dancers.
In fact, I spent a lot of my time just gaping at the sheer colour and beauty of the Africans onscreen: Umbopa and his fellow tribesman, all very tall and stately; the people of Kalauana, their faces and heads stained with red earth and brilliant blue; and those dancers from the Watusi village, feet tapping and heads snapping, topped with those gorgeous head-dresses:
The music, all of it traditional African, is fabulous. Bits of it were in fact used in later films set in Africa.
Stewart Granger, in his element here. Interestingly, one of the users on the imdb forum for King Solomon’s Mines is a Kenyan and admitted to being impressed at Granger’s good diction in both Swahili and Kikuyu!
What I didn’t like:
I’m admittedly being finicky here, but there’s just too much wildlife around – too much, and this from someone who’s very keen on wildlife. As they make their way across Africa, Quatermain and gang encounter a panoply of African wildlife, everything from lions and hyenas to leopards, rhinos, hippos, crocodiles, zebra, giraffes, cheetah, mamba, ostriches, safari ants, baboons, monkeys… granted, this is a film and granted this is 1897, when you probably couldn’t have gone a mile in the countryside without running into the local fauna, but this still smacks to me of something like “Oh, look, here’s another specimen of African wildlife! Let’s put it in!”
And there’s the predictable attitude towards the natives: either they’re savages who’d as soon put a white man in the pot as look at him, or they’re loyal fellows who’ll lay down their lives for the bwana.
But, as I said: I’m being finicky. This is an entertaining and striking film, and definitely worth a watch.
And it’s made me reorganise my priorities on my list of must-visit travel destinations: Africa’s gone to the top of the list again!