King Solomon’s Mines (1950)

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!

Advertisements

31 thoughts on “King Solomon’s Mines (1950)

  1. Seen from the perspective of a “native” in the twenty first century, this film (as well as Haggard’s novel) more than fulfills its quota of criminal -isms. From Orientalism (is there an ‘African’ equivalent?) to colonialism to male-chauvinism – you name it and this films has done it! But I still love it. It would take more than just a few criminal -isms to make me dislike a great adventure tale (I am with you on the definition of “adventure”) and a typical M&B-ish romance – particularly when Stewart Granger is involved! :D

    • Granger definitely has a large part in helping me forgive all the many things King Solomon’s Mines does that I, as a resident of an ex-colony, don’t at all agree with! But I think that when it comes to portraying the ‘natives’, this film is better than a lot of other contemporary films – like say Elephant Walk or The Naked Jungle, both of which were terribly condescending.

      Have you seen the very unusual The Crimson Kimono? It’s a noir, but with a surprisingly modern take on racism.

  2. My memory tells me I have read the book and can’t remember a single thing about it and not even the synopsis of the film rings a bell. The faint trace of memory of the novel excludes the romance, but who knows….!
    I agree with bollyviewer and you about the lots of -isms in it.
    And when I watch such films, though engrossing as they are, to shout at the white characters, what the hell are you lording about?

    • I recall a comment on imdb about the romance being a Hollywood import into the story – I believe Rider Haggard’s novel didn’t have a Mrs Curtis in it; instead, three men set out to find the lost mine.

      “to shout at the white characters, what the hell are you lording about?”

      – And they had the cheek to call that lording around the ‘white man’s burden’, too! Imagine!

    • It looks absolutely stunning. I just wish getting to Africa from India wasn’t quite so expensive! But someone I know went to South Africa in the offseason, when tariffs were lower and the crowds were missing – and they saw plenty of wildlife.

      My lists of places I must visit are getting so long and so unwieldy, I’m going to have to do something about them… like rob a bank.

      • :) Dustedoff, just had this flash of an image of you robbing a bank, and then cross-dressing as a man, and then catching a train, and then hiding in a ship, and then reaching Africa after a storm ……. and so on. With Rishi Kapoor.

            • Considering that I’ve worked in such industries… this is the only thing I’ve not done. So why spoil my record! Yay!!! I want to be an actress! :-D

              Greta, of course you’ll be the gori villainess. And unless we can persuade Beth and sitaji to help out too, we could put you in a curly blonde wig and green goggles and make you the poor orphan who befriends the heroine and later turns out to be her long-lost half-sister who’s an heiress…

              I am getting very excited about this!

  3. Hehehehe :-D :-D

    Banno, pacifist: the two of you are hilarious!!! I just saw this little string of comments (off the cuff scripting?!) and nearly fell off the chair laughing!!

    And of course all the Africans we meet will be actually Indians in blackface, and the elephants will be Asian elephants, and the cheetahs will actually be leopards…

    • Yes, there were so many films of that sort, weren’t there? Replace African with Indian/Red Indian/whatever, and you have a whole ‘new’ film! I find those very irritating too, there’s something so utterly one-sided about them. King Solomon’s Mines isn’t too much like that – in fact, all through the film, the whites don’t end up fighting any Africans. What I really loved was the way this film showcases the beauty of Africa. Just thinking about it gives me gooseflesh.

  4. I avoid all this films, the only one i recall liking of all the western shot in africa movies is ‘The Gods must be crazy’ it was very popular when i was akid and i recall liking it, i wonder if i’ll feel different watching it now

  5. I saw this film long, long ago and memory has faded. Though I like watching old English films you are right about the attitude towards the natives. For instance if the film is set in India then invariably the local Indians always wear turbans whether you spot them wearing it in reality is a different matter.

    • So true! The worst film I’ve seen of that kind was the Errol Flynn starrer The Charge of the Light Brigade, which had the most atrocious so-called ‘Indian’ details – decor, costume, etc. On the other hand, there was this excellent film called Northwest Frontier (which also had I S Johar in the cast), fairly meticulously researched and believable, plus it didn’t treat all Indians as mere ‘natives’.

  6. I’ve seen the Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone version of it and needless to say I’ve loved every bit of it, the fights, comedy, action…
    I still remember that big black man who used to be scared and hide his face in his hands! And then there was the boiling in that huge cauldron scene…. Awesome awesome…This one will surely be wonderful I’m sure. With Deborahh Kerr, that’s a given… Have to see this soon.

    • Ah, I haven’t seen the Richard Chamberlain-Sharon Stone version. The details sound different from this version, since this one doesn’t have a boiling in a cauldron (unlike Shama Parwana!! Hah – I can’t get over that film!) nor a black man who used to hide his face in his hands. I gotta see that version too! Will look out for it.

      • The Chamberlain-Stone version has a bad rep among professional and IMDb reviewers alike. It is generally seen as being a cash-in in the wake of Indiana Jones’s success.

        I am not disparaging it, though. If anyone genuinely enjoys it, that’s fine.

  7. Oh God, how much do I love this movie? Is it racist and stupid and fetishistic? Yes. Do I care? Not as much as I should thanks to the blazing charm of Kerr and Granger. That scene where she cuts her hair off and he runs down to her on the rock? Hot! When they wake up in the tree after the cannibals have gone away? HOT!

    That little walk through the forest where he demonstrates how “full of life” Africa is was hilarious even when I was a kid. Not to mention the stampede. Still, I’ll sit there and watch it every time it comes on TV. Love it.

    • Too, too true! There’s too much goodness in this film to not love it, whatever isms it may be otherwise guilty of. Granger by himself is more than half the battle won, as far as I’m concerned.

  8. I watched it couple of weeks ago on TCM. The ‘adventure’ part of it didn’t feel too adventurous but ‘romance’ part of it was yum. Like Amrita mentions above, the waterfall scene is fantastic.

  9. This is truly a visually beautiful film. Not sure the Watusi wardrobe was authentic but they were just stunning. I thrilled at the tribal Watusi dancing with the jumping and footwork as they whipped the lion mane headdresses this way and that and the synchronized jumping and stamping that rang the bell bracelets on their ankles. I was also completely taken watching the Watsui stroll languidly across the hills to greet the cast, in their bright and colorful drapery. I stopped the film many times to sketch their costumes and to re-watch the dancing sequence. It certainly portrayed a different era of thinking, but it was a visual feast. I need to own this one.

    • Yes, I too wasn’t sure if that’s how the Watusi really dressed, but I didn’t care – I was too busy absorbing all the sounds and colours and gorgeousness. It is a visually spectacular movie. I must watch it all over again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s