(5/10) Based on H. Rider Haggard’s novel, this 1935 production from the creators of King Kong is as old-fashioned an adventure story as they come, as our intrepid heroes seek the secret to immortal life in a lost city ruled by an evil queen. It’s a creaky bag of hokum, but childishly entertaining, and the massive Art Deco sets are deliriously wonderful.
She. 1935, USA. Directed by Irving Pichel, Lansing C. Holden. Written by Ruth Rose, Dudley Nichols. Based on novel by H. Rider Haggard. Starring: Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce. Produced by Merian C. Cooper. IMDb: 6.6/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.
There is a case to be made that Henry Rider Haggard’s She doesn’t belong on an SF blog. But if there is one adaptation of the 1886 novel that should be considered sci-fi, then it is the 1935 version, which also happens to be the best known one. Lost world scenarios are tricky to evaluate from a science fiction point of view. It is difficult to outright dismiss them, as almost all of them are imbibed in spirit of exploration. If we regard as science fiction a trip to the moon, where our explorers encounter a race of mind-controlling women, as in 1953’s Cat Women of the Moon, then why should we browse over a story in which the explorers travel to a hidden valley in Africa where they encounter an immortal, mind-controlling queen?
Of course, space exploration in itself holds SF trappings that would make the story pass as science fiction even if all they found on the moon were rocks and dust, whereas the lost world scenarios often contain much more mundane adventure than rocket flights and space walks. In order to make the distinction I have set up for myself the rule that to be included here, the story must include some attempt at a scientific explanation for fantastic elements or a spirit of scientific discovery, rather than, for example, chasing after treasure of just stumbling on a village of lost people. If you just accidentally fall down a hole and discover a cave with magical beings, it’s probably not going to make the cut. So, for example, I have not reviewed G.W. Pabst’s 1932 film L’Atlantide, which shares many similarities with She. Neither, after much deliberation, did I include the 1925 silent version of She. But the 1935 film contains just enough SF elements for me to give it a write-up, plus that like King Kong (1933, review), it’s one of those stories that have had a great impact on the genre without necessarily being cut-and-dry science fiction itself. Every time you read a book or comic or see a film in which you encounter a beautiful but evil queen on Mars or in a mythical country far, far away, there is an element of Haggard’s creation Ayesha in her. And although not the first of its kind, because of its huge success, it is regarded as one of the most important early works in the lost world genre, written before Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912) and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core (1914). Along with King Solomon’s Mines, She was central to the development of the SF subsgenre of the “secondary world”. As Victorian scholar Patrick Brantinger puts it: “Haggard may seem peripheral to the development of science fiction, and yet his African quest romances could easily be transposed to other planets and galaxies”.
She may not be a staple with readers today, but back when the film was made, the novel was still widely read and its story almost universally known. It was British author, anthropologist and missionary H. Rider Haggard’s second African adventure novel, and upon release eclipsed the success of his first, King Solomon’s Mines (1885). Many regard it as Haggard’s best work of fiction. Its world-building and fleshed-out fictional mythology has led it to be seen as one of the foundational works in fantasy literature, and authors like Rudyard Kipling, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Margaret Atwood have all acknowledged its influence over their writing. Tolkien’s Galadriel and C. S. Lewis’ White Witch are generally interpreted as heavily influenced by Ayesha, and the name Ayesha itself lives on as the “real” name of Marvel’s superhero Kismet, portrayed in the court scene in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) very much in line with the characterisation of Haggard’s original Ayesha. Furthermore, Haggard’s early novels have been characterised as cornerstones in the emergence of the style of Imperial Gothic, foreshadowing the crumbling of British imperialism with a sense of uneasy, romantic nostalgia and foreboding. With 83 million copies sold She is one of the most popular novels in history (Wikipedia names it as the 12th most sold, but their article is incomplete, as many older classics don’t have reliable sales figures).
A number of adaptations of She had been made before the 1935 version. The first two that are usually mentioned are two short films by French pioneer Georges Méliès, The Pillar of Fire (1899) and The Dance of Fire (1903). However, both of these are merely short trick films, in which a magician or demon conjures up a woman from a fire, and don’t really have anything to do with Haggard’s novel. The first actual adaptation was probably an 1908 version directed by American movie innovator Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Company. A popular US version, 24 minutes in length, was released in 1911, with stars James Cruze and Marguerite Snow in the leads, a British version in 1916 and another US adaptation in 1917. A 1916 Pathé movie made in the US called Hidden Valley was very loosely based on Haggard’s story — or perhaps “inspired by” would be the appropriate expression. The best known silent version is also the last one, as it is freely available online today, for example on Youtube. This was a 1925 British-German production, perhaps best remembered for lead actress Betty Blythe’s scant clothing. This one is also probably the version that comes closets to Haggard’s novel – Haggard reportedly wrote the title cards for the film himself.
The 1935 film was produced for RKO Pictures, at the time one of the five major studios of Hollywood, by Merian C. Cooper, the man who had two years earlier made movie history with King Kong. Cooper had originally intended to make the film with his Kong co-director Ernest B. Shoedsack, but Shoedsack wasn’t interested. Instead Cooper turned to actor-director Irving Pichel, who had previously directed Cooper’s manhunt thriller The Most Dangerous Game. As co-director he chose architect and production illustrator Lansing C. Holden. Cooper’s wife Ruth Rose handled the script, as she had done on King Kong, with additional dialogue added by seasoned screenwriter Dudley Nicholls. Cooper had wanted his star from The Most Dangerous Game, Joel McCrea, to play the lead opposite Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich as She, but none of them were available (or interested?). He had wanted Frances Dee, star of films like King of the Jungle (1933), Little Women (1933) and Of Human Bondage (1934), for the role of the damsel in distress, but she was elsewhere engaged. Instead he got Broadway musical star Helen Gahagan for the title role, square-jawed western star Randolph Scott for the male lead and Helen Mack from Son of Kong (1933) in the second female lead. The leading quartet was rounded out with Nigel “Dr. Watson” Bruce as Scott’s sidekick.
Despite some major differences, the film hits the major beats of the book. The movie opens with the ageing John Vincey (Samuel S. Hinds) on his deathbed, with his nephew Leo Vincey (Scott) having been summoned to say his farewells, but more importantly to continue his work. Vincey Sr.’s health is failing because of radiation poisoning, as he and his trusted valet and assistant Horace Holly (Bruce) explain: they have been working on a formula for “the flame of life”. This is where this film gets a bit of actual science fiction in the door: they explain that as radiation (which, as we all know, is basically fire, right?) can make cells degenerate, then with the right amount of radiation, the reverse should also be true. A strong enough source of radiation should therefore make cells regenerate, thereby — in theory — enabling everlasting life. The flame of life! The thing is, Leo’s ancestor John Vincey (no, the other John Vincey) has left his descendants a box describing how he, 500 years ago, travelled to the Russian Arctic, and there found a pillar of flame and a woman who was granted immortality by stepping into the flame. The flame of life! Now it is up to Leo to continue the Vincey search for this pillar of fire, along with Holly.
Our merry friends then travels to Siberia and the snowy Arctic landscapes, where they visit a trading post, apparently run by a Brit named Dugmore (Lumsden Hare) along with his adopted daughter Tanya (Mack), who is all set to be the damsel in distress, as she and Dugmore agree to help the two adventurers find the way through an impassable mountain pass, which the natives tell strange stories about. Through a series of Arctic adventures amidst massive sets and glass mattes our heroes find a network of tunnels, where they are invited to dinner by a group of stoneage-type savages, which they later learn are called the Amahaggers. A fistfight ensues when the explorers realise that they are dinner. Holly and Leo fight bravely, while Tanya cowers in a corner, because that is what women in 30s films did, but they are swamped by the sheer number of the Amahaggers. Just when it looks like it’s going to be long pig on the barbecue, the fight is interrupted by She’s right hand man Billali (Gustav von Seyffertitz) who arrives with a party of soldiers in garb that looks like a combination between Roman, Greek and Egyptian styles. He arrests the Amahagger and brings Leo, Holly and Tanya to the lost city of Kor, where they are brought before She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, or Hash-A-Mo-Tep, or simply She (not named Ayesha in this film).
What ensues now is basically a triangle drama, as She recognises Leo as the reincarnation of her lost love John Vincey from 500 years ago. She, the immortal, offered John Vincey eternal life by her side when he arrived in Kor with his wife, but Vincey chose his love for his wife over power and immortality, so She had him killed. Slowly Leo is won over by She’s beauty and the promise of immortality as the King of the world, but Tanya finds her inner fighter and refuses to give and inch to the eternal witch. Leo snaps out of it during a human sacrifice ritual, when he realises that Tanya is to be the sacrifice. He and Holly rescue the girl and fight their way through the city out into the tunnels, where they finally confront She in a cave where the flame of life burns. Here she tries to convince Leo to step into the flame with her, but as she steps into the fire, she doesn’t grow any younger or more beautiful, but instead shrivels and ages until she finally collapses and dies. The film ends with a scene back in good old England, where Holly, Leo and Tanya sit by the fireplace, and Holly reasons that a human being can only take one bath in the flame of life, and when She stepped into it a second time, the effect was reversed, and that furthermore, that “such inhuman immortality was never meant to be, and that some power greater power than She reached out and destroyed her”. The last line goes to the wholesome Tanya, as she says that the real flame of life burns “in this fireplace, in the flame of any fireplace, in any home where two people live who love each other, and in their hearts”. The End.
The film impresses with its gigantic Art Deco sets designed by six-time Oscar nominee Van Nest Polglase, and the Busby Berkeley-style dance routines, in particular the one before the ritual sacrifice has received much praise from critics. In fact, the dance routines of the film brought experimental Russian choreographer Benjamin Zemach an Oscar nomination. Ruth Rose’s script is, like the one she wrote for King Kong, straightforward and expedient. Little time is wasted on character developments, subplots or subtext. When you want to convey the idea that the two leads are falling in love with each other you can either write a couple of scenes which show how or why they fall in love with each other, or you can take the Ruth Rose path: dispense with all that “show, don’t tell” business, and write a scene where the two leads promptly tell each other “I love you”, and “I love you too”, so you can proceed speedily to the scene with the cannibals.
She moves at a good pace — too good a pace perhaps — up to the point where the three heroes meet She. When the triangle drama between She, Leo and Tanya commences, the problem that arises is that we know and care too little for these characters to take much interest in what happens to them. The clunky attempt at turning Leo and Tanya into a couple never feels like anything else than it is: a plot convenience, and the dialogue doesn’t even try to do anything to rectify this. At 90 minutes it feels as if the film should have time for some character development, but it prefers to spend its time on 10 minute dance sequences. The show is saved by the scenes written for Helen Mack — in particular the one in which she confronts She, but there’s also a discussion between Leo and Tanya in which Leo outright tells her that he chooses immortality over her — in which Mack does a great job with selling her character. Mack had just come off a successful turn opposite Cary Grant in the musical comedy Kiss and Make-Up (1934), but would ultimately settle in smaller supporting roles. After she left the movie business in 1945 she had a successful career as a radio writer and producer. The role of Tanya is not present in the novel, but we’ll get to that later.
Another highlight of the film is British character actor Nigel Bruce as Holly, playing his trademark bumbling English aristocrat, although less bumbling in this role than in many others, and it is a joy to see him dishing out a good deal of punishment in a number of fisticuffs. Bruce was already a familiar face to audiences through his roles in Treasure Island (1934) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), and would go on to even greater acclaim in the next year in The Charge of the Light Brigade. However, the role that forever guaranteed his fame would come in 1939 when 20th Century Fox signed him as Dr. John Watson opposite Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in The Hound of Baskervilles, a role which he reprised another 13 times.
Randolph Scott is particularly wooden in his leading role, but has enough innate charisma to pull the film off without becoming too much of a distraction, a charisma he would later put to good use as one of Hollywood’s greatest western stars in the fifties, roles which usually required less emotional depth than square-jawed scowling. Apart from a few horror outings in the early thirties, She seems to be Scott’s only outing this side of the genre spectrum, and he does seem a bit like a fish out of water.
Helen Gahagan as She seems to be a performance that splits the critics. People who praise the film tend to give special accolade to Gahagan, while others tend to find her underwhelming in the title role. Unfortunately I fall into the second category. Gahagan was an acclaimed Broadway performer and opera singer, and was probably hand-picked by Cooper for the role. While she isn’t at all bad in the role, the portrayal of She falls far short of the description of her in the novel, which is partly the script’s fault. Of course, it’s always a challenge to portray someone that is described as “the most beautiful woman in history”. In the book, Ayesha’s beauty was such that she had to remain veiled at all time, for any man who would see her face would immediately fall madly in love with her. Now, naturally there’s the subtext here that it isn’t really the shape of Ayesha’s face that enchants men, but actually some kind of magic at work. But this power that she has over men, combined with her immortality and the knowledge she has picked up for thousands of years, lends the Ayesha of the book a certain command and authority that just isn’t present in the script or in Gahagan’s performance. In the movie She spends much of her time begging for Leo’s love, which she never does in the novel — she assumes it. The hulking serenades of Gahagan’s do little to conjure up the image of an all-powerful immortal being, more that of love-sick teenager. Why Rose changed this aspect of the film is a mystery, but perhaps it was thought in the Hollywood of the thirties that you couldn’t show a woman having such power over a leading man — that he somehow ultimately had to be in control. But I concede that this may be a problem more so for those who have read the awesome description of Ayesha in the novel, than for those just tuning in for the film.
Helen Gahagan never did another film, and retired from show business in the forties, when she became involved in politics. She married actor Melvyn Douglas and is perhaps better known under her married name Helen Gahagan Douglas. She sat for two terms as a Democratic congresswoman, the first Democratic congresswoman ever to be elected from California. In 1950 she stood against Richard Nixon for a seat in the senate, and the race is remembered as one of the most vicious in American history. Helen Gahagan Douglas was a moderate left-wing democrat who ran for nuclear disarmament in a period of active arms race and McCarthyist red scare tactics. She campaigned for easing the plight of immigrant workers and attacked the state and the government for neglecting veterans and small farmers. Nixon built his campaign on branding her as a communist, earning her the nickname “the Pink Lady”, and at one point claimed she was “pink right down to her underwear”. In reply, Gahagan Douglas coined Nixon’s nickname “Tricky Dick”, one which has now outlived both politicians. Gahagan Douglas lost the election by a fair margin, and thanks to Nixon’s vitriolic slander of her, it also meant the end of her political career, however, she remained a political activist throughout her life. She passed away in 1980.
Gustav von Seyffertitz (yes I’m sure there’s a pun to be made here) is appropriately over the top as Billali. He later turned up in a small role in Son of Frankenstein (1939, review). Seyffertitz was born in Germany, where he worked on stage, a career he was able to continue when he arrived to the States some time before 1907. His somewhat sinister looks made him perfect for villainous roles, and he thrived in silent films, where he didn’t have to worry about his noticeable accent. He is perhaps best known for playing Professor Moriarty in the 1922 film Sherlock Holmes, with stage and screen legend John Barrymore as the immortal sleuth. He was 72 when he played Billali, and kept acting until 1939, when he retired.
In the role as the chief of the Amahagger savages we see, perhaps surprisingly, Noble Johnson. Surprisingly, as the Amahaggers of the film are supposed to be an Arctic people and Johnson was black. But perhaps the filmmakers thought that one native is as good as any native, and Johnson was something of a king of the natives in the Hollywood golden era. He began his acting career as early as 1915 and became one of the most prolific, prominent and respected African-American actors of the silent and early sound era. He was a favourite of Merian C. Cooper’s. He was also a driving force behind the emergence of so called race films, as the founder of the first film company to produce exclusively films made by a black cast and crew for a primarily black audience. He was a staple in genre films, but unfortunately didn’t appear in as many sci-fi films as one would have liked him to. He did appear in in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916, review), King Kong and The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942, review).
One of She’s guards is reportedly played by legendary stuntman and actor Ray “Crash” Corrigan, who would soon become the star of his own science fiction serial, Undersea Kingdom (1936, review). This was Corrigan’s first sci-fi outing, but he was to become a genre staple, appearing in at least 13 SF productions. Samuel Hinds, playing Vincey Sr. already appeared on Scifist in our review of Deluge (1933), and would go on to play in Man Made Monster (1941) and Jungle Woman (1944, review).
Another famous face among She’s guards is Native American athlete Jim Thorpe. After his incredible sports career as an Olympic gold medal athlete, baseball player and football player, Thorpe had no profession to fall back on, and had trouble providing for his family. The big Irish-Native American strongman did odd jobs like bouncer, security guard and ditchdigger, but like many other former athletes, he was also welcomed in the movie business. He appeared in over 70 films between 1931 and 1950, most often, unsurprisingly, as an Indian in westerns. However, he was also a Merian C. Cooper staple, and appeared as a native in King Kong, among others. In 1951 Burt Lancaster portrayed Thorpe in the biopic Jim Thorpe — All-American.
Whatever you may say of Ruth Rose’s screenplay, she has clearly done her homework, and must have read the majority of Haggard’s novels. While the film follows the basic plot of She, there are numerous alterations and additions taken from at least three or four other books. The main alteration, which even those who haven’t read the novel usually pick up on, is the change of locale from East Africa to the Siberian Arctic. I haven’t found any information on why this change was made, but it may be as simple as the fact that in the mid-thirties the movie theatres were swamped with African adventure films, and Cooper and Rose perhaps thought that taking the action to the Arctic would make the movie stand out. Haggard never wrote a book that specifically takes place in the Arctic, but in his last Allan Quatermaine novel, Allan and the Ice Gods (1927), the protagonist is taken back in time to the Ice Age. Cooper had originally envisioned the film with stop-motion mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers, but when RKO slashed the budget, he had to settle for a matte painting of a sabre-toothed tiger and a man trapped in a block of ice in a cave. This is another callback to Allan and the Ice Gods, in which the Ice Age people worship a man and a tiger frozen in a block of ice. It’s also ties in with a passage from King Solomon’s Mines, where the protagonists find a dead man in a cave, ensuring them that they are on the right path. The fact that Dugmore guides them over an impassable mountain range is also taken from King Solomon’s Mines, while in that book it was the mysterious Umbopa who was Allan’s companion.
In the novel She, Leo and Holly engage an Arab companion, with whom they set out looking for the pillar of fire by boat, as Leo’s ancestor, the Greek Kallikrates, in his message describes a rock formation in the shape of a “negro’s head”. However, they are caught in a storm and thrown by the wind up a river, where they are picked up by an old man called Billali and the Amahagger natives and brought to live in a large cave. While primitive, most of the Amahagger harbour no resentment toward the newcomers, in fact one of the women fall in love with Leo, and through their traditions takes him as her husband. In time Leo also falls in love with the proud native woman, and this is the love triangle present in the book. This also made the novel impossible to film as it was written in the segregated Hollywood of the thirties: in the novel the Amahagger are clearly described as a people of colour, and mixed couples were not likely to pass the eye of the censors.
The closest resemblance to Tanya and her father is found in the book She and Allan (1921), in which Haggard finally had his two most famous characters meet. While looking for Ayesha, Allan Quatermain and his entourage take rest at a remote trading post run by a white man and his daughter. While she never becomes a love interest (she could be Allan’s daughter), she is kidnapped by a tribe of people at war with Ayesha, and thus get dragged into the story. Like in the film, her father is killed during their adventures.
The lavish Art Deco/Egyptian sets, the costumes and the dance routines actually don’t look like anything described in the novel She, but rather seem to be inspired by descriptions of another lost city, from Haggard’s novel Allan Quatermain (and the Lost City of Gold), written just after She. The circumstances of the ritual sacrifice also more closely resembles those described in Allan Quatermain.
As stated, Merian C. Cooper had originally envisioned an even larger spectacle, and intended to film the movie in the then novel three-strip Technicolor process. When production began, no feature film had yet been done with this process, and apparently RKO got cold feet and slashed the movie’s funding. Instead, the first film made with the three-strip Technicolor process became RKO’s star-studded historical social drama Becky Sharp, released in June 1935, a month prior to She. Originally three-strip Technicolor was only used to film indoors, which may explain why She is entirely studio-bound, although filmed in black and white. While the Arctic sets and mattes are impressive craftsmanship, the movie would have benefited greatly from some snowy location shots. That said, the sumptuous black and white photography by J. Roy Hunt is occasionally stunning. In 2006 Ray Harryhausen colourised the movie as a tribute to Cooper, and the colour version premiered at the 2006 Comic Con. I don’t hold the same resentment toward the colourised version as many other critics, but as an attempt to “attract younger viewers” it was probably a misfire, as the faded Technicolor look of the picture would seem just as archaic to a 2006 audience as a black and white film. The colourisation doesn’t really add much to the film, instead it takes away some of the power of the black and white photography.
She received a mixed reception upon its release. The New York Times wrote that the film loses its energy as soon as the trio of heroes reach the lost city: ” the picture fades into a series of eye-filling spectacles so dear to the heart of Hollywood”. According to the paper: “It must have been a familiar pattern even when Haggard used it fifty years ago and RKO Radio hasn’t done much except produce it on grander scale than ever before. […] the photoplay still cannot be accounted much more than a King Kong edition of ‘lost kingdom’ melodramas. If it belongs anywhere, it is in the children’s branch of the film library.” The movie lost 180,000 dollars even on its slashed budget, but eventually broke even when it was re-released in 1949 along with The Last Days of Pompeii, also made in 1935. After the re-release Helen Gahagan Douglas reportedly tried to buy all existing copies of the film as to pull it from the market when she was running for the Senate.
The film was long thought lost after a devastating fire in RKO’s vault, but it later turned out that Buster Keaton had bought an original print, which was found in his garage after his death in 1966, and was re-released in the seventies.
Later critics, as mentioned, are split upon the merits of She. Some, like Chris Hewson at the rather creatively named blog Not This Time, Nayland Smith, like all aspects of it. Hewson calls it “a great adventure film”, and praises the dance sequences, the pacing, the sets, the character development and especially the acting. Hewson is also one of the few that prefer the 2006 colourised version, and concludes that She is “one of the greats of 1930s adventure cinema, and while it’s not as well [known?] as other contemporaries, it still stands strong as a shining gem of the period”. Matthew C. Hoffman at Screen Deco goes as far as calling those who dislike the film in IMDb’s user review section “morons”. Hoffman writes that “She’s story resonates now when society is still looking for age-defying ways to preserve itself.” He also finds great depth in the final line from Tanya, a line that other reviewers have called “cringey” and “groan-inducing”: “Happiness and true wisdom come from accepting our mortality and not trying to hold it back. The flames of the hearth give more warmth and a longer glow than the cold flame of things not meant for man. This is what makes us human, and there is humanity to be found in She.”
Richard Scheib at Moria represents the opposite spectrum, lamenting that “This version of She is dreary. The film’s depiction of the Poles never for a moment strays beyond the studio soundstage and is not at all convincing. […] Helen Gahaghan makes for an okay, if melodramatic, cruel queen and the film writes the part well, although the outpourings of love are wretchedly banal.” About the ending Scheib writes: “In a typically conservative ending, the explorers come to the realisation that all the love they need is right there with them, whereupon the camera pointedly moves over to focus on the fire in the fireplace, symbolically emphasising the flames of the hearthplace as normal as opposed to the cold flames of eternal life and forbidden knowledge.”
I would argue that the finale of the film feels like it has been tacked on in order to appease the sensors at the time, negating all the elements of the story that the now strictly enforced Hays Code might take issue with. That is portraying supernatural elements as true, being ambiguous about a human’s godlike powers, and naturally portraying an unmarried, sexually promiscuous woman as some sort of authority. Lest anyone think that a woman striving for power would get the last word in the movie, the screenwriters have given the final punchline to the submissive virgin: a life serving her husband is greatest fulfilment a woman can have. Apparently this ending was snipped when Cooper shortened the film slightly for re-release in 1949, but it has (unfortunately?) been brought back to the 2006 re-release.
However, the prevailing consensus among modern critics seems to teeter between slight disappointment and bemused nostalgia. Alan Bacchus at Daily Film Dose summarises She as “grand scale hokum”. DVD Savant Glenn Erickson gives the film a tentatively positive review, writing: “She is somewhat tame, but it pleases as a solid fantasy adventure straight from the original mold”. Like so many others Erickson notes Max Steiner’s “grandiose” music “with its Kong-like heavy descending chords”. And Steiner’s music is exactly what you want in a film like this, strumming forth an atmosphere of exotic adventure. Christina Whener gives She a fairly neutral review on her blog, while noting that “the dialogue is pretty stiff”. Nora Fiore at Nitrate Diva is partly giddy over the film’s decor, writing: “The slick, exaggerated old-new mash-up of She’s palace endows this film with both a genius camp silliness and a mythic power. Just as She is both a modern woman and some kind of medieval dream witch (very Parsifal), the set looks both backwards and forwards in the chronology of design. It’s like Lang’s Metropolis and Karnak had a baby. Or like a production of The Ten Commandments on LSD. She Who Must Be Obeyed’s costumes also reflect this past-future duality. Her archaic tunics and medieval-ish crowns marry with a Flash Gordon sensibility that makes her wardrobe difficult to place in a distinct era. She is unbound by the time we know. Her path and her world is a tangent, blazing away from the accepted arc of history.” Still, Fiore concludes: “Alas, in 1935, this rare orchid of a film nevertheless flopped—I would argue, primarily because of its incomplete escapism, marred by an unconvincing and somewhat bland ending.”
One aspect picked up on by Bacchus at Daily Film Dose is one that surprisingly few modern critics have mentioned: “The storytelling has the ‘White Man’s Burdon [sic]’ superiority of British colonialism. The natives of the arctic lands are like untamed animals who do the bidding of the all-powerful white woman – She.” The film partly gets away with this, as it lifts the film out from the book’s Africa into the Arctic, and portrays the Amahagger as a sort of Stone Age remnants rather than any people existing in “the real world”. However, its is worth mentioning that the description of the Amahagger were perhaps the most negatively charged of all of Haggard’s descriptions of “natives” — perhaps precisely because they were a completely invented people. According to the novel, the Amahagger were descendants of the original great civilisation of Kor, but after being all but wiped out by a plague, they had largely forgotten their civilised ways and been mixed with other African people, primarily the Somali. But still, as was often the case with Haggard, he didn’t depict the race as such as degenerated or savage — it is worth noting that in the book Billali himself and the other inhabitants of the city itself were also Amahagger, as was the proud, brave woman that Leo fell in love with.
Actual books have been written on H. Rider Haggard’s racial notions that were, in a word, complicated. On the one hand Haggard was deeply rooted in the idea of British exceptionalism, and that the Brits enlighten the “dark continent” by bringing culture, education and British moral and order to an underdeveloped part of the world. And one should keep in mind that he worked as a missionary. Still, the colour of a person’s skin seems to be of little importance to Haggard, which seems to indicate that he didn’t think that Africans as such were inferior to white people. In fact, in the first chapter of King Solomon’s Mines, Haggard lets Allan Quatermain speak with the voice of the author, as he declares that he despises the derogatory N-word (this was 1885!) and never uses it himself. This comes in a passage where he ponders on the meaning of the word “gentleman”, and states that he has met “natives” who are gentlemen and “whites with lots of money and fresh out from home, too, who are not“. Through all of Haggard’s writing his deep knowledge of — and respect and admiration for — East African culture, especially Zulu culture — shines through. Many of his books feature interracial romance — albeit platonic, and few of his characters are as well fleshed out as his black African heroes like Umbopa and especially the mighty warrior Umslopogaas, based loosely on a real Zulu warrior, who is present in a number of books. Haggard was well-versed in the Zulu language, its history, culture, folklore and politics, and wrote three novels based on the Zulu wars, in which all the protagonists are black Africans — something unheard of coming from a white author at the time.
I would argue that Haggard was much less a racist than he was an imperialist. While his books would often display a disdain for whites behaving in an inappropriate way toward the African natives, he never seems to question legitimacy of British colonialism. Still, I’d argue that this, again, had little to do with skin colour and race as such, and more so with the idea of Britain as the pinnacle of evolution. In fact when you look at who gets the short end of the stick in Haggard’s novels in regards to negative stereotypes, it’s almost without exception the French.
Bacchus is ready to forgive the film’s and the book’s imperialist attitude, as “it was still the prevailing world view at the time among developed nations”, and argues that “you must look past this ignorance”. And while some small amount of casual racism can perhaps be forgiven due to “the tradition at the time”, it’s actually historically inaccurate to argue that no-one knew any better even in the 1880s. In fact, a number of British literary stars at the time Haggard wrote his books took strong positions against colonialism and imperialism. She and Allan, written in 1921, shows little departure from Haggard’s imperialist ideology present in his early books. On the other hand, in 1892 Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the short story The Beach of Falesá, an unflinching exposé of the suffering brought to the natives of Samoa, where Stevenson lived at the times, at the hands of British colonialists. 1898 saw the publication of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a scathing satire on the notion of British exceptionalism and imperialism, and the following year Joseph Conrad published his nightmarish confrontation with colonialism in Congo, Heart of Darkness.
But I digress: little can be gleaned of Haggard’s racial and political notions from the 1935 film adaptation of She, which is much more the product of American Depression-era prudishness and the conservative rigidity of the Hays Code. To be clear: I love H. Rider Haggard’s novels, and I lament that there’s never been any really good screen adaptations of them, even if the Indiana Jones films do carry on his spirit. I think the 1935 adaptation of She is a fun, campy, if rather flawed adventure story. The script and dialogue are terrible, the characters painfully thin and groan-inducingly dumb and its tacked-on moral conclusions tepid. But on the other hand, its occasionally quite funny, the acting uneven but adequate, the design “like a production of The Ten Commandments on LSD” and the music majestic. It’s a decent Sunday afternoon romp well worth a look.
It took 30 years for She to appear on screen again after the 1935 version semi-flopped. Unsurprisingly it was Hammer Studios who decided to dig up yet another seemingly outmoded story and work their magic on it. The 1965 adaptation starred Ursula Andress as Ayesha, hot off her James Bond success, opposite Peter Cushing as Holly and Christopher Lee as Billali. The movie was the first in Hammer’s so-called exotica cycle, and the general consensus seems to be that it is also one of Hammer’s dullest films. That didn’t prevent the studio from making a follow-up, The Vengeance of She (1968). In an odd reversal of roles, Kallikrates is now the king of the lost city, and a young Western woman (Czech sex bomb Olga Schoberová), possessed by the spirit of Ayesha, finds herself compelled to seek out Kuma, which is the name of the city on the Hammer universe. The feeling I get from the reviews is that the plot is primarily constructed around Schoberová’s cleavage.
There’s a super-low-budget British film from 1982 called The Lost City, which according to IMDb is a remake of She, but according to the single plot summary I can find on the internet, the two stories have little in common apart from the fact that both include an evil queen ruling over a lost city. If anything, the sense I get is that movie is inspired by Allan Quatermaine and not She.
Then there is the 1984 monstrosity by Israeli director Avi Nesher, which bears no resemblance to the novel other than the title, and the fact that the filmmakers have had the gall to claim that it is “inspired by the novel by H. Rider Haggard“. OK, to be fair, there is an immortal demi-goddess called She, but that’s about it. Richard Scheib at Moria gives it 0/5 stars and writes: “If there was ever an award for worst ever ripoff of Mad Max 2 (1981), then She would almost certainly be the lead contender. Indeed, if Edward D. Wood Jr ever lived long enough to make ripoffs of Mad Max 2, this is surely the film he would have made”. This is the plot summary at IMDb: “In a backward post-apocalyptic world, She aids two brothers’ quest to rescue their kidnapped sister. Along the way, they battle orgiastic werewolves, a psychic communist, a tutu-wearing giant, a mad scientist, and gladiators before standing against the odds to defeat the evil Norks.”
Lastly there’s a 2001 direct-to-video version that has an IMDb rating of 3.8/10, and is probably best left unprobed.
She. 1935, USA. Directed by Irving Pichel, Lansing C. Holden. Written by Ruth Rose, Dudley Nichols. Based on novel by H. Rider Haggard. Starring: Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Lumsden Hare, Noble Johnson, Samuel S. Hinds, Ray Corrigan, Jim Thorpe, Julius Adler. Music: Max Steiner. Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt. Editing: Ted Cheesman. Art direction: Van Nest Polglase. Costume design: Aline Bernstein, Harold Miles. Set decoration: Thomas Little. Makeup: Carl Axzelle, Robert J. Schiffer. Sound recordist: John L. Cass. Sound effects: Walter Elliott. Photographic effects: Vernon L. Walker. Special effects supervisor: Harry Redmond Sr. Visual effects: Linwood G. Dunn, Guy Newhard. Dance director: Benjamin Zemach. Produced by Merian C. Cooper for RKO Radio Pictures.