King Solomon’s Mines

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

(6/10) The first sound adaptation of H. Rider Haggards lost world novel benefits from location shooting in Africa, a faithful script and good acting. Paul Robeson shines, even though his out-of-place song numbers strain the picture’s credibility. Despite a somewhat rushed plot and thin characters, this is a fun Sunday afternoon adventure yarn. 

King Solomon’s Mines. 1937, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Written by Michael Hogan, Roland Pertwee, et.al. Based on novel by H. Rider Haggard. Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Paul Robeson, Anna Lee, John Loder, Roland Young, Arthur Sinclair, Robert Adams, Sydney Fairbrother. Produced for Gaumont British. IMDb: 6.3/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A. 

1937_king_solomons_mines_005Henry Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel King Solomon’s Mines ranks among my top 5 adventure novels, along with yarns such as Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. The late 19th century was the golden age of adventures stories for boys: literacy was fast on the rise, the cost of book printing was falling, the steam engine had opened new possibilities for travelling the world, but much of it was still unexplored “wilderness”. And it was still possible to celebrate the frontier mentality without worrying too much about the negative connotations of imperialism. In terms of impact King Solomon’s Mines was equal to the afore-mentioned books, and along with Rudyard Kipling’s Indian adventures helped set the template for jungle adventure fiction (even if there’s very little jungle in King Solomon’s Mines).

In short the book tells the story of aged big game hunter and adventurer Allan Quatermain, who teams up with a group of comrades in search King Solomon’s mythical diamond mines, claimed to be located some “forty leagues north of the Lukanga river”, placing it somewhere in the southeast parts of present-day Congo. Quatermain’s stated reason for the adventure is to help his new acquaintance Sir Henry Curtis — described as a bearded giant reminiscent of a Viking — find his brother, believed to have disappeared on a similar quest. He is joined by Henry’s friend, the prissy but courageous Captain Good, and Quatermain’s loyal friend and tracker, the sarcastic Hottentot Hans. The last companion on his trek is the mysterious Umbopa, a warrior of majestic stature who seems to know a lot more about King Solomon’s Mines than he lets on.

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Paul Robeson as Umbopa, Cedric Hardwicke as Quatermain, Roland Young as Captain Good, Anna Lee as Kathy O’Brien and John Loder as Sir Henry Curtis.

Quatermain, who has a wide-reaching reputation in Africa as a great hunter and warrior, as well as a wise man and a friend of the Zulu, leads the party to the desert pointed out on Sir Henry’s map. Here they are abandoned by their native bearers, and the five adventurers almost die of thirst before they spot the dual mountaintops called “The Breasts of Sheba” on their map. They manage to traverse the mountain range and discover a lush, green country encircled by an impassable ring of rock. Stopping to bathe and eat of the native fruit, they are discovered by a group of natives who call themselves the kukuana, and speak a language closely related to Zulu. Captain Good, a stickler for hygiene, is in the middle of a bath and shave, and the kukuana believe him a god — not only for his milky white, exposed legs, but for the fact that his beard only grows on one side of his face, he has a glass eye (his monocle) and he can remove his teeth from his mouth (Good has false teeth). Good spends much of the story sans pants, as the travellers agree it would insult the kukuana if their god hid his shining legs from them.

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1888 illustration by Walter Paget.

This is the setup of what has since become a staple in lost world fiction. The group is brought before the evil king Twala in the lost kingdom of Kukuanaland, and his witch doctor, the ancient hag Gagool, who immediately takes a disliking to them. After being revered as demi-gods, they fall into trouble as Gagool singles out their friend Umbopa as a “traitor” to be put to death. It turns out that Umbopa is the rightful heir to the throne of Kukuanaland, but was driven from his home by Gagool as an infant. On the eve of Umbopa’s execution, the Englishmen are able to predict a solar eclipse (lunar eclipse in later editions), proving that they have the power to stand up to Gagool’s magic — and inciting a rebellion as a part of the kukuana support Umbopa’s claim to the throne. The book then follows the civil war among he kukuana, ending in victory of Umbopa. With Twala slain, Gagool reluctantly agrees to reveal the location of King Solomon’s Mines, which does exist and is full of diamonds. However, in a last act of treachery, Gagool brings down the ceiling with her magic, trapping Good, Henry and Quatermain inside, making for a claustrophobic climax of the novel. Along the way there’s also some interracial romance, as Captain Good falls in love with a native girl, an emotional moment at the death of Quatermain’s friend and tracker Hans, and a battle of giants as Twala and Sir Henry go up against each other in hand-to-hand combat.

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Our heroes with an army of Kukuana warriors.

Haggard’s broadly drawn, engaging characters, his imaginative adventure, fast-paced action and the beautifully rendered description of Africa, drawn on first-hand knowledge, made Haggard and over-night sensation. Haggard, a missionary to Zululand, anthropologist and scholar of Zulu culture and history, had written a couple of unsuccessful novels and stories upon his return to England in 1882, and apparently the birth of King Solomon’s Mines came about when his brother wagered him that he “couldn’t write a novel half as good as Stevenson’s Treasure Island“. Haggard wrote the first draft over a period of four weeks, and made little revision later, apart from a number of footnotes and comments.

While some critics, including Robert Louis Stevenson himself, complained that King Solomon’s Mines had the hallmarks of a hastily written book with logical fallacies, clumsy plotting and an unrefined language, many (including Stevenson) praised its energy, imagination and sense of adventure. The book is narrated by Allan Quatermain, and Haggard defended his style of writing by pointing out that in order for the book to feel authentic, it had to read as if it was written by someone “more accomplished in handling a rifle than a pen”. In the book’s “Author’s Introduction”, Quatermain states that he chose to tell the story in a “plain, straightforward manner” and apologises for his “blunt way of writing”. Others have pointed out that Haggard’s blunt and matter-of-fact writing style is part of what made the book, and consequent efforts, so enjoyable and successful. Haggard followed up this novel the next year with She, which became his most successful novel, and one of the most widely read books in the world. He wrote that book with same swiftness as King Solomon’s Mines, and like with the previous effort, made little rewriting and allowed very little editing. Haggard argued that adventure novels should be rough around the edges and put down to paper as quickly as possible to preserve the rush of excitement the author feels when first imagining the events.

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H. Rider Haggard around 1885.

It is this sense of excitement that any adaptation of Haggard’s work must ultimately try and live up to. Adaptations of his novels — or at least films inspired by ideas in them — were popular from the very birth of cinema, with nearly twenty films having been made by 1920, primarily adaptations of She and his 1887 novel Jess. In 1919 an South African film company produced the first adaptations of his major works involving Allan Quatermain, aptly named Allan Quatermain (from the 1887 novel, also known as Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold) and King Solomon’s Mines. These films are both lost, although Haggard is supposed to have seen at least the latter, and supposedly commented that “it was not bad, but it could have been better”. The two major adaptations of She worthy of mention are a silent 1925 film, for which Haggard wrote the title cards himself, and a rather loose 1935 adaptation, which I have also reviewed. It may very well be the case that it was this quite successful RKO production that inspired British Gaumont to dust off Haggard’s original African adventure novel, and this is indeed the earliest preserved film adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines.

I will not go over the plot of the film, as it is essentially the same as in the book, with the addition of a female character, Kathy O’Brien (Anna Lee), a feisty young Irishwoman who convinces Quatermain and his friends to go in pursuit of her father Patrick (Arthur Sinclair), who has headed out on the foolish errand to find King Solomon’s Mines. Actually, the film has changed the central character’s name to “Quartermain”, but I’m going to stick to calling him Quatermain in this post because I know I’ll get mixed up when I try to keep the literary character and film character apart. So, Quatermain in this film is played by British character actor Cedric Hardwicke, well known also to friends of Hollywood films. Hardwicke plays Quatermaine very much as he is described in the novels, as a wiry, cautious and hardened cynic, although Hardwicke’s performance lacks the novel’s romanticism a sense of humility, as he’s more stiff upper lip aristocrat than the down-to-earth character in the book.

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Cedric Hardwicke and Anna Lee.

Sir Henry retains little of his literary prototype. As described in the novel, Henry conjures up the image of Game of Thrones’ Thormund, while the casting of Gaumont staple leading man John Loder turns him into another one of those very generic can-do, well-trimmed everyman heroes that inhabited the movies of the thirties and forties. However, Roland Young perfectly captures the essence of the humorous, prissy, but disciplined navy veteran Captain Young. The film fortunately keeps the wonderful scene in which the Kukuana natives catch him half-dressed and half-shaven. This leads to perhaps the funniest moment in the whole movie, when Twala and Gagool are surrounded by a mob of angry African warriors, Good turns to Quatermain and asks “Would it help if I whipped off my trousers again, d’you think?”.

Quatermain’s Hottentot tracker Hans is omitted from the film, which is quite understandable, since he’s not central to the plot in any way. However, the most important piece of casting is Paul Robeson as Umbopa. Robeson, a major international star of the stage, screen and in particular the recording industry, Robeson was first-billed above Hardwicke in the film’s marketing. Umbopa is portrayed in the film very much like he is in the novel, with the exception that Robeson’s Umbopa sings. Of course, it was more or less a given that the owner of that powerful, velvety bass baritone would sing in every movie he appeared in, but unfortunately it feels very much out of character not only for the character, but for the film as a whole, having the native African princeling singing African-American cotton picker melodies when he’s off on an adventure to find a mythical diamond mine in a lost city. Especially as the songs bring nothing of narrative value: When the convoy is walking, he sings a song that tells us that they are walking — and I kid you not — when they are climbing the mountain he sings a song in which the lyrics actually tell us that they are climbing a mountain. For the final scene, the songwriters apparently ran out of ideas, so they have Robeson reprising the climbing song as Quatermain & Co are climbing back out from the lost city.

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Paul Robeson as Umbopa.

What the casting of Robeson does do, however, is prevent the film from containing the kind of negatively stereotyped racial characters that were still all too present in the movies of 1936 — and which sadly rear their heads again in the 1985 “adaptation” of King Solomon’s Mines. By this 1937 Robeson was heavily involved in the civil rights movement in the US and human rights and racial equality issues both in Britain and abroad. While his Umbopa is perhaps a bit more “westernised” than the literary character, he plays him with the same dignity and power as is described in the book. And charisma such as Robeson possessed is just what the role calls for. If he would have just laid off with the singing, this would have been a nearly flawless portrayal. This is a long way from the Umbopa in the 1985 version, who runs alongside Quatermain’s car “because he doesn’t trust anything that moves without eating grass”. Another advantageous result of Robeson’s involvement is that the Africans are actually portrayed by black people, and there’s not a blackface in sight … well, almost. And while the scenes portraying African tribes in loincloths dancing around fires while shaking their spears do feel uncomfortable when viewing them in a 21st century post-imperialist cultural environment, the fact is that this was part of African tribal culture at the time the novels were written, and as such part of black African cultural history. And as such, these scenes are treated with respect, as is in general the depiction of the African natives.

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Robert Adams as Twala wrestling with John Loder’s Sir Henry.

King Twala is portrayed, again very much in line with the book, by Guyanese actor Robert Adams, who like Robeson was already a seasoned veteran of the British stage and screen. The same year as King Solomon’s Mines was released Adams became the first black actor to appear on British TV (yes, we forget that TV was around in the thirties). Other black actors are also mentioned in the opening credits. Most of them seem to have had little to no other involvement in film, with the exception of one bizarrely named Ecce Homo Toto, whose real name was Toto Ware, and who also appeared under the moniker Tony Ware. He had small roles in a couple of other British Paul Robeson films, Robeson’s breakthrough movie Sanders on the River (1935) and Song of Freedom (1936).

The only blackface you’ll see in the film is Sydney Fairbrother as Gagool. This is a casting choice that may perhaps be forgiven, as it would probably have been hard to find a black female character actress in her sixties in Britain at the time to play the role convincingly. Anyhow, the makeup is so good that you barely spot it as blackface, and Fairbrother’s performance of the vile little witch doctor is spot on. Fairbrother was a veteran of the stage and the screen, having made her stage debut in 1890 and her first film in 1915.

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Sydney Fairbrother as Gagool.

So, as I stated, the film follows the plot of the novel fairly closely, after deviating in the beginning in order to introduce Mr. and Miss O’Brien. One might perhaps argue that it is too faithful to the novel, as it tries to incorporate all the major beats of the book into a running time of 80 minutes. This means that the characters all remain wafer-thin, and the deep love that Henry and Kathy show for each other at the end of the movie is just as inexplicable as it is in most of these films. When did that happen? The problem with trying to fit the entire story of a book in a film shorter than an hour an a half is that the scenes start to feel more like goal markers to be met than like actual dramatic developments. Even in the novel, the civil war in Kukuana feels like something Haggard rushed through because he had created it as yet another obstacle for the main characters to get through on their way to the mines, but realised that it didn’t really add to the story. Neither does it in the film, and could easily have been cut out. There are at least four scenes in the film in which the heroes are paraded out in front of Twala, Gagool and the African warriors, and these could have been condensed into two. And so on, the point being that by omitting a few unnecessary scenes, one could have focused more on the characters and the drama, and made certain key scenes longer, which now feel rushed, such as … pretty much every scene in the film. That is excluded the four unnecessary song numbers and about 10 minutes of African tribal dance that we could have lived without.

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Roland Young as Captain Good and Cedric Hardwicke as Quatermain.

That said, the film does benefit from actual location shooting in South Africa. The film team spent eight weeks filming in Africa after principal photography had wrapped at Shepherd Bush studios in London. The principal cast did not go to South Africa, so doubles were used for scenes which required the main characters to be present. The authenticity provided by the location shooting helps tremendously, in comparison, for example, with the 1935 adaptation of She, which was completely studio-bound. The location footage is not in any way spectacular, and in a way I’m surprised they didn’t get more out of eight weeks of location filming in terms of landscape, but it does help to transport the viewer into the African setting of the movie. The integration of the studio-bound footage and the location footage in Britain is quite good, but on the other hand I suspect that a lot more is actually filmed in London than what I spontaneously think hen I watch it. The cinematography by Glen MacWilliams is steady and classic, but I don’t quite think that it does justice to the grandeur of the story. The film would have benefited greatly from three-strip Technicolor, but at this time the process was still so new that Gaumont probably didn’t have the resources for it. But as Richard Cross puts it at 20/20 Movie Reviews: “the monochrome picture never manages to capture the vast majesty of the desert or the vibrancy of the tribe’s natty outfits, and you’re left with the faint impression that, despite all the action taking place on screen, you’re missing out on something”.

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Paul Robeson.

All in all, King Solomon’s Mines doesn’t quite have the feel of a big-budget Hollywood adventure, it always comes off as a bit cramped, a bit like someone was trying to frame out the production of a bedroom farce being filmed in the adjacent studio lot. The only thing in the film in the way of special effects is a tacked-on volcano sequence at the end of the movie, replacing the claustrophobic tunnel chase of the book, and those effects feel like they belong in a cheap B movie.

It’s a fun movie, though, and one that easily sweeps you off your feet if you’re in the right mood. It’s a bit creaky here and there. The acting from some of the untrained black extras is downright atrocious, even Robeson is awfully stiff in some scenes. Anna Lee, born and bred in Kent, England, has some trouble with her Irish accent, the cave sets look like they were reused by Star Trek and the action isn’t particularly well directed. The soundtrack is oddly off, with almost half of the film’s running time seemingly accompanied by nothing but bongo drums in the background, and long stretches don’t have much of a soundtrack at all. Then suddenly Robeson starts crooning, backed by a full orchestra.

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Anna Lee, Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson.

Anna Lee is a bright spot in the movie, as she was in most of her films. I particularly like that Kathy O’Brien is given agency, courage and resourcefulness, a trait sorely missing in many leading lady roles in B movies like these at the time. This seems to have been a common trait in director Robert Stevenson’s movies, as can be seen from both The Man Who Changed His Mind (1936, review) and Non-Stop New York (1937, review), all produced by British Gaumont and all featuring Jon Loder and Anna Lee in the leading roles.

Robert Stevenson was one of the top directors in the UK at the time, focusing primarily on comedies, many of them starring John Loder and Stevenson’s wife Anna Lee. He was invited to Hollywood in 1939 by independent producer David O. Selznick, along with Alfred Hitchcock. After making a number of reasonably successful films for various companies, Stevenson started working in TV, primarily directing anthology shows like The General Electric Theatre, hosted by Ronald Reagan.

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Director Robert Stevenson.

In 1957 Stevenson snatched up by Walt Disney, who hired him to direct live-action movies, and it was a match made in heaven. During his 20-year tenure at the Walt Disney Company, he made 19 films, of which almost all were hits. Today he is best remembered for the phenomenon of Mary Poppins (1964), but he’s also responsible for the first two Herbie films: The Love Bug (1968) and Herbie Rides Again (1974), as well as Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). He also did a string of science fiction-inspired family comedies; The Absent Minded Professor (1961), Son of Flubber (1963), The Misadventures of Merlin Jones (1964), The Monkey’s Uncle (1965) and The Island at the Top of the World (1974), a sort of Verne/Haggard/Burrough-inspired lost world yarn based on a novel by Ian Cameron. In 1962 he directed a Disney adaptation of the non-SF Jules Verne story In Search of the Castaways. Despite adapting works by both Verne and Haggard, and directing a couple of pirate films, Robert Stevenson sadly never put his craft to any of the stories by his namesake Robert Louis Stevenson.

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John Loder and Anna Lee.

After moving to the US with her husband, Anna Lee quickly established herself as a reliable actress, playing leads in big movies like How Green Was My Valley (1941), Flying Tigers (1942) and Bedlam (1946), once again teaming up with former co-star Boris Karloff. In later years she had supporting roles in hits like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), and appeared in the comedy spy-fi film In Like Flint (1967), with James Coburn as the original Austin Powers. She is probably best known, however, for her role on the hospital medical drama series General Hospital, in which she appeared from 1979 to 2003. Interestingly enough, she insisted on her character being named Lila Quartermaine, and that her on-screen son be called Alan Quartermaine. In 1993 Lee became the first actress to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame while on air in a daytime soap opera. She passed away in 2004, days before she was about to receive a lifetime Emmy Award.

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John Ingle ans Anna Lee on the set of General Hospital.

Stevenson and Lee divorced in 1944, but had two children together, one of which was Venetia Stevenson, who grew up to become a model and actress, although she reportedly hated the competitive profession of acting, and tried to get out of it as soon as she could support herself with something else. Nevertheless, she appeared as a guest star on a dozen TV shows and in almost as many feature films between 1954 and 1961. She played the lead in a couple of B movies, including the mad scientist exploitation yarn Island of Lost Women (1959), although her best known movie is probably the Christopher Lee vehicle The City of the Dead (1960).

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Venetia Stevenson in City of the Dead.

After marrying Don Everly of the Everly Brothers in 1962, Stevenson dropped out of acting, but after their divorce in 1970 she began working her way up the Hollywood ladder behind the camera, working as a script reader for Burt Reynolds’ production company and eventually getting involved in the production side of filmmaking. She was vice president of the short-lived Cinema Group in the eighties, a small outfit that primarily co-produced B movies. Through the company she was involved in a number of noteworthy films, such as the Eddie Murphy comedy Trading Places (1983) and the horror classic Children of the Corn (1985). Cinema Group was also involved in the production of Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), The Philadelphia Experiment (1984) and Renny Harlin’s debut film Born American/Arctic Heat, for which Stevenson is credited as executive producer and production designer (though I suspect she didn’t actually do much designing, but rather acted as a supervisor to check that the Finnish design team’s work was up to Hollywood specs). At one time Venetia Stevenson was the mother-in-law of Axl Rose.

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Novel covers.

As I mentioned in my review of She, I can understand why someone might question the validity of featuring H. Rider Haggard’s work on a blog devoted to science fiction movies. And I wouldn’t really go as far as claiming that King Solomon’s Mines is all-out science fiction. However, it is difficult to accept films like The Lost World (1925, review) and King Kong (1933, review) as SF without paying tribute to Haggard. Both films feature adventurers travelling to an unexplored region of the Earth, where they happen upon a lost world, isolated and untouched by time and civilisation, inhabited by creatures thought to belong only to fairy-tales. In the case of said films these creatures are dinosaurs and giant apes, and in King Solomon’s Mines it’s a lost African tribe and an evil witch doctor, but the principle is the same.

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Walter Paget’s illustrations.

H. Rider Haggard was not the first author to write of hidden worlds — they had been around in one form or the other almost since the birth of literature, as secret gardens, Elysiums, as utopian islands or satirical societies on the moon. However, the idea of the “lost world” as a concept didn’t really emerge until the 19th century, when Western civilisation and industrialisation was starting to reach even the most remote corners of the Earth, along with Christianity and European education. This was also when evidence had started emerging that highly developed civilisations had once existed in places that Europeans had previously thought of as savage and primitive. The old Egyptian empires were well known, but explorations in the 19th century also brought evidence of the Inca civilisation in South America and Great Zimbabwe in Africa. The idea was fascinating, that somewhere in the world there still existed places that had been untouched by Western feet, new worlds and wonders to explore, perhaps other civilisations to meet. Of course, this concept had been explored before Haggard, and in a sense it went back to the tradition of the utopian writers, like Thomas More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s The New Atlantis. However, these were more philosophical ruminations than tales of exploration. Hugely important in this sense were of course the writings of Jules Verne from the 1860’s onward. However, with a few exceptions Verne set out to explore the known world, rather than the unknown world, with Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1864) as a noted exception. Still, apart from a sea monster and mere glimpses of creatures in the shadows, Verne’s explorers had few encounters with wildlife — their quest was primarily a geological one.

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Henry Rider Haggard.

More important for Haggard, I suppose, were the real-life travelogues of explorers encountering new tribes and people on their journeys, many of which he was personally acquainted with. His character Allan Quatermain was primarily based on two famous adventurers, one of which was a good friend of his, and I would imagine also James Fenimore Cooper‘s character Leatherstockings or Hawkeye. Like Quatermain, Hawkeye lived in that romantic place between Western imperialism and the “pure” culture of the noble savages of the plains. In both characters can be seen the author’s attempt to reconcile colonialism and the inevitable destruction of local cultures and ways of life by creating a character that would both bring Western civilisation and honour the cultures into which this was brought — a beautiful notion that seldom bore itself out in reality.

But back to lost worlds. The one author that perhaps most prominently bridged the gap between the philosophical utopias and satires and the modern adventure novel was Edward Bulwer Lytton, with his 1871 novel The Coming Race, on which the protagonist finds an Egypt-inspired lost civilisation in the bowels of the Earth. However, this novel also has a lot of social and philosophical, not to speak of occult references. The person that finally brought together the lost world and the juvenile adventure novel was H. Rider Haggard, by combining the swashbuckling adventure of Cooper and Stevenson with the sense of discovery from both real-life travelogues and lost world yarns, mythology and folklore.

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Haggard’s three most influential novels.

King Solomons Mines, along with She, is considered 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). Both were 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”.

I haven’t found much information on how King Solomon’s Mines was received at the time of its release, but at least Variety gave it two thumbs up: “With all the dramatic moments of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure yarn, and production values reaching high and spectacular standards, here is a slab of genuine adventure decked in finely done, realistic African settings and led off by grand acting from Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson, whose rich voice is not neglected.” On the other hand, Christian film review site Decent Films inform us that C.S. Lewis, a great Haggard fan, hated the movie, especially the “the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman”. Actually, I don’t really think that Haggard himself would have minded this change — many of his stories did include female characters, some even had female protagonists. The addition of Kathy O’Brien doesn’t really take anything away from the story. Lewis also supposedly objected to “the revisionism of the finale at the mines, where Haggard’s chilling deathtrap becomes a swashbuckling obstacle course with collapsing cliff walls and volcanic eruptions”.

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Posters.

The film seems to have stood the test of time with modern critics, with At-A-Glance Film Reviews and Derek Winnert both giving it 4/5 stars, especially praising the location shooting. Thomas T. Sueyres at Video Junkies is likewise positive, writing: “In spite of the fact that it deviates from Haggard’s novel in a rather odd way, this is a surprisingly well aged adaptation. To be sure, some of the mechanics are considered very clichéd, and the several cheery “negro” song numbers are really embarrassingly dated, particularly since Robeson himself was one of the first civil rights activists. Even so, the pacing is swift, which is not something the other adaptations are known for, and the acting solid.” Sueyres concludes: “Granted you aren’t going to get multi-million dollar thrills out of this picture and some of the tribal segments go on way too long, but it’s still pretty damned entertaining over all”. While Richard Cross at 20/20 Movie Reviews writes an overall good review, he only gives the film 2/4 stars.

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Posters for some of the later adaptations.

It’s impossible to count how many films have been inspired by King Solomon’s Mines (Indiana Jones must be mentioned here), but the novel has been adapted, more or less faithfully, at least five times for the big screen. The next adaptation, finally a Technicolor version, came in 1950, and has a bit of a patchy reputation, although I haven’t yet seen it. Here Quatermain is played by Stewart Granger, and Henry Curtis is turned into the love interest Elisabeth Curtis, played by Deborah Kerr. Sci-fi legend Richard Carlson is Captain Good. A sort of sequel/reboot was produced in 1959, called Watusi, in which Quatermain’s son Harry (apparently risen from the dead) sets out to “find the treasure that his father was unable to bring home”, according to IMDb. It stars George Montgomery as Harry Quatermain and Finnish actress Taina Elg as the romantic foil.

A little known Brazilian adaptation of the novel called O Trapalhão nas Minas do Rei Salomão was released in 1977. Then in 1979 came King Solomon’s Treasure, seemingly a mashup of a number of different Haggard books, plus dinosaurs for good measure. John Colicos, of all people, plays Allan Quatermaine, flanked by Patrick Macnee and David McCallum as Good and Henry. There’s no love interest in the party this time, instead there’s Swedish bombshell Britt Ekland as an African queen, taken from the novel Allan Quatermain, I presume. Neither is Umbopa present, instead we get the axe-wielding Umslopogaas, also from Allan Quatermain, in the guise of Ken Gampu.

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Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone in a publicity shot for the 1985 film.

And then of course there’s the 1985 adaptation, which is not so much an adaptation of King Solomon’s Mines as it is a blatant attempt to cash in on the Indiana Jones movies, and whole chunks of both plot and action sequences are lifted straight from Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom. Even John Rhys-Davies is repurposed. Richard Chamberlain plays an American Indiana Quatermain and Sharon Stone does her best Kate Capshaw impersonation. Herbert Lom is the villain of the film as a German officer, and as states earlier, the role of Umbopa is handled horribly. At least the sequel had James Earl Jones swinging a big damn axe. Perhaps worthy of mention is also a miniseries starring — of all people — Patrick Swayze as Quatermain, which aired on HBO in 2004. There’s also been a number of other TV or straight-to-video adaptations of the story.

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Comic book adapations.

King Solomon’s Mines was adapted as a comic on three different instances in the fifties, and in 1999 Alan Moore included Allan Quatermain as a character in his Victorian mashup comic The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, later compiled as four graphic novels. The comic was adapted for the screen as a CGI-heavy big budget splash in 2003 with Sean Connery as Quatermain. The film The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was a moderate commercial success, but panned by critics and fans of the comic alike, as well as by Alan Moore himself. Ironically Sean Connery delivers what is probably the best portrayal of Quatermain ever to grace the screen, and it’s a shame that he never got the opportunity to do a proper Haggard adaptation.

EDIT 27.08.2019: An earlier version of the article stated that the 1950 version of King Solomon’s Mines featured Rex Ingram in blackface, but Ingram was in fact an African American actor. Thanks to Ryan for pointing it out! 

Janne Wass

King Solomon’s Mines. 1937, UK. Directed by Robert Stevenson, Geoffrey Barkas (African exteriors). Written by Michael Hogan, Roland Pertwee, Charles Bennett, A.W. Rawlinson, Ralph Spence. Based on novel King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard. Starring: Cedric Hardwicke, Paul Robeson, Anna Lee, John Loder, Roland Young, Arthur Sinclair, Robert Adams, Sydney Fairvbrother, Arthur Goullet, Toto Ware, Makubalo Hlubi, Mjujwa. Music: Mischa Spoliansky. Editing: Michael Gordon. Art direction: Alfred Junge. Sound recordist: Peter Birch. Wardrobe: Marianne. Produced for Gaumont British Picture Corporation. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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