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King Solomon's Mines

Directed by Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr & Richard Carlson, 1950, 103 minutes, color

DVD cover

DVD cover

By Carter B. Horsley

More than half a century after its 1950 release, King Solomon's Mines, the second of three film versions of H. Rider Haggard's African adventure novel, might seem a bit tame to a generation raised on spectacular special effects, lighting fast editing and the irreverent fantasies of "Raiders of the Lost Arc."

Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson meet Umpopa

Umbopa, Deborah Kerr, Richard Carlson and Stewart Granger

What secures its fame, however, is its stateliness, its authentic locales and cultures, and its believability as a real adventure. It is, in other words, the real thing. Moreover, Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr bring a stature to their roles that is magnificent and memorable.

The film begins and ends with fantastic and immensely exciting African drumming and views of gorgeous African scenery.

Leader of chanting

Leader of tribe chanting

Although this is a Hollywood adventure film, it is a spectacular and very important documentary that glorifies and pays great respect to Africa and its peoples and it does so without sermonizing or patronizing.

Umbopa reveals his royal scars

Umbopa reveals his royal scars

I was ten years old when I first saw it and I played the great Watusi dance scene from the movie at my mother's memorial service about four decades later and hopefully it will be played at a memorial service for me.

Watusi king and his retinue

Watusi king and his retinue

In this scene, a band of Watusi dancers enter a very large, circular, open, wooden enclosure wearing jangles on their ankles with which their syncopated steps make regal music with the accompanying drumming and an exotic solo instrument.

The dance is about to begin

The dance is about to begin...

The dancers slowly advance and we see that the forward ranks are children in front of the very tall male adult dancers. The dance is full of jumps. The dancers wear white headdresses that swirl about them.

The dancers enter

The dancers enter...

As they reach the center of the arena, an extremely tall and robust dancer holding a long thin rod in each hand begins to weave in and out of the dancers' ranks.

The dancer

The dancer

As he moves, he pushes the air with great force with his arms, slowly pumping and pressing as he stomps his stately feet into the dust and gyrates his head. The headdresses conjure lions' manes and viewers can only be awed and mesmerized by the propulsion of this dynamic procession.

Jangling and stomping

Jangling and stomping

The jangling insistency of the marching ranks is the equal of any Scottish troop of bagpipers, but the introduction of their leader with his magical gestures, free expression and independence is awesome, exciting and very beautiful, noble and dignified.

Tall, handsome, swarthy, Stewart Granger is perfect as Allan Quartermain, the white hunter. The movie starts with a thrilling safari in which Quartermain's main aide is killed because of a hunter's incompetence and Quartermain's humanity towards the Africans, his contempt for some of his clients, quickly becomes apparent.

Saddened and dejected, he is approached by a friend to undertake another safari for an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Curtis, who wants to search for her lost husband who had a treasure map that purported to show the location of the legendary mines of King Solomon. He meets with the woman, played by a young, fresh and very sincere Deborah Kerr, who convinces him to undertake the safari, which he considers mad, only because she was willing to pay enough to take care of his son's education in England.

Quartermain's obvious disdain for her expedition creates considerable tension that is relieved a bit by her good-natured, sympathetic brother, played by Richard Carlson, who gives a sensitive performance that surprisingly did little for his career.

The movie is dated a bit in the beginning because of the Edwardian-style outfits worn by Deborah Kerr, but once her safari with Quartermain, starts, the adventure could have been yesterday, although it is a little slow-moving, which is not inappropriate given the means of travel, which is mostly on foot. There are a couple of scenes that a bit too cute in which Kerr encounters various jungle dangers, but the movie really kicks up dust in a sensational stampede. The movie was shot on location in Africa and the photography is great, but after the stampede the scenery becomes secondary to the tribes they encounter, captured in very important footage during ceremonies, and the love interest that not surprisingly develops between Quartermain and Kerr. The latter is handled quite nicely as Kerr falls in love with Quartermain but remains dedicated to her quest to find out if her husband is alive. The moment when hopes are raised that he might still be alive is very poignant as she clearly knows by then that she loves Quartermain but intends to uphold her duty as a wife. One of the tribes becomes less than friendly and Quartermain, Kerr and Carlson must flee. They encounter a wandering man of great height, called Umbopa, played with great dignity by Siriaque, on whose stomach is carved the image of a snake, and he is able to communicate that he is a member of the royal family of a tribe located far away that he hopes to return to. The group then comes to a vast desert and in the distance are two peaks indicated on the treasure map. They traverse the desert and climb the mountains and come upon a stunning vista of a lush plateau and a stone grave with the rifle of Kerr's husband on it. Umbopa shows his stomach to some members of a tribe who accost the group and who are dressed like him. They recognize him as the rightful heir to the tribe's throne now occupied by a not nice relative.

Umbopa goes off with his fellow tribesmen and Quartermain, Kerr, and Carlson proceed to the tribe's village where a meeting is being held in the large, open circular wooden enclosure in front of the throne of the king. The king is suspicious of Quartermain, but fortunately the last shell in his rifle stops the person the king sends to attack them and the king's men back off. The king's advisor, a particularly pernicious looking person, concedes that Kerr's husband had visited the village and agrees to take them to where he was last seen - a mountain cave that contains King Solomon's Mines, or rather the dazzling jewels that were his treasure. While Quartermain, Kerr and Carlson examine the treasure, the advisor traps them in the cave with a large boulder.

They manage to escape and return to the enclosure where the above-mentioned dance takes place and is interrupted by the dramatic entrance of Umbopa who challenges the king to a fight.

Everything about the movie reeks with authenticity - the heat of the sun, the roar of the stampede, the difficult pace through the jungle, the adrenalin fear of a charging elephant and charging warriors, the respect for the culture of the tribes and the musicality of their beautiful languages. A tribe's syncopated singing before it gives chase to Quartermain, Kerr and Carlson is immensely stirring as is the close-up photography of some of the tribe's warriors, whose visages are as unforgettable as the greatest portraits by Dorothea Lange or Walker Evans.

It was my mother's favorite movie because of her love of anthropology and it was my favorite movie because Stewart Granger was so strong and Deborah Kerr so alluring, and because of the joyous jingling dance that forever conjures thoughts of the nobility of mankind.

Quartermain easily combines noblesse oblige with derring-do, but his heroics are human, not superhuman. Granger would play a few other swash-buckling-type roles in such movies as "Scaramouche" (1952), "Beau Brummel" (1954) and the excellent "Bhowani Junction" with Ava Gardner (1956). His earlier starring roles included the delightful "Caesar and Cleopatra," (1946) and the flamboyant "Blanche Fury" (1947). Surprisingly, Granger's career faded rather quickly although he remained active until 1990 and made another African film, "The Last Safari" in 1967. There were plenty of big male stars around at the time such as John Wayne(see The City Review article on "Red River"), Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Gary Cooper, Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier, who gobbled up most of the available heroic roles, and then Richard Burton burst on the scene and his English accent was even more resonant than Granger's. Granger could probably have been an impressive, elegant, suave James Bond, but Sean Connery's delicious glint and less than gentlemanly lapses clearly won the day. Kerr, of course, would go on to a long and glamorous reign as England's prettiest star, who managed to convey considable sexuality beneath a pleasant air of primness, but would be overtaken by the ascendancy of Grace Kelly just a few years after this film. Her role could have been played by some other actresses and one should not forget that "The African Queen" with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn came out the same year with an emphasis on character rather than adventure.

In the 1950's, Africa was emerging from its colonial days when the great European powers had divied it up for its natural and human resources. By the end of the decade, some strong and magnetic leaders such as Tom Mboya would emerge who excited hope that the continent's transformation would be as relatively easy a turnover as India's, but sadly that would not be the case. The future of Africa would be fraught with many problems and the Watusi tribe would fall victim to horrific wars.

The image of Africa presented in "King Solomon's Mines" would later be recalled in Clint Eastwood's "White Hunter" and Sydney Pollock's "Out of Africa," both of which captured or recreated much of the land's great beauty, but primarily were character studies of very interesting people, director John Huston and writer Isak Dinesen, respectively. Perhaps the most famous and popular movie about Africa was "Born Free" (1966) with Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna about a couple, the Adamsons, who loved lions. Another movie, "Gorillas in the Mist" (1988) handsomely retold the story and work of Diane Fossey, who worked to save gorillas. A few other films deserve mention in any discussion of films about Africa: "Four Feathers" with Ralph Richardson (1939), Stanley Baker's "Zulu" with Michael Caine (1964) "Simba" with Dirk Bogarde, Virginia McKenna and Basil Sydney (1955), "The Guns at Batasi" with Richard Attenborough, Jack Hawkins, Cecil Parker and Mia Farrow (1964), "The Snows of Kilmanjaro" with Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner, and "Roots of Heaven" (1958) with Errol Flynn and directed by John Huston, and "Cry the Beloved Country" with Sidney Poitier (1951). "Four Feathers" is a fine, rousing and very colorful yarn that is a classic about nobility, honor and bravery with a horrific scene that involves branding. "Zulu" is an excellent and straight-forward battle movie about heroic English soldiers defending an outpost against hordes of Zulus whose chanting is haunting and beautiful. "Simba" is about a bunch of white settlers holding out against attacks by the Mau-Mau and is very simplistic, but very dramatic. "The Guns at Batasi" is about some English soldiers defending the Empire in Africa and very stiff upper lip. "The Snows of Kilmanjaro" is a nicely done, romantic version of an Ernest Hemingway story but much of it is flashbacks to Europe. "The Roots of Heaven" is a good movie based on a book by Romain Gary about people trying to save elephants. "Cry the Beloved Country" was a fine and serious movie about race relations in South Africa.

The film won Oscars for its cinematography by Robert Surtees and editing, and was nominated for best picture.

The first film version of Haggard's book was made in 1937 and starred Cedric Hardwicke as Quartermain and the great Paul Robeson as Umbopa. It was a fairly good adventure film. The third version was made in 1985 and starred Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone. It was a very corny movie.

This film is ranked 43rd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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