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."
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
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
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
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
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...
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.