King Solomon’s Mines (1937)
Director: Robert Stevenson
Cast: Paul Robeson, Cedric Hardwicke, Roland Young
Synopsis: White hunter Allan Quartermain and his enigmatic guide help a young Irish woman locate her missing father in unexplored Darkest Africa.
Surprisingly, this 1937 King solomon’s Mines from British Gaumont is the first movie version of H. Rider Haggard’s novel and, as such, it bids well to be the best of the three that have been made to date (disregarding the TV movie and mini-series). The story follows the adventures of Allan Quatermain (Cedric Hardwicke) and his party of English Gentlemen hunters as they head off across the desert in pursuit of Oirish tinker-types, Kathleen and Patrick O’Brien (Anna Lee and Arthur Sinclair) a father and daughter combo whose eyes are dazzled with the prospect of riches when they come into possession of a map giving the whereabouts of the fabled King Solomon’s Mines. Eventually catching up with their quarry, the adventurers, with the assistance of the wonderfully-named Umbopo (Paul Robeson) decide to press on, and encounter a hostile tribe led by a rather splendid chap who sports a luxuriant furry matching set of hat, skirt and anklets. Sadly, he’s a bit of a rotter who derives great pleasure from throwing pots of water in the faces of his servants and employing a woman of about 297 to randomly single out hapless tribesman to be slaughtered by his fellow warriors. Anyway, saved from a fate worse than death by the onset of a total eclipse of the sun, our heroes find themselves trapped in the eponymous mines just as the volcano in which they are located is about to erupt.
Although King Solomon’s Mines is never anything less than enjoyable, it certainly cries out for a little dash of technicolour; 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. After seeing the likes of Stewart Granger and Richard Chamberlain portraying Quatermain as a vigorous chap prone to bouts of derring-do and selfless action, Cedric Hardwicke seems a curious choice for the part of Quatermain; he plays the adventurer as more of a staid professor, with pipe clenched firmly between his teeth and a vague distaste for all those about him. In fact virile John Loder in the part of Sir Henry Curtis fits the popular perception of Quatermain more closely, and provides the love interest for director Robert Stevenson’s whimsical and feisty (and also rather lovely) wife Anna Lee and her wonky Oirish accent. By far the most interesting character, however, is that of Commander Good provided by Roland Young. The epitome of the English gent with the dry and sardonic sense of humour, Young comes up with such pearlers as “Would it help if I whipped off my trousers again, d’you think?” when faced with an angry tribe of warriors, and, as he wields his shotgun in the face of advancing tribesmen, informs his neighbour that, “last time I fired this gun it didn’t work,” then, having produced only the click of a hammer on an empty barrel after taking careful aim, wryly comments: “Still doesn’t”. The man’s a genius, and just the kind of company you want on a perilous journey into the South African desert.
Close second to Young comes the old hag who guards the entrance to the Mines: after seeing her seamed and wrinkled visage you will no longer wonder where George Lucas found his inspiration for Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.
(Reviewed 2nd August 2005)