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Sunday, 9 September 2007

King Solomon's Mines (1950) Compton Bennett & Andrew Marton

This one opens with one of the strangest titles I think I've ever seen: 'King Solomon's Mines' are the first words we see and they run slowly from right to left before any other words appear. It's 1897 and we're in Africa, which is pretty obvious from the gazelles and elephants and such. Allan Quatermain is there, working as a hunting guide, taking rich white men out on safari to shoot things, but he's fed up with the lifestyle. He's obviously worth much more than that, and he ends up being hired to find a man he'd already turned down.

Apparently Henry Curtis believed he knew the location of King Solomon's fabled mines, a long way into the unexplored interior of the contnent, but when he tried to hire Quatermain he was rebuffed. Quatermain felt it was a fool's mission, working from a map worth no more than any other fabrication promising untold riches peddled across the world. Now Quatermain finds that Curtis went without him, is now lost and is sought by his husband who is willing to pay handsomely to retain him as her guide.

The film was shot entirely on location in Africa and it shows. The wildlife is plentiful, and close too: not just friendly critters like giraffes, but lions and rhinos and crocodiles. The soundtrack is authentic because it's sung by real African tribesmen who know precisely how it ought to sound. There's no Les Baxter exotica here, that's for sure. The only real drawback is that this is 1950 and we're unfortunately constrained by a 1:37 aspect ratio. While I'm aware that I'm seeing everything that was ever projected onto the big screen but my brain can't help but feel that there's so much on the left and right that would have been visible if only they'd filmed in Cinerama or VistaVision or something else widescreen.

As for the acting, Stewart Granger may have been too young to play Allan Quatermain but he carries it off well with the aid of a little greyness to his hair. He's certainly better in the role than Sean Connery was in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The young lady he escorts through the jungle to find her husband is a fine match for him, and they do attack each other frequently with words and attitude. She's Deborah Kerr, never one to kowtow to anyone, let alone someone who doesn't have the faith in her that she herself has. Of course each being as stubborn as each other, they're a perfect match.

King Solomon's Mines isn't as gripping as it really should be, given the tensions of the environment and the calibre of the storytelling. This is one of the original ripping yarns, after all. However there are certainly some thrilling cliffhanger scenes for sure: the stampede especially, but some of the native village scenes too. Others, like the cave scene are just over too quickly and easily to really carry any real danger. That's a shame. Partly that may be due to the exhaustion of the director, Compton Bennett, and his replacement by second unit director Andrew Marton. Partly it may be the traditional English reserve robbing us of panic moments. Mostly I think it was just that the filmmakers didn't have what it took, though Granger and Kerr do their very best to make up for it.

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