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Help Support Features Articles Allan Quaterman - Part I
Allan Quatermain
by Michael French - posted on April 4, 2005

PART I: From Print to Moving Picture

He wore a weathered broad brimmed hat, followed ancient maps to long lost mythic treasures and relics, traversed burning deserts and unexplored jungles, and braved all manner of perils from subterranean mines to hordes of angry tribesmen. Who was he?
The likely answer to this question would be "Indiana Jones." However, a whole century before Indiana Jones was known to the world, there was another adventure hero who captured the imagination of the Western world.
His name was Allan Quatermain.

H. Rider Haggard

British writer H. Rider Haggard’s imagination was responsible for Quatermain’s creation. Drawing from his own personal experiences in Africa during the Zulu and Boer Wars, Haggard spent most of his younger years experiencing adventure as only a British lad could in the late nineteenth century.

In 1885, Allan Quatermain became a part of the British popular conscience with Haggard’s book King Solomon’s Mines. Interestingly, the book was written on a wager. After reading Treasure Island and informing his brother he thought it wasn’t as great as everyone was claiming, his sibling dared him to write something better.
King Solomon’s Mines captured the British imagination, telling the story of the "great white hunter" Allan Quatermain, hired by one Sir Henry Curtis to escort him into the unexplored darkness of Africa to find his brother, who went missing while on a desperate search for the legendary diamond mines of King Solomon.

The book was so popular it prompted Haggard to write a sequel, Allan Quatermain. Haggard then went on to write a critically acclaimed but unrelated work, She, which equally captured readers’ interest including Dr. Sigmund Freud. She would be made into almost countless film adaptations in both the silent and sound eras starting as early as 1908, eventually totaling nine versions. Allan Quatermain would be adapted for the silent cinema in 1919. But it would be years before the original King Solomon’s Mines would see the silver screen.

Recent novel cover.

Exactly ten years after the publication of King Solomon’s Mines, the motion picture camera was invented and between Kodak, Thomas Edison, and Hollywood, the motion picture industry flourished in the beginnings of a golden age of silent cinema.
Rapidly, motion picture producers started adapting famous works of literature and legend for film. Shakespeare, Robin Hood, and even the aforementioned Treasure Island were just the tip of the cinematic iceberg. However, King Solomon’s Mines would not appear on screen until forty-two years had passed since the birth of the movie camera.

In that time, Haggard’s African adventure epic has inspired four feature-legth motion pictures, and the character of Allan Quatermain has appeared in no less that seven major feature films. These adaptations of King Solomon’s Mines are not only uniquely individual, but they are also time capsules of the eras in which they were filmed.
Haggard’s adventure has inspired storytellers in its own right for over a century. What’s more, each adaptation of the story has inspired or been inspired by future adventure filmmakers, including Steven Spielberg’s work on the Indiana Jones series. The various loyalties to and deviations from the original work in each adaptation are fascinating fingerprints into how society’s value of this story endures over time, while what each chooses to emphasize and how each present these ideas change.
For over a half-century, society had embraced King Solomon’s Mines in print. The motion picture camera would fall upon it for the first time in 1937…

1937: So Close and Yet, So Far

The first version of King Solomon’s Mines was adapted by Gaumont British Productions and distributed by MGM. Made during the golden age of Hollywood and the apex of swashbuckling adventure, this film precluded adventure classics like The Adventures of Robin Hood and Gunga Din by only a couple of years.

With a separate unit allocated for shooting on location in Africa in addition to the then traditional studio work, the 1937 version was a lavish production. Aside from being the oldest version, it also holds the distinctions of being the only one shot in glorious black and white and with an Allan Quatermain cast accurately to the original book.

King Solomon's Mines
1937 version.

The entire film adheres quite closely to Haggard’s original work in many ways, far beyond the subsequent adaptations. Cedric Hardwicke, a middle-aged actor of shorter stature than the other characters, plays Quatermain. This is in keeping with Haggard’s Quatermain, who acts as the guide, narrator, and veteran hunter. However, Haggard’s Quatermain is not a young, courageous hero. He is an over-the-hill pacifist with an abundance of caution, prudence and, of course, a wealth of experience about survival in the African wilderness.
This version also accurately depicts the other characters unlike any other version. Sir Henry Curtis is as Haggard describes, a young and hefty sort with a penchant for adventure. Captain John Good is literally a fish out of water, but with a dry sense of humor as the book describes. The evil witch Gagool is more accurately depicted in this film than any other as an ageless, malignant force with the hidden knowledge of the mines.

click to enlarge
Cedric Hardwicke as
Quatermain on the right.

The 1937 version mainly deviates only in the motivation for the adventure. In the original book, Curtis hires Quatermain to help him find his brother. In this version, a young Irish girl, played by Anna Lee, coerces Quatermain and his friends into striking off to search for her father, who foolishly went looking for the mines after copying an ancient map from a dying, unfortunate treasure seeker.
The film begins with the feel of a Western in a more exotic locale. Only when the mysterious African, Umbopa, appears does the film begin get beyond its Western aesthetic and move into a dreamlike adventure. Quatermain’s role in the story is as a background guide and wizened figure. Interludes between scenes are marked by his journal passages, giving the film a close link to Haggard’s writing. While there are no scenes of Quatermain dealing with friendly tribes or hunting animals as he often does in the Haggard tale, many of the smaller details lost in subsequent versions make their way into this film.

They make their way through the desert, nearly dying of thirst, as in the book, and it is Umbopa who finds the water just as Haggard wrote. They survive past the desert on the melons that Haggard describes, and when they finally meet up with the Kukuana tribe, Good is barelegged and half-shaven and Quatermain convinces the tribe that they are white gods. These tiny details are omitted from all other filmed versions of the story.

click to enlarge
1937 version of Umbopa.

Also unique to the 1937 version are many other details important to the original Haggard book. Umbopa’s plea to Quatermain for white magic to strike fear into the heart of the evil king, Twala, who usurped the throne from Umbopa’s father is present. The convenient use of the solar eclipse, Gagool’s witch hunting ceremony, and the great battle between Umbopa’s allies and Twala’s loyal army is preserved. The ancient statues outside the mines, and Curtis’ final battle with Twala also set this version apart from all others as one with true specificity to the original story.

The inclusion of a female character is the beginning of a currently unbroken tradition in the King Solomon’s Mines films, however her romance with Curtis is unique. In all subsequent versions, the woman falls for a much younger Quatermain. Paul Robeson’s portrayal of Umbopa is also a slight aberration for the story. Robeson is dressed in "white" clothes for most of the film and sings in a deep baritone in English often in the film. Understandably, with sound technology being only a decade old, having a character sing was showcasing the technology. The true motivation is more likely though that Robeson, known for his powerful singing voice, was a casting coup and having him sing in the film brought greater box office potential to the project.

The 1937 version remains an adventure classic, despite its technical limitations when viewed today. Its adherence to Haggard’s original story details is impressive and wholly unique in the pantheon of filmed versions. By the time the second version is put in front of the lens, filmmakers will abandon details in favor of broader thematic strokes, and the scope of the story will be epic in a very different way…

1950: Adventure and Anthropology Collide

Thirteen years after Hardwicke and Robeson’s adaptation, MGM tried their hand at King Solomon’s Mines again. This time around, the studio created a prestige picture unlike any other. The late 1940s and early 1950s was still an early age for color films, with the Technicolor process being extremely expensive, the cameras unwieldy. However, MGM was the most lavish studio of the day, known for its opulent musicals and expansive epics. They spared no expense in 1939 on the Technicolor blockbusters, Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

By 1950, MGM was making a habit of movie magic, and in the postwar years, escapism and spectacle was the demand of the audience. King Solomon’s Mines provided the perfect vehicle to wow audiences, and the story was dusted off for another go. This time, MGM filmmakers and writers took Haggard’s story for a different kind of ride. Instead of merely removing certain elements to fit as much as possible into the film, the creators of this new version decided that the book should be used as a reference. The intention was not to replicate the book, but to take the characters and the essence of the story and place it on a canvas yet unseen by audiences.

King Solomon's Mines
1950 version.

At the advent of film, movies were often literal travel journals designed to show people places and locales they themselves could never reach, such as Egypt, Paris and China. As film became more story-driven and dramatic, many filmmakers moved into the studios to harness the total control of closed environments. With the breakthrough of Technicolor, there was a creative revival of showing audiences the faraway and the exotic, with color adding an extra dimension of realism. King Solomon’s Mines was one of many films that showcased expensive, on-location Technicolor productions to bring exotic locales to the moviegoer. A slew of other color spectacles were to follow, including The Quiet Man, shot almost completely in Ireland, and Ivanhoe, shot entirely in England, both filmed in 1952.

The creators of the new King Solomon’s Mines saw an opportunity to take the audience to the wilds of Africa like never before in cinema, and they used every tool at their disposal to do it. With units shooting amazing footage of landscapes, African tribes, and wildlife, including herds of elephants, racing lions, and a massive stampede, they maximized the use of the natural landscape with their Technicolor cameras.

Haggard’s story was adapted into this footage, and very easily. In the original story, Quatermain was a tracker, hunter and wizened guide of Africa. He knew the local languages, tribes, and wildlife. This version takes that idea of Quatermain and places him not in a fictional Africa, but a real Africa. While Haggard’s descriptions of the animals and landscapes were based on his own experiences, he created fictional tribes for the story to conform to his adventure fiction.

In the 1950 version, the filmmakers took a documentary-like opportunity to utilize actual African tribes in the film. Instead of the fictional Kukuanas guarding the mines, Quatermain and his companions discover the mines protected by the tall tribesmen of the Watutsi. Two other actual African tribes are also featured in their journey, one playing a helpful tribe and one depicting a cannibalistic one.

At the same time, Quatermain is continually educating his companions on African wildlife and the dangers of the jungles and wilderness. The great white hunter protects his party from deadly spiders, snakes, lions, rhinos, and a seemingly endless stampede. The film is half an adventure and half an anthropological and biological showcase of the "Dark Continent."

click to enlarge
Stewart Granger as
Quatermain on the left.

The treatment of Haggard’s story is graceful and done in broader strokes than the 1937 version. MGM snagged two of the biggest movie stars to lead the story. Stewart Granger plays Allan Quatermain, a significantly younger depiction of the character, and a much harder persona in general. He is still a cautious character, but not the almost cowardly version of Haggard’s book. Rather, he is a tough character, but with professional discretion. Again, he wants no part of the expedition to find the mines, which he believes is a myth.

This time around, Sir Henry Curtis is not a member of the expedition, but the man whom they search for. Deborah Kerr plays Curtis’ wife, who hires Quatermain to help find her husband and King Solomon’s mines. John Good is Kerr’s brother in this film. This version is the first to include the character of Khiva, Quatermain’s trusted friend and chief bearer on his safaris. Incidentally, Khiva, Umbopa, Twala, and the rest of the African characters are played by actual African natives.

click to enlarge
1950 version of Umbopa.

The great divergence from Haggard’s story is the journey itself. Again, this is a filmmaking opportunity that acts more like a National Geographic showcase interwoven into the adventure, and it works beautifully. Some elements from the book, including the trek through the desert are still present. Once again, Umbopa finds the water, as in the book.
Also as in the book, Khiva is killed much to Quatermain’s dismay, and the story culminates with the mines. However, this version begins a tradition of the omission of the Kukuana civil war in favor of a one-on-one duel between Twala and a challenger. In this version, Umbopa and Twala face off for control of the tribe. Another interesting omission is Gagool, the evil witch, who makes no appearance in this version.
The escape from the mines is more accurate to the book than any other version, with Quatermain and his friends trapped in the inner sanctuary, having to find their way through mountain tunnels by way of an underground river. This is almost verbatim what Haggard wrote originally.

The 1950 version of King Solomon’s Mines earned two Oscars and a nomination for Best Picture. It is unique among the various versions for the most impressive on-location cinematography, uniformly excellent performances, and a story as serious and epic as it is exciting and realistic. Granger completely sells his performance as the hunter Quatermain and every element around him is wholly believable. Granger would go on to star in MGM’s 1952 Technicolor swashbuckling adventure, Scaramouche.

The addition of actual tribes, locations, and wildlife put this version on a level that has not been equaled. The next version of King Solomon’s Mines would not be attempted for another 35 years, on the 100th anniversary of Haggard’s original story, and it’s influence would not be that novel as one would think. Rather, it would borrow heavily from an adventure hero made famous in 1981, a character known as Indiana Jones.


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