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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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
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