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Patrick Schoenmaker

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Help Support Research Indy's Influences Classics Adventures She

Released by RKO Radio Pictures. - 1935

Directed by: Lansing Holden & Irving Pichel
Story by: H. Rider Haggard (novel)
Screenplay by: Ruth Rose
Produced by: Merian C. Cooper
Music by: Max Steiner

Helen Gahagan ... She
Randolph Scott ... Leo Vincey
Helen Mack ... Tanya Dugmore
Nigel Bruce ... Horace Holly


Across the top of the 1981 poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark was the promising pitch, “From the creators of Jaws and Star Wars.” It seems silly in retrospect that Paramount’s marketing department would nervously resort to using other titles to sell such an extraordinary movie. But, in 1935, moviegoers largely ignored a grand fantasy/adventure film called She. Perhaps RKO would have fared better had they put on their posters, “From the creators of King Kong and King Solomon’s Mines.”

That is the promise of She, a merging of two creative giants renowned for their exotic adventure stories: Merian C. Cooper and H. Rider Haggard. How anyone could have resisted this back then I’ll never understand.

The film opens on a ticking clock. An old man says, “What time is it?” A younger man responds, “Ten minutes after you last asked me.” We discover the old man has spent his life searching for the path to immortality. He is now dying. He awaits his nephew who he hopes will pick up the search. Randolph Scott plays the nephew, Leo Vincey.

Leo Vincey & Tanya.

Inspired by his uncle’s mysterious tales and a centuries-old journal from an earlier Vincey family member, Leo travels to the Russian Arctic in search of a sacred flame that grants immortality. Leo is joined by his uncle’s friend, Holly (Nigel Bruce). Along the way they pick up Tanya (Helen Mack), the daughter of a northern trader.

Beneath the frozen wastes, the three eventually discover a lost city, the Kingdom of Kor. It is there that they meet the cruel Queen Ayesha, who is in love with Leo Vincey, believing him to be a man she once knew and has for five hundred years awaited his return.

The Hall of Kings.

The novel by H. Rider Haggard had been adapted before and would be again. The only surviving silent adaptation is quite good but it is this Merian C. Cooper version that is the very best. Ray Harryhausen recently colorized the film for a special edition DVD release. Apparently, the film was originally intended to be in color but RKO couldn’t accommodate for that in the budget. Previous experiments with colorization of black and white films were disastrous. However, Mr. Harryhausen has actually managed to improve this film. The color version puts a greater emphasis on the exotic. The best black and white cinematographers paint with shadows, which allows for less within any given composition to be the focus. She offers as much of the strange new worlds of science fiction as old-fashioned adventure and therefore benefits from a broader palette. Everything set within the composition should stand out in a film like this, and does so in this fantastic new release.

The human sacrifice ceremony.

The script by Ruth Rose maintains a sharp focus on the story’s themes, largely through the character of Tanya. Despite the repeated terrors she is made to endure, hers is the voice of wisdom and Helen Mack’s performance adds a heavy dose of humanity to the film. Randolph Scott, Nigel Bruce and Helen Gahagan as the Queen, all do fine work. Their performances may seem a little stage-influenced but this was not so unusual for 1935.

Tanya bound & gagged.

Art director Van Nest Polglase and special effects wizard Vernon Walker are two of the great heroes of this production, especially for a scene which takes place in the Hall of Kings. Leo and Holly watch a human sacrifice ceremony without realizing that the victim is their friend Tanya. bound and gagged, with a veil draped over her head, Tanya is to be thrown into a pit of fire while dancers in weird costumes and gold masks circle her with a frenzied and bizarre performance. Max Steiner, re-teaming with Cooper after Kong, composed an appropriately maniacal score for this extraordinary set piece.

Books and movies will never return in any meaningful way to the Mysterious Island exoticism so popular a hundred years ago. The Victorian Age of Exploration inspired the imaginations of H. Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs and many others. Hollywood was quick to capitalize on the popularity of such authors, recognizing the unique ability of cinema to offer a visual counterpart to their outrageous stories. Many of these films have improved over time as what was so common then is unlike anything today. Enormous gratitude is owed Ray Harryhausen for offering us a return to this wonderful example of old fashioned fantasy adventure as if it was something new. (Stephen Jared)


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