1937, Gaumont British Picture Corp. Directed by Robert Stevenson. Paul Robeson, Cedric Hardwicke, Roland Young, Anna Lee, John Loder, Arthur Sinclair, Robert Adams.
Decent Films Ratings
|?Kids & Up|
Content advisory: A large-scale tribal battle scene; fleeting ethnographic nudity.
A National Catholic Register “Video/DVD Picks” capsule review.
By Steven D. Greydanus
C. S. Lewis, a fan of H. Rider Haggard since boyhood, cordially disliked Robert Stevenson’s 1937 take on King Solomon’s Mines. Among its offenses Lewis listed “the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman” (Haggard’s tale explicitly states at the outset that there are no [European] women in it!) and the revisionism of the finale at the mines, where Haggard’s chilling deathtrap becomes a swashbuckling obtacle course with collapsing cliff walls and volcanic eruptions.
Lewis would have been left equally cold to subsequent screen versions of Haggard’s story, all of which give Haggard hero Allan Quatermain a female foil (who is always, except here, a love interest), and none of which capture the deathly spell of the mountain tomb (though the classic 1950 version is the least objectionable on this point).
But the original 1937 adaptation, though dated, and hardly faithful (even the hero’s name is misspelled “Quartermain” in a handwritten note!), is still of interest to fans of vintage Saturday-matinee fare. Its production values and special effects are impressive for the period, and like the 1950 version it makes good use of authentic African locations and performers, with real African natives as extras. Only the evil witch doctor Gagool is played by a European (Sydney Fairbrother) in blackface — though she is nevertheless the only adequate Gagool in any screen version of the story.
As Quatermain, Cedric Hardwicke makes a rather professorial protagonist; but top billing rightly goes to Paul Robeson, son of a former slave and a celebrated performer and activist, who is an impressive presence as the mysterious Umbopa, and sings a few obligatory songs in his powerful baritone.