Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 16 January 2005
Source Warner Bros. DVD
I fear that most of you reading this will only know the name of Allan Quatermain from the appalling film adaptation of Alan Moore’s exceedingly imaginative The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comic book. If true, it would border on tragedy. Those readers closer to my own age will remember the film based on H. Rider Haggard’s original Victorian-era novel that launched and promptly sank the career of Sharon Stone (it took the peep-show aesthetic of Basic Instinct to raise it back from the depths). Not quite a tragedy, but damn close. People of my parents’ generation may remember a trip to the Saturday matinee to see the flashy Technicolor version of the tale released in 1950 that starred Stewart Granger (once again playing a dashing adventurer) and Deborah Kerr (once again playing a repressed but stalwart matron). As in many ways, they were far better off than we.
The greatest and most instantly striking feature of this version of the story is the beautiful location shooting in what are now the African countries of Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and the Republic of Congo (as well as the slightly less exotic locales of California and New Mexico). The combination of the Technicolor cinematography (for which Robert Surtees won an Oscar and a Golden Globe) with the landscapes and wildlife of Africa is often exhilarating, even to twenty-first century eyes. What a pity that the story itself is not quite up to the standards of its setting.
Elizabeth Curtis (Kerr) hires Quatermain (Granger) to find her husband who, presumably, has gone missing on a journey to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. Quatermain agrees, for a generous fee, but Curtis demands to accompany him. Quatermain informs her that women have no place on a safari, but Curtis insists. The safari starts, and every bad thing that Quatermain said would happen to Curtis happens. Snakes abound and animals stampede, tribal conflicts arise and caves collapse, but our leads survive to the bitter (and rather silly) end.
Though the plot is lousy with the literary conventions of Haggard’s day, the tribal people of Africa are treated with surprising respect. Though it is true that I think I saw more than one man with a bone through his nose, the indigenous people are depicted as being of intelligent cultures with deeply rooted traditions and a perfectly reasonable suspicion of the white man. The film might be more thoughtful in this regard than Haggard’s book, but the film remains creaky from the genre conventions of the 1950s imposed upon it. It is pleasant to look at, but it no longer passes for action and adventure these days.