The original filmed version of King Solomon’s Mines was released in 1950. The material is so highly thought of that it has been remade twice. In 1985 with Richard Chamberlain and Sharon Stone, and most recently in 2004 (for TV) with Patrick Swayze and Alison Doody. As with most things, the original is better by far. Just as, no matter how many times they remake the original Superman storyline, the original Christopher Reeves version reigns.
King Solomon’s Mines can be heralded as one of the original action movies which lead to today’s extravaganzas of light and sound. However, although I would characterize it as an adventure film, it isn’t in the current definition of the word. There is action but very little of it.
Time is spent on characterization and the scenery, as King Solomon’s Mines was filmed entirely on location in Africa. And not on location like Mogambo was, where you can visibly see where stock wildlife footage is cut in. This is African Queen location shooting. According to legend, producers originally approached Errol Flynn to play the lead, Allan Quatermain. Errol Flynn deferred though, opting to film Kim, which was filming in India. The reason? The Kim production stayed in a resort whereas King Solomon’s Mines stayed in the bush.
Our original stars Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr, two stars of which we haven’t covered often. Elizabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) is missing her husband, who departed on a quest to find King Solomon’s lost diamond mines. She meets and hires a beleaguered and disenchanted safari guide in the form of Allan Quatermain (Stewart Granger) to lead a search party to find him.
Along the way they are besieged with several challenges, including a tremendous animal stampede which even today makes one wonder how it was filmed. Without the benefit of special CGI effects it is surprising any insurance company would cover it. Even now this must rank as one of the best stampede scenes ever done.
As they continue their trek, they come across a secluded African tribe who wear raw diamonds as ornamentation. Knowing now that the mines are in fact a reality they find them and, in the process, Elizabeth’s long dead husband. Which is nice seeing how she’s fallen in love with Quatermain along the way.
This romance should come as no surprise as all the standard tricks are used throughout the film to make this happen. Their relationship moves from open antagonism to cool indifference to the sweet song of birds in the sycamore trees. Yes, it is that obvious.
The plot lacks surprises as we’ve seen this unfold far too many times not to know what is coming- it is just a question of what form it will take. Surprisingly, this isn’t a detraction from the film as the cinematography and acting are, for the most part, first rate. (Perhaps those later versions, both of which were less than stellar, should have paid more attention to their worthy predecessor.)
One thing to add, which I didn’t notice until after the film was over. There is absolutely no music for the entire film, with the sole exception of some tribal chanting. You’d think that would be blatantly obvious during the running of the film but the visuals are so engrossing you really do not notice. Perhaps the films two directors, Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton, knew what they were doing. Much as we like a good soundtrack, music would have been a distraction here.
There is one scene which I must call out. Elizabeth, having had enough of the African heat, decides to dramatically cut her long hair and does so in a stream. The very next shot is of her on a rock formation overlooking the stream with a perfectly coiffed short hairstyle. Quite becoming but also quite impossible on the fly while on safari. Well, it is a MGM picture and they always were a bit on the glamorous side- even when it damaged realism.
In the production’s defense, this was caught during the editing of the film but no cohesive explanation could be found to insert into the film to rectify the gaff. As the footage was shot in Africa retakes were not especially feasible and the scene was left unchanged for the final release.
On a final note it is good to see the respect and dignity the African tribespeople are treated with during the picture, which surely was a bit innovative for the time. It’s also one reason the film has aged particularly well as society has come along the ride of racial equality as well. I only recall one scene of white on African violence- and that isn’t racially motivated at all.
I am going to make the assumption that the natives are actually natives and not extras from the back lot. In researching it appears this assumption to be correct, but I’ve been wrong before. In any case the tribal rituals and culture of the African tribes is definitely treated with respect and dignity, including a climatic battle of succession between the leaders of two rival factions.
Thankfully this film is readily available. There is a nice standard DVD presentation and it can also be downloaded from iTunes and is also available on Netflix.