Wednesday, September 10, 2014

In short: King Solomon’s Mines (1937)

It’s rather startling to watch Robert Stevenson’s British – and decidedly free - adaptation of Henry Rider Haggard’s novel and compare it to American adventure movies taking place in Africa at the same time, and to realize how much more comfortable an entertainment product of the ailing Empire seems with the idea that black people are actually human like everyone else. Sure, the people of colour we get to see in the film are mostly barbarians of of kind or the other, but then, the film never makes any attempt to suggest culture and skin colour have much to do with one another, nor does it seem interested at all in ideas of white superiority, despite various plot developments that would actually make an easy starting point for this sort of (idiotic) argument. The film also feels pleasantly matter-of-fact about one of its main characters being black, treats him like everyone else on screen, and casts him with Paul Robeson, who of course doesn’t do undignified comic relief, or undignified at all. He’s also by far the most sympathetic character in the film, for Cedric Hardwicke’s Allan Quartermain (I never understood the desperate need of filmmakers to add that R to the name, by the way) is a bit of a prick additionally addled with horrifying facial hair, John Loder’s Sir Henry Curtis is your typical romantic lead (which is to say very boring), Roland Young’s Commander John Good a caricature, and Anna Lee’s fake Irishness just horribly annoying.

With Robeson some of what might make the film look quaint to contemporary eyes comes in too, because – not a surprise, given Robeson’s career as a singer – this is a film that never lets an opportunity pass by to have Robeson sing one song or another, never explaining why this African king-in-exile sings the pop version of spirituals, nor a film that ever realizes that, while there’s certainly nothing wrong with the musical numbers, they do mess up the film’s potential for excitement more than once. On the positive side, if you have to have filler in your film, there’s really worse to be found.

However, it’s not as if the film lacks in actual adventure movie excitements. There are sandstorms, a huge battle staged by a second unit in South Africa, and, finally, the rather spectacular end of the titular mine. Note to self: don’t throw rocks into a volcano.

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