I have to date myself by saying I saw this 1950 film shortly after it came out in theaters. I was about seven years old at the time, and it became my favorite adventure story for quite a while. I confess, however, I hadn't seen it again until its appearance on DVD. The question was, would it hold up to present scrutiny as well as it held up in memory?
The mind has a funny way of playing tricks on us. What we liked or disliked at one point in our lives may or may not be a lasting impression. We all change; we all grow older; we all mature. Sometimes we get better while the world around us crumbles. Sometimes we get worse while everything else improves. Who knows. In any case, H. Rider Haggard's famous tale of adventurer Allan Quatermain, published in 1885, was the first in a series of books about the fellow who was to become the single biggest inspiration for Lucas and Spielberg's Indiana Jones. And, of the half dozen movie versions of the story we've had from big-screen live action to animation to TV miniseries, I'm happy to say that this film version from directors Compton Bennett ("The Forsyte Woman") and Andrew Marton ("Gallant Bess") remains the one that best stands the test of time. A good yarn is still a good yarn.
Younger viewers may recognize the name Quatermain from the dreadful 1985 remake of "King Solomon's Mines" with Richard Chamberlain or the tiresome "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" with Sean Connery. The thing that makes the 1950 film so good (and to a lesser degree the 1937 rendering before it) is that it's done straight, as opposed to the intentionally campy attitudes taken by the newer accounts.
Stewart Granger plays Allan Quatermain (here spelled Quartermain, apparently easier for viewers to pronounce), the intrepid hero of a whole series of adventure novels by Haggard over a period of almost thirty years. Quartermain is a big-game hunter and guide, brave, resourceful, wise, weary, cynical, and very, very British. Granger is perfect for the role; he looks, sounds, and acts like the Quatermain of the novels. The character is working in east Africa as the story opens in 1897, leading wealthy dilettantes on safaris. His wife has died several years earlier, and he has a young son who is going to school in England.
When he's approached by a woman and her brother to go looking for the woman's long-lost husband in the unexplored regions of central Africa, Quartermain at first refuses, especially when he learns that the husband was traipsing after the legend of King Solomon's fabled diamond mines. He thinks the legend is rubbish and the husband wouldn't stand a chance of still being alive ("a hopeless errand"). But the woman offers him a huge sum of money to take on the challenge, enough to secure his son's future. And she's extremely beautiful.
One thing Quartermain doesn't bargain on, however, is the wife going along on the expedition. Yes, it's the late nineteenth century and Quartermain is more than a bit of a male chauvinist. The wife, Elizabeth Curtis, is played by Deborah Kerr, who would go to even greater glory in "From Here To Eternity," "The King and I," "An Affair To Remember," and many more. In "King Solomon's Mines," she is mainly used as the expected plucky heroine who begins a love-hate relationship with Quartermain that turns, um, better as the story goes on. This would-be romance seems contrived and added on, but it is required of such tales. Interestingly, Ms. Kerr gets top billing in the movie. There is one neat trick Elizabeth pulls, though. She decides after a few weeks on the trail to give up her long, straight hair and cut it short. Somehow, after cutting and washing it, it becomes suddenly curled, permed, and styled, or something. Must be a woman thing.
The brother, John Goode, is played by Richard Carlson, who always reminded me of the actor Hugh Marlowe. They were both about the same age, looked alike, and appeared in so many of the same kind of supporting roles that I am still forever confusing the two. In any case, the poor brother has little do in the story but tag along, more as a chaperone than anything else. Not only was the nineteenth century more conscious of such things, but so were movie studios of the 1950s, and there was the infamous Production Code to consider.
The tale itself is not quite the knockdown, drag-out sort of action thriller you might expect. Its emphasis is on the realism of the adventure, and there are enough real-life dangers in the unexplored regions of the Africa of 1897 to easily fill up the movie's 103 minutes. Besides, we also have the sights to consider. The fact is, the film is perhaps more travelogue than anything else, with the merest hint of a plot a device to get us out and about. The movie was filmed entirely on location in Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya, and the Belgian Congo. We can see the scope of the enterprise from the very beginning when the opening credits roll across the screen in the size and manner of "Gone With the Wind." Then the cinematography of Robert Surtees takes over, the same director of photography who did "Oklahoma," "Ben-Hur," "The Graduate," and "The Sting," so you get the idea. The scenery is beautiful, and the panoramas of landscape and animals are often remarkable.
To further add to the realism, the music for the film is almost entirely made up of native African rhythms. You'll find no swelling crescendos of strings and percussion as our heroes find themselves in dangerous predicaments. And without such musical cues, modern audiences are apt not to know how harrowing the situations are, the way home audiences aren't sure when to laugh at TV sitcoms if there isn't a laugh track around. If I appear as cynical as Quartermain, so be it.
Anyway, the perils along the journey are many and varied, from hostile tribes of local inhabitants to stampeding herds of zebra, antelope, and elephants. Danger comes from all directions, and except for a rather phony-looking spider early on, it is all quite plausible. Legends of monsters, gods, and terrible animals make the area they're headed for taboo. And the mystery is heightened by the meeting of several mysterious strangers along the way: a quiet, seven-foot outlander named Umbopo (Siriaque), who insists upon coming along with the party, and a suspicious-looking European who introduces himself simply as "Mr. Smith" (Hugo Haas).
"King Solomon's Mines" is a fairly relaxed adventure story by today's standards, and its scenes are allowed to develop naturally rather than being artificially enhanced by the ploys of quick edits, constant motion, and loud music. Not everyone will appreciate the slower pace of yesteryear, but it's a good antidote for more-recent hyperkinetic exercises in sound and action for their own sake. The ending seems abrupt and anticlimactic, but everything that went before it makes it worthwhile. Although the movie is not exactly as I remembered it, it provides its own new rewards.
The screen size is the usual 1.33:1 we would expect from the video reproduction of a 1.37:1 ratio movie of 1950. The overall image is mostly free of scratches, age spots, and other defects of time, but it is not entirely the sharpest picture I've ever seen from an older film. Whether the slight blur and the small amount of Technicolor fade is due to the condition of the original print or the DVD transfer, I could not say. Oddly, the picture quality improves as the movie goes on, with some close-ups looking crystal clear. But the landscapes remain a tad out of focus most of the time, probably due to the second-unit photography. None of this should spoil one's appreciation of the film because it's so slight; yet with cinematography so good, it's a shame the entire screen image couldn't have looked state-of-the-art.
The standard monaural sound of the day is conveyed via Dolby Digital 1.0 mono. It is pretty ordinary, to say the least, but it does its job with a minimum of fuss. There is no noise, no brightness, no edginess to the audio, but there is little dynamic or frequency range, either. Despite the sound's mono handicap, however, it produces a good deal of inner detail in the sounds of the jungle and so on. It works and it's quiet; what more can I say.
This is not a film you'll be buying or renting for the bonus materials. The only extra thing available on the disc is a well-worn theatrical trailer. Beyond that, you'll find twenty-six scene selections; English and French spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish subtitles. Moreover, no chapter insert came with the package. Bare bones all the way.
Viewers expecting another Indiana Jones extravaganza will be sorely disappointed with "King Solomon's Mines." This is not your modern slam-bang action movie filled with near-death cliff-hangers and hairbreadth escapes; but, rather, it's a pure adventure film, with an emphasis on realistic dangers and believable excitement. Steward Granger makes a fine, stalwart hero, and Deborah Kerr a proper, dauntless heroine. The beauties of the African vistas fill in the rest.