18 November 2014

A Note About King Solomon's Mines (1950), and A Great Artist Whose Name We'll Never Know

This version of H. Rider Haggard's "King Solomon's Mines," starring Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr, Richard Carlson, and Siriaque, is one of the all-round finest adventure movies of all time; a great cast, white and black, European and African, amazing scenery much of which is shot on location in Technicolor, an exciting story and surprising conclusion. Among the joys of this movie is the real chemistry between Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger (of course any woman in her right mind would do her utmost to have chemistry with Stewart Granger). Another is the fact that it is not in the least bit racist or condescending towards Africans; they are treated as individuals, good or bad.

To refresh everyone’s memory, the story is set in Africa in 1897. Granger is the famed hunter and guide Allan Quartermain, and Kerr plays Beth Curtis, a woman trying to trace her husband, who disappeared several months earlier exploring uncharted territory. Richard Carlson is Kerr’s helpful brother, John Goode. After a certain amount of sexy sparring between Allan and Beth, they set out to follow the husband’s trail. 

On their way they meet Mbopa, an extraordinary-looking young man who says he is familiar with the unknown lands and offers to join their group. After a trip fraught with many dangers, including stampede and the machinations of a crooked European, the team of bearers deserts them, leaving only Quartermain, Beth, John, and Mbopa. Then they learn that Mbopa is a displaced prince, whose throne has been usurped by his wicked uncle, and he has come with them to the unknown lands, his kingdom, to rejoin his supporters and reclaim his throne. He guides them to the capital city, but vanishes before they enter.

Mbopa, right, is greeted by his countrymen
When they arrive at the palace, a large palisaded oval where courtiers and politicians have assembled, Twala, the usurper, sits enthroned, flanked by evil looking aides. The king appears friendly and willing to help them find Curtis, greeting his visitors with a shifty smile yet holding secret converse with his advisers behind his hand.
Twala and his henchmen

The king has them conveyed to a cave where they are told they can find news of Curtis; when they enter the entrance is sealed, and they are trapped. While searching for a way out, they do find him -- long dead. They find a way out, and return to Twala’s court to find the king watching a performance by the royal dancers. Now, in any other movie, this would slow up the plot. You would be sitting there wondering, Where is Mbopa? What are Twala’s intentions? How will they escape with no ammunition?

But in this movie you will forget all that, for you are about to see one of the most brilliant dance performances ever filmed. The royal dancers approach in a line, clad in white kilts, rich beads, jingling bells, and huge white headdresses. All are men and all are over six feet tall. In the center of the line is the leader — the premier danseur — a huge man, yet incredibly graceful and elegant. His red and white clothing marks him out as a star, but really, nothing is needed. This dancer is what the words “star quality” are about.


He leads the troupe in a complex dance, with music supplied by the bells the dances wear, supplemented by chanting, and the rhythm by the stamping of their feet. Despite the unusual height of the dancers (to us), it is a light, buoyant dance, ending with syncopated leaps. 
The premier danseur

This great dancer is not credited by name; and I don’t suppose it is possible to find it out after all these years. But when you watch him, you are seeing an artist and a star, with the self-assurance of a Nureyev. I don’t have to wonder if he knew how good he was — just look at his face. He could hold an audience in the palm of his hand in any country, on any continent. 

Oh, and by the way, after this performance, the plot continues, and Mbopa reveals his presence to the usurper, Twala, and a royal duel is the only solution.  In fact, the real drama at this point concerns the return of the rightful king and the overthrow of the tyrant, which is entirely the Africans business and is resolved by them without much help from the outsiders. The three white people's problems have been resolved, and all that remains is for them to return home with the aid of their new friends. 

To put it bluntly, this is one of the few mainstream movies involving white protagonists interacting with Africans that we have no need to blush for, or excuse because of its age. There is simply no racism here. (Or sexism; Beth proves herself quite capable of keeping up with the men.) One reason, besides beauty, excitement, and sex appeal, that it remains a classic.