Wednesday, April 3, 2013
I just completed reading a novel I've been meaning to conquer for several decades now. I don't know what the particular hold up has been frankly, but I never ever seemed to get around to reading H.Rider Haggard's She: A History of Adventure, the original lost world novel. It might have been some bad experiences trying to get started on Haggard's King Solomon's Mines, but whatever the cause I've never filled this chasm in my fantasy knowledge. Now having at long last ventured to the source of this literary Nile, I am awestruck by Haggard's skill and the scope of the novel.
I trust most already know the story, but in a thumbnail two adventurers, the handsome Leo Vincey and his guardian the hideous Horace Holly travel to deepest darkest Africa following the vague but intriguing clues left behind by Leo's father about an ancient land and a terrible secret tale of dreadful love and betrayal. The two after much struggle find the land of Kor and ultimately the all-powerful queen of that ancient land, the one called "She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed" or Ayesha. She's older than she looks and that detail and the deadly secret held by Leo are the keys to this fascinating yarn.
Haggard's descriptions of She are vivid and intoxicating. Her ancient beauty is held up as something too much for a mere man to endure, and this highly exaggerated notion works well within high romance confines of this novel to make Ayesha a terrible and at the same time positively attractive woman.
This is a Victorian novel after all though, and old-fashioned notions about race and gender abound, but safely closed off inside this ancient vessel of a tale are safe for modern handling. This story was apparently written by Haggard in something of a creative fury, and you get the sense that it wouldn't take a lot for the whole thing to tumble apart. So messing with the old out-dated ideas is a no-no on this one. Take it for what it is.
Alas that is not exactly what Merian C. Cooper, the mastermind behind the seminal movie King Kong did when he brought She to the big screen in 1935. Soon after reading the novel, I ordered and watched this vintage flick, once thought lost, for the very first time. This movie adapted by Kong scribe Ruth Rose has a number of charms within it, some elaborate sets, some interesting characters, but ultimately this movie is not a true success, not in the way its novelistic inspiration is.
Once again we have the story of Horace and Leo, but in this one Horace played by Nigel Bruce is the follower and Leo played by Randolph Scott is the lead. This is a mistake as Scott is the proverbial block of wood in much of this movie. Bruce just stands around a lot and his charms are mostly wasted after the first reel. "She" is played by Helen Gahagan who does a dandy job as Ayesha, but can't save what is mostly a lifeless flick. Helen Mack, fresh from Son of Kong is along for the journey and adds some small spark to the proceedings. In two small but interesting parts are Nobel Johnson in his typical savage chieftan mode, looking quite good in this, and Lumsden Hare as a greedy Northern explorer who disappears from the flick much too soon for my tastes.
The biggest problem with them movie though is the conceptual nature of Kor. Instead of Africa, the story is set in the frozen wastes of the Arctic. The exotic heat is replaced by cold white vistas. Admittedly Kor is hidden underground amidst volcanic warmth, but still the lurid quality of a naked Ayesha shimmering in the African sun is sacrificed for a lot of very prim if handsome costuming.
And that's the heart of it. The ancient rites of Kor, the ceremonies and rituals are realized on screen as nigh Busby Berkeley affairs, overly long dance routines with all manner of exotic costumes, few of which seemed really to connect to one another. There seemed to be a dozen cultures rolled into one, and all of them seemed to have recently spent time on a Broadway stage. The movie at what should be its climax pretty much stops as this nonsense unfolds at some length.
Then almost as an anti-climax we find the secret of Ayesha and the story wraps up in a flash. It's an odd construction to a story which I'd have thought would have told itself. There are charms in this movie, some fun moments, but overall it's surprisingly unimpressive given the pedigree of its creators.
Now though, having finished Haggard's She at long last, I can make another stab at King Solomon's Mines. Maybe I'll have better luck this time.