Tuesday, November 26, 2013

She (Hammer, Seven Arts, MGM, 1965)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was the 1965 Hammer/Seven Arts production of H. Rider Haggard’s She, which apparently has been filmed at least seven times — the most famous versions being one from RKO in 1935 (with Helen Gahagan Douglas in her one movie role as Ayesha, a.k.a. She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, and Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey, the military officer who bears a striking resemblance to the man she loved and lost 500 years before, and the setting moved from Haggard’s original Middle East to the Arctic) produced by Merian C. Cooper and directed by Lansing C. Holden and Irving Pichel from a script by Dudley Nichols and Ruth Rose (wife of Cooper’s long-time producing and directing partner Ernest B. Schoedsack) and this one, which starred Ursula Andress as Ayesha, moved the story back to Haggard’s original setting (Palestine in 1918, just after the First World War) and located the lost city of Kumar in the so-called “Empty Quarter” of Arabia (though the location work was actually done in the Negev Desert in Israel). The gimmick is that Ayesha has been able to remain alive for 2,000 years thanks to a blue flame that, if you walk into it, makes you immortal. Way back in her early days as a normal human she fell in love with Kallikrates, an officer in Alexander the Great’s army, and though he died after living the normal human span, she’s never given up hope that he’ll be reincarnated and this time she’ll be able to turn him immortal before he croaks. Oddly, watching this the day after Charles and I saw Man of Steel, this turned out to be yet another movie that took a potentially interesting premise and made an incredibly dull film out of it. For the most part it’s just three white British guys — Leo Vincey (John Richardson), Major Horace Holley (Peter Cushing) and Job (Bernard Cribbins, the comic-relief guy) — wandering around the desert looking for the mysterious woman who had previously appeared to Leo and shown him a pendant with a medallion bearing the image of Kallikrates (in profile, and looking way too modern — especially in his hair style — to be a Macedonian Greek from 2,400 years ago). Leo’s in love with Ayesha but he’s also in love with Ustane (Rosenda Monteros), who was used by Ayesha’s prime minister (and unrequited lover) Billali (Christopher Lee) to lure Leo to the lost city of Kumar, where Ayesha holds forth and rules with an iron fist that makes her come off (as Charles noted) as Pol Pot in drag. A sample exchange:

Leo Vincey: Was that barbaric execution necessary?
Ayesha: It was necessary!
Maj. Horace Holly: In God’s name, why?
Ayesha: As a demonstration of my absolute power! How else could I hold my soldiers and these pathetic creatures as my subjects? How else but by instilling fear and terror into their very souls.
Maj. Horace Holly: But nothing is gained by fear and terror.
Ayesha: Is your world so much better? Your world where men kill each other in their millions in the name of freedom? Your world that has not long to live. A few decades only before it destroys itself. Then, what will be left?

My one previous encounter with She was when my mother and stepfather took my half-brother and I to a drive-in that was showing it when it was new. I fell asleep during it then and didn’t have an easy time staying awake during it now, either. Though one imdb.com reviewer claims that this film has “far more action than any other version” — most of it the three Brits from heck surviving being attacked by much greater numbers of Arabs (the usual convention of white-made movies set in the Third World: “the natives may outnumber us but because we’re white, we’re so superior we defeat them easily”) — that only makes me wonder if the other ones are even duller; it’s not until the final scenes, when Ayesha’s subjects finally rebel and storm her castle, and she steps into the Blue Flame of Immortality with Leo only to find that her second trip undoes the work of the first and she ages 2,000 years and then croaks (obviously director Robert Day and/or screenwriter David T. Chantler had seen Lost Horizon), while as the castle is crumbling around him and the other two Brits are telling him to get the hell out of there, Leo is mooning over his lost chance of immortality and saying he’ll be ready if he ever gets the opportunity again. One quirk of the film is that André Morell is in it as Haumid, another one of Ayesha’s minions — thereby reuniting Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson from the 1959 Hammer version of The Hound of the Baskervilles — though both he and Ursula Andress had voice doubles for their entire roles: Morell’s was George Pastell and Andress’s was Nikki Van der Zyl, who also dubbed her in her star-making role in the first James Bond feature film, Dr. No. (That was the movie in which she emerged from the Caribbean Sea in a white bikini with a knife on her side — inspiring Mad magazine to call her “Ursula Undress.”) The 1965 She is a misfire on almost every possible level — Ursula Andress is hot enough one can readily imagine how many young, horny straight boys put her poster on their bedroom walls, but she’s utterly unable to project a figure of impossible allure (but then again, aside from Garbo in the mid-1930’s, I can’t think of anyone in the 1930’s, the 1960’s or, for that matter, now who would have been right for this role), and like his co-star John Richardson is easy on the eyes (and then some!) but hardly the type to make one believe he’s genuinely torn between his normal existence and the prospect of immortality with a hot babe in the Arabian desert. For someone who did play a part like this vividly, turn to Zita Johann in the 1932 film The Mummy — which one could argue was She with the genders reversed; a man who’s been given an artificially prolonged existence meets a modern woman who’s the reincarnation of his long-lost ancient squeeze — and note how vividly she played the conflict between the two incarnations of her character, showing subtleties that totally eluded Richardson here.