Time for another Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, in which Mike’s Take on the Movies and I pick films for each other to watch once a month.
This is the reason I rewatched the 1935 version of She yesterday: Mike assigned me the 1965 Hammer, Robert Day-directed version for this month’s new-to-me view. I might add that he did so before the passing of Christopher Lee, so this ended up a nice way to see a new one of his films as tribute. This She is obviously also based on H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Here, John Richardson plays our hero Leo Vincey, Peter Cushing his good friend and traveling companion, and they’re also joined by valet Bernard Cribbins. She Who Must Be Obeyed is played by Ursula Andress, while her high priest is the aforementioned Lee. As the movie begins, our trio of heroes are found wondering about their future now that the Great War has ended. Cribbins can’t wait to get home for a pint, Cushing would rather stay to explore sights and artifacts than go home to teach pimply-faced students, while Richardson feels a spiritual pull to remain in the area. That night Richardson is ambushed and taken to meet Ursula Andress, who offers him a secret kingdom shown on an ancient map–if he can find it. The men decide to make that impossible trek, suffering thefts, attacks and dehydration, and finally make it to the lost city where they learn Andress is an ageless queen. Believing Richardson to be the reincarnation of her long lost lover, she sidelines a tribal girl who loves Richardson (Rosenda Monteros) then entices our hero to step into the flame of eternal life and stay with her forever.
In the ‘35 film, Helen Gahagan as “She” is given a long, suspenseful build up and remains unseen until she emerges from behind a wall of smoke to see if Randolph Scott is really her lost love. In this movie, Ursula Andress appears early and often, first as a hypnotic stranger who promises Richardson everything he ever wanted, then as an alluring apparition beckoning him all through his desert journey. That’s a totally understandable choice given Andress’ looks and fame at the time–Hammer would be stupid not to feature her prominently–and it heightens her erotic power over Richardson, who’s thoroughly bewitched from first sight of her. But for me, it took the mystery away to see her long before her strange power is explained or even mentioned. Andress is magnetic and devastatingly gorgeous but lacks the nasty desperation that Gahagan brought to the role. Andress’ eyes flash with jealousy but she’s too likable, and I wasn’t convinced when she spoke of demonstrating her “absolute power” to strike fear and terror into souls. Her feathered costume and headgear is very cool but nowhere near as creepy as Gahagan’s Evil Queen outfit, possibly because it reminded me of Elizabeth Taylor’s getup in BOOM! (1968).
Richardson was bland for me; he looks every bit the hero and is just as gorgeous as Andress but his character isn’t written very well, so he just acts out different shades of weak as he’s driven forward with zombie-like belief in finding the lost city, is totally hypnotized by Andress and hardly puts up a fight to save his soul. He makes a choice between the two women that might make you hate him, and then (in my view, deservedly) he gets a completely different twist ending than Randolph Scott did. I also much prefered the way Randolph Scott learned of the lost city from the last words and wishes of a dying relative. I thought that made his quest more logical and personal, and seemed more destined, than the way Richardson just happens to be at the right place at the right time with the right face, spotted by Lee and brought to Andress.
I know the setting of this version is more faithful to the Haggard novel, but I liked that the ‘35 film put the action in the Arctic, where the discovery of a sweltering tropical paradise is all the more fantastic. The ‘35 city has Deco grandeur and a massive scale, while this one is darker, carved deep in stone and looks like a small, tight, claustrophobic Pharaoh’s tomb. Great for the horror angle but not a place anyone whould choose to live for all eternity. The sacrificial pit for the disobedient is scary once you look down to its lava filled depths, but that whole part lacks the weird beauty and tension created by the set and the long dance in the ‘35 film.
Though some of the acting, choices, and the lost city didn’t strike me as fabulous, some other things here are good. Since the long and difficult desert journey is a test of Richardson’s eligibility to be Andress’ partner, this movie puts much greater emphasis on that part, and gives us many cracking action scenes. The cantina brawl, the desert ambush, the tribal riots and revolution are much bigger and more exciting set pieces, fit for a grand adventure. The pacing problem comes when the action stalls for drawn out discussions.
Cushing is wonderful. I loved his acting choices, whether he’s watching and then joining the belly dancers, realizing the lost city is not just a story but a real thing that he will live to see, or having some serious talks with Richardson and Lee. Cushing gets the speech made by Helen Mack in the ‘35 film, about how quickly the novelty of immortality will wear off, and how life is made richer by loss, grief and change which can only come from aging normally. He also has a nice moment where he tells Lee and his people to stand up and fight for their freedom instead of letting one measly ruler dictate their whole lives. Those are moments movie fans love to see, and Lee is, as usual, such a powerful and sympathetic villain (wearing some outrageous headgear) that you wish he got more screen time. Cribbins is delightful, bringing in just enough comic relief without being silly, always a valuable quality for movie sidekicks.
In a nice moment clearly inspired by Lawrence of Arabia (1962), the tribal girl Monteros appears far on the mirage-clouded horizon line and rides her camel slowly toward Richardson. I also liked the use of one bit that was in the ‘35 film, about the queen having worn deep grooves in the stone steps from centuries of walking up and down to check on the flame. And that flame is an unpredictable character here, only turning blue and safe for bathing once every who-knows-how-long, which lends this version, and Richardson’s fate, a much darker, disturbing and more adult feel.
Even in the places I thought it fell short in comparison to the efficiency and magical strangeness of the earlier film, ‘65’s She was still a decent adventure with much beauty, a more colourful and modern treatment and a thought-provoking ending, and time spent with Cushing and Lee is always welcome.
Good suggestion from Mike, and now head over to his blog to see a great underrated noir with a darker role for an actor who was a nice guy on TV.