Friday, November 25, 2011

SHE (1965)

H. Rider Haggard’s famous adventure/fantasy novel from 1887 is considered one of the earliest of the "lost world" novels, in which adventurers discover a land that has been hidden from civilization. It has been filmed several times, but two versions (from 1935 and 1965) are the most common. I'll start with the '65 version from Hammer Films, which is by far the most faithful of the two. We meet three British soldiers heading home from WWI in Palestine: the older Horace, the young handsome Leo, and the working-class Job. In a nightclub, the lovely Arab Ustane flirts with Leo, but when they leave the club, she leads him into an ambush. He is taken to see the ravishing Ayesha who shows him his startling resemblance to an amulet with the likeness of the long-dead high priest Killikrates, her former lover. She asks Leo to journey across the desert to the secret city of Kuma which she rules, and if he proves himself worthy, she will take him as her lover and co-ruler. Leo and his friends head off, undergo several trials (the slashing of their water bags, an attack by bandits) and finally arrive near the city where they meet up again with Ustane (who has by now taken a liking to Leo). When the suspicious natives decide to sacrifice Leo, Billali, chief assistant to Ayesha, arrives with his men. They are taken to Kuma, a city entirely inside a mountain, where they learn that Ayesha, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, is hundreds of years old; she has kept her youth by bathing in the Flame of Eternal Life. Convinced that Leo is the reincarnation of Killikrates, she wants him to bathe in the flame as well, though Ustane and Horace aren’t so sure that’s a good idea. Leo begins to fall under Ayesha's spell, and finally does enter the Flame, but bad things happen when Ayesha takes a second dip for herself.

This is adventure done on the cheap, but for a Hammer movie, it doesn’t look bad with some effective use of matte painting effects. The journey drags in spots, but things pick up once they get to Kuma. Swiss bombshell Ursula Andress doesn’t exactly stretch her acting chops (and, to be fair, all her dialogue is dubbed, which never helps) but she looks exactly right as the cold, demanding Queen. John Richardson also looks the part as the hunky blue-eyed, golden-haired hero and is marginally better in the acting department, but is never as commanding as he should be. Old pros Peter Cushing (as Horace) and Christopher Lee (as Billali) steal their scenes easily. Bernard Cribbins as Job has little to do. The nicest touch, and one that I think the filmmakers added, is having Leo actually stand in the Flame and become eternally young, which could have been a nice jumping-off point for a series; there was a sequel, The Vengeance of She, but it has been universally panned. [TCM]

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