Friday, July 17, 2015


French Legionnaire Andre St. Avit (Jean-Pierre Aumont) has finally returned to his Sahara desert outpost after being missing for months and confesses to having killed his fellow Legionnaire Jean Morhange (Dennis O'Keefe) while they were on a mission to find a missing archeologist who had an unusual idea: the legendary land of Atlantis was actually under the Sahara desert, the water under which it sunk having receded ages ago. In flashback to the mission, we see St. Avit and Morhange separated from the rest of the search party when a sandstorm hits; the two wind up under attack by armed natives and are taken to the Hoggar Mountains where the land of Atlantis does indeed exist, ruled by Queen Antinea (Maria Montez, pictured at right with Aumont), a beautiful woman with a voracious lust for handsome men. One problem: when she tires of their charms, she has them killed and encased in gold, to stand as statues in a kind of Hall of Former Lovers. St. Avit is picked by the Queen to visit her boudoir and soon he is in love; Morhange, though handsome enough to be future fodder for the Queen, figures out what's going on and plots with Tanit, one the Queen's handmaidens, to escape. When they are caught, Tanit decides to kill herself rather than face the death of the "slow fire" (in which people are lowered into a fiery pit in a manner reminiscent of the same kind of pit in Indiana Jones & the Temple of Doom). Morhange is kept alive, but when St. Avit assumes that the Queen has now adopted Morhange as her new boy toy, his jealousy leads to tragedy.

I have a lengthy backstory for this one. L'Atlantide is a French adventure novel first published in 1919 which has been adapted for the screen at least four times. The premise of the lost civilization of Atlantis winding up in the desert was a fascinating one to me in my youth, but I was never able to find one of the movies based on this story, and the book was out of print, at least in English. In the 90s, I found a VHS copy of the 1961 movie version, JOURNEY BENEATH THE DESERT, but the quality was so bad, I gave up 10 minutes in. One recent weekend, I happened by chance to come across this version on YouTube, in a beautiful print that I suspect was taken from a British DVD—the movie is not available on a region 1 disc. It's not a big budget film, but the sets are quite impressive, creating an appealing fantasy feeling; the lighting and cinematography help to create an effective mood of both unease and fascination. In fact, what I like best about this movie is its tone, a cross between the fantasy worlds of SHE (an exotic wonderland ruled by a cold woman) and LOST HORIZON (the film ends with St. Avit trying to make his way back to Atlantis despite the possible dangers he faces).

It helps that the acting is, if not stellar, more than adequate. Aumont is very appealing in the lead, O'Keefe (at left) almost as much, and Montez, though not a particularly subtle actress, flaunts her more exotic qualities quite nicely. Among the supporting players, Henry Daniell plays the Court Librarian with just a hint of gayness, Allan Nixon does a nice job as Lindstrom, a man driven to drink by his lust for the Queen, and Alexis Minotis is the embalmer, a former lover of the Queen who has had his tongue ripped out. The print looks complete, but there are some odd editing choices here and there. That same weekend, I found two other film versions of this story which I'll write up soon—and I've also since read the original novel in e-book form—but this is the one I found most enjoyable. [YouTube]

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