Movie: King Solomon’s Mines (1950)

A few decades ago, I used to be a big fan on the Indiana Jones series.  I was all excited when the original trilogy was released on DVD, only to discover various aspects of the films now seem unpleasant and inappropriate.  When the tone towards cultures outside the “first world” wasn’t condescending, it was patronizing.  Nowadays, I am especially taken aback by the famous scene in Raiders where that guy is doing all that fancy stuff with the sword, and Indy smirks while he shoots the guy dead.  Not sure what has changed with me, but nowadays I’m now rooting for the guy with the sword, if only to wipe that smirk off Harrison Ford’s face. Well, maybe “cut” and not “wipe”.

With all that said, I didn’t have much hope of enjoying 1950’s King Solomon’s Mines when watching it for the first time recently.  I figured it would be even less culturally sensitive than the Indiana Jones series 30 years later which it partly inspired.  At most, I assumed I would get some cheap laughs at some sort of campy nonsense.

Instead, to my complete shock, I thoroughly enjoyed this picture.  The majority of the shoot was really done in Africa, and in areas that not been filmed in previously.  There’s a wealth of great location footage of scenery and all manner of wildlife.  I don’t think it has ever felt more appropriate to see the MGM lion preceding a film as much as it in the opening for this. 

This feature was filmed in three-strip Technicolor, which means those massive cameras were being moved around the continent in areas where there weren’t roads.  Six vehicles were employed for the production: one one-ton truck and five five-ton trucks, one of which was a refrigerated vehicle.  That was important not just to keep food from spoiling, but to preserve the camera negative.

The plot concerns the efforts of top-billed Deborah Kerr as she and hired guide Stuart Granger go into unexplored territory to find out what happened to her husband, who went into the area to find a lost diamond mine.  Tagging along is Richard Carlson as Kerr’s brother.  Roughly halfway through the film, a mysterious indigenous person will join their party and, once their backstory is revealed, the movie takes a radical, but interesting, turn in the third act.

It is rare I feel wonder when watching a movie, but there were many moments here where I found myself go literally slack-jawed.  There are a couple of scenes involving animals where humans are clearly in the same space with them, and I don’t see how there wasn’t the potential for somebody to get killed or at least severely wounded.  In one early scene, two lions saunter past the party (or, presumably, their stand-ins), prompting this exchange between Granger and Kerr: “They’re only dangerous if they’re hungry.”  “How did you know they aren’t hungry?”  “Well, they didn’t eat us.”

But the single most astonishing scene is the zebra stampede.  I can’t believe I have not heard of this scene before, as it should be as legendary as the chariot race in Ben-Hur.  Heck, it is even more exciting than that scene.  Here, the cameras are initially holding far back from the herd of zebras as it abruptly changes directions one way and the other, not unlike the way birds flying in giant flocks seem to be telepathically linked as they all somehow turn simultaneously.  As I watched the herd, it dawned on me why the cameras are so far back, and that’s because what we’re seeing is real and it is REALLY dangerous.  At a couple of points in this scene, we have the animals leaping over the ruins of a short wall our heroes are sheltering behind.  I don’t think anybody was killed in the filming of this picture, and I honestly have no idea how that was possible.

The startling reality of such moments throw into relief some other bits that are laughable in comparison.  Kerr is unaware of a giant spider on her at one point, and the thing is so stiff and pathetic that I wonder why they bothered.  A paper cut-out of an arachnid would been as believable (or, rather, unbelievable).

Then there’s the notorious scene where Kerr trims her long, auburn tresses (that are obviously a wig) herself into a spiffy new do that would have taken a couple of skilled professionals a long time to accomplish.  Also, her character does this because she’s so miserable having long hair in such heat and with the flying insects and all.  I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t just take off the wig.

The script has a noble perspective of wildlife, for the most part.  Although Granger is a guide who usually takes hunters out on safaris, he only kills animals for food or when their lives are in danger.  Unfortunately, there is a scene early on where an elephant is shot and we, indeed, are seeing one really getting killed.  I don’t believe there are any other animal deaths shown, but I just wanted to mention this to fellow animal lovers who may not want to witness that. 

But what truly stunned me was how the indigenous people are portrayed.  Yes, there are natives hired for the expedition, but they are treated respectfully.  Granger, in particular, is quick to shut down anybody who does otherwise: “They’re not stupid, you know.”  His character rightfully considers these people, who have lived off these lands for hundreds of generations, to be the true experts and he seems appreciative of knowledge they pass on to him.

One last thing I want to single out for consideration is the score; namely, there isn’t one.  All the music here is digenic, whether it is chanting, drumming or an isolated moment where somebody plays a marimba.  I thought that was a brilliant touch.

King Solomon’s Mines completely subverted all expectations I had for it.  Despite being made in 1950, it is just as beautiful and exciting more than seven decades later.  I certainly enjoyed it more than a particular film series it inspired three decades after it was released. 

Dir: Andrew Marton

Starring Deborah Kerr, Stewart Granger, Richard Carlson

Watched on Warner Archive blu-ray