King Solomon’s Mines (1985)
Directed by J. Lee Thompson
Written by Gene Quintano and James R. Silke based on the novel by H. Rider Haggard
Starring Richard Chamberlain, Sharon Stone, Herbert Lom, John Rhys-Davies, Ken Gampu, and June Buthelezi
Raiders of the Lost Ark made a huge splash when it came out in 1981, immediately creating a wave of adventure movies. The success of Romancing the Stone in 1984 proved that the treasure-hunting genre still had plenty of steam in it, although imitators of both films fell rapidly into the forgotten crevices of empty theaters. It was inevitable that Cannon Films would try to catch the train and hubris that they’d do so with a 2-picture deal for the dusty adventures of Allan Quatermain, the Great White Hunter.
Written in 1885 by H. Rider Haggard, the novel King Solomon’s Mines laid the foundation for the “lost world” genre of literature, in which white explorers reach remote regions of the Earth which have been cut off from the rest of the world. These places tend to be populated by ancient cultures, and they quite often contain life forms that went extinct elsewhere. Almost always there is a treasure, although in some cases it’s the chance to rule. Notable examples include The Lost World (1912, Arthur Conan Doyle), The Land That Time Forgot (1918, Edgar Rice Burroughs), and the earlier prototype Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864, Jules Verne).
The Cannon film follows the book in a broad sense: Allan Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) finds the lost treasure with the help of Umbopo (Ken Gampu), who is more than he seems. Apart from that, it’s anything goes, and anything turns out largely to involve Notzi’s. The movie story takes place before the rise of the Nazi party (it seems to be somewhere in the vicinity of 1915), so they could not be brought in as villains. However, to satisfy the desire to emulate Raiders of the Lost Ark, German soldiers led by Colonel Bockner (Herbert Lom) are also after the treasure, ostensibly to fund the army. In case anyone forgets that these Notzi’s are German, Bockner constantly has a phonograph playing Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries”.
Colonel Bockner is joined by the shady Dogati (John Rhy-Davies), who handles the porters and negotiating with locals. Together, the pair have stolen a map to King Solomon’s Mines and kidnapped a man who can read it. This is the father of Jesse Huston (Sharon Stone), who initially had hired Quatermain to get her to the city where she would join him.
Mr. Huston fills the role from the book and other adaptations of being a missing relative who must be located. This is generally the initial reason for the quest, but Huston is rescued quickly here. The sole purpose rests with beating the Germans to the treasure. Again, this is to parallel Raiders…, but the motivation fits poorly on Quatermain. He’s got no beef with the Notzis and he’s a hunter, not a treasure hunter. A race presents opportunities for excitement, but without stakes it’s meaningless.
I do have to admit it’s packed with action. There are kidnappings, fire fights, slug fests, traps, and even a fairly good train sequence. The best Cannon films keep the viewer busy, and this one rarely lets up. Even the calmest moment is framed in spectacle, as Allan and Jesse freshen up with the help of a tribe that lives hanging upside down from trees. It’s a surreal enough scene that you can overlook the fact that it makes absolutely no sense.
Another thing that makes no sense whatsoever is the giant spider. Blink and you’ll miss it, but there’s a short scene where Colonel Bockner sends one of Dogati’s men into a tunnel to check it out. The poor guy is immediately consumed by a spider puppet. It even has the obligatory thin, floor-to-ceiling web. Then the tunnel and its occupant are never mentioned again. It’s not unusual for a Cannon film to have wtf moments, but seriously wtf? There wasn’t a lot of effort put into this, but certainly more than was warranted. In my head canon Menahem Golan insisted on a giant spider, so one was crammed in as artlessly as possible. In that respect it would fit in with the production as a whole.
There’s a worldview peculiar to world action cinema that villains are irredeemably evil and mobs will listen immediately to moralizing. You can see it on display in movies like Rumble in the Bronx. American films have certainly always indulged in such dichotomy, but by the 1970s they had mostly preferred flawed heroes and tragic villains. It was companies like Cannon Films (founded by Israeli filmmakers) who re-popularized the more one-dimensional characters and plots. Colonel Bockner and Dogati are the same character with different hench. Greedy, amoral, and treacherous: they will use anyone to get what they want and betray them in a second. They exist solely to be loathsome. The bar is set so low that Quatermain doesn’t have to be particularly good at all to be heroic, and he isn’t. He isn’t anything really, except an empty shell prepared for the audience to occupy. Maybe that’s the appeal of the film. There’s nothing in it except distractions, and sometimes that’s all you need for an hour and a half.