Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A Favorite Movie: KING SOLOMON'S MINES starring Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr

Since Valentine's Day is next Monday, this is a good week to do a post about one my all time favorite romance/adventure movies. I mean, romance is always good, but a little adventure to go along with it never hurts. And who better to combine them with than Stewart Granger as Big White Hunter Alan Quartermaine and Deborah Kerr as the not-so-frail red-headed Victorian (or maybe Edwardian) beauty who wins his heart after they both endure hair-raising, death-defying adventure in the African wilds. KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1950) is the film for me - this is my kind of romance.

I suppose I could have written about Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER or CASABLANCA with Bogart and Bergman but I thought I'd let others take care of those titles this week. I wanted to do something a little different especially since I've already posted about the most romantic film ever made: Jean Cocteau's LA BELLE ET LA BETE.

KING SOLOMON'S MINES was famously shot in Africa, not such an easy enterprise in 1950. In fact, many of the superb scenes of scenery and wildlife shot on location were later used over and over again in other films of the time.You'll find these outdoor shots in the Richard Chamberlain fiasco of a movie of the same name as well as in other films pretending to be adventures set in Africa. Waste not, want not, being Hollywood's operating motto.

I've seen this film more times than I can count and I'm not finished yet. The story is the perfect combo of rip-roaring, spectacular adventure + romance. The locale, exotic and unfamiliar, the actors impossibly beautiful and well groomed despite the implied hardship of the surrounding African landscape. Several of the actors with speaking parts were local Africans who not only interesting to watch interact with the Hollywood glamorous Granger and Kerr, but are beautiful themselves in their own exotic way.

One of the actors, an African man who appears to be nearly seven feet tall plays an exiled Watusi king on a journey back to his homeland deep within the African veld, back to a lost kingdom which was stolen from him by a vile usurper.

This film is based on the book by H. Rider Haggard, the king of adventure fiction in an age when not many people knew what dwelled on the 'outside over there' and relied on these sorts of stories to feed their imaginations.

The movie story: Deborah Kerr and her brother, played by the remarkably innocuous, Richard Carlson, arrive in Africa - can't remember the country, possibly the Belgian Congo - to begin their search for Kerr's husband who disappeared while on a safari in search of the lost mines of the Biblical king Solomon of the film's title. Carlson tries to hire Granger who is reputed to be the best safari guide/white hunter in the area. He had previously turned down Kerr's husband's request to serve as guide into the inhospitable interior.

Granger turns Carlson down for the same reasons: the very idea is lunacy, there are no King Solomon's Mines and if there were, they couldn't be found, the maps are forgeries, it's all a wild-eyed pipe dream, no one who's ever gone into the interior has ever returned, etc. etc. etc. Granger wearily shakes his head at the naivete of Englishmen in general.

Later that same night Deborah Kerr, beautifully dressed in a dazzling gown, wrapped in a mysterious sort of cloak goes to Granger herself to try and change his mind. Of course she is startlingly beautiful, especially when she reveals her gorgeous red hair as she pulls back the cloak. Granger is taken with her, though not her foolishness. He goes over the same litany of excuses he gave Carlson. But she is made of sterner stuff than her brother. She offers Granger an enormous amount of money, half on his acceptance of the job. Quatermaine has a young son living in Europe whom he wants to leave some sort of inheritance to, so the money changes his mind. Kerr, spoiled upper-crust, priviledged English lady that she is, is used to getting her own way.

So off they go on safari into the wild.(But not before the great white hunter balks at bringing a woman along.) A huffy Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger are at odds from the get-go because, of course, as we all know, they are attracted to each other AND also because he behaves in an insufferably superior fashion, especially once he sees Kerr over-dressed for the heat in the sort of ridiculous, covered- up Victorian outfit perfect only for a day in the English countryside. Soon enough she begins to suffer from the extreme heat as Granger has told her she would. She, of course, doesn't want to give in to his superior attitude but she's also not at idiot. At some point, she changes into more appropriate clothing (which Granger, with forethought has brought along for her) though not before Granger has to, literally, shoot a snake out from under her while she's changing. The path of true love never did run smooth.

Anyway, as the safari continues forward, they must live through a series of adventures. Kerr and Granger grow closer, she ravaged by guilt over her lost husband, who may or may not still be alive. There is one nicely done romantic scene when Kerr sits by a waterfall and cuts her very long hair which has become entangled with burrs and whatnot. Of course, her short hair looks gorgeous once she's finished cutting it. Granger has watched this from a spot nearby where he's been shaving - bare-chested. A nice display if I may say so myself.

There is really only one major love scene and that takes place up in a tree. It's very romantic. Trust me. Sometimes one love scene is enough. But in between there are LOTS of looks of longing and frustration. The kind of thing guaranteed to make you sigh.

Well, after they are all nearly trampled by a vividly filmed wild animal stampede, almost killed by a tribe of natives commanded by a repulsive German man (a refugee from the law), and other assorted, hair-raising incidents, the group (growing smaller and smaller as some of their bearers have either been killed or run off), must cross a desert and almost die of thirst before finally reaching the promised land: the dreaded interior from which no white man ever returns.

Somewhere along the way there, they have been joined by a tall, exotic native named Umbopa. He is a Watusi, a tribe Granger has never heard of. He had asked permission to join the group unknowingly travelling towards his kingdom and Granger grants it. It seems that on one of the maps, there are drawings of these taller than averagel natives, so his presence naturally makes Granger think they might be onto something.

Okay, so once they meet up with the Watusi tribe in the heart of the interior (a beautiful green place not unlike the English countryside, as Kerr exclaims in wonder) and notice that the chiefs (also very tall and very leery about their presence), wear HUGE uncut diamonds and emeralds in their regalia, Granger knows they've come to the right place. The village (or kingdom) they find is unlike anything he's ever seen in Africa. The natives live in circular, walled enclosures, in domed houses or buildings made of some sort of woven natural reeds. There is a major hint in the film that the Watusi are descendent from the lost tribes of Israel.

Kerr, Granger and Carlson - the only three left of the original safari, besides the tall Watusi who, clearly has arrived in his homeland - are told that yes, Kerr's husband was there and yes, they will lead her (and Granger) to him AND the mines. All they need do is follow the medicine man a nasty looking sort who has the ear of the usurper king. Granger does not speak this unknown tribe's language, so all this must be done with hand signals and appropriate smiles of reassurance.

They are treacherously led to an underground cavern and as Kerr, Granger and Carlson enter they are trapped within by a convenient fall of rocks. There they find Kerr's husband's skeleton. AND a huge treasure. But will they find a way out of the trap or will they die of thirst and starvation as Kerr's husband obviously did. Actually, I think the skeleton has a spear stuck in him. Can't remember.

They find the way out. It involves an underwater passage.

One of the more exotic delights of the film has nothing to do with Kerr and Granger but a lot to do with the most amazing dance done by these very tall, thin, bare-chested African men, with white fabric wrapped around their hips and legs and wearing crowns (don't know what else to call them) of long, white animal hair, which swing about as they perform this dance. All the men carry spears and wear bells around their ankles. There must be about twenty of them. There is no music, not even on the soundtrack. There are only drums, the voices of the men and the sound of bells as feet hit the ground. Here's a link to a couple of scenes and the dance on youtube if you want to watch it out of context. Really, you need to see it within the film But I found it for you, so what the heck.

I always thought it must have been a 'real' native dance used in the film to very special effect, but later I read that it was actually choreographed so I was a bit disappointed. Still, it is magnificent.

Okay, so once the mysterious traveller reveals his chest scars proving him the rightful heir to the throne, he must fight the usurper to the death. They use long spears and these small animal hide shields which look almost comical considering how very tall both these men are. But once the battle gets under way, you see how the shields actually work.

End of story, Kerr and Granger and Carlson wave goodbye to the new king and set off with Watusi bearers to see them safely back to civilization. Alls well that ends well.

A terrific movie worth at least the biggest tub of popcorn you can get your hands on. Granger and Kerr were certainly, one of the most handsome and technicolor-worthy movie couples ever to grace the silver screen. It is a pleasure to see them at the height of their movie-star good looks and pizazz.


  1. This is my all time favorite movie!!! Stewart is sooooooooooooo sexy in this movie ... love, love , love "KING SOLOMON'S MINES!!!!!Judy

  2. Judy: Yes, I know. Me too! We both love this movie....sigh! SO romantic.

  3. This is a first rate movie and deservedly earned a Best Picture nomination. I especially enjoyed Granger and Kerr in this movie. Their characters were deliciously complex and ambiguous.

    By the way, the movie is set in 1897, which makes Kerr's character a Victorian woman.
    And I think it's pretty obvious that the dances were staged for the film.

  4. The Rush Blog: When I saw the film in theater, I was very young and I was floored by the dances. I'm afraid I was fooled into thinking they were 'native dances'. It was only years later that I learned the truth. Oh well, they were still wonderful.

    It's one of my all time favorite movies, for sure. It's on my Netflix queue waiting for the moment I'm in the mood to see it again. :)

  5. There are some reviews that claim they dance at the end is an actual Masai war dance but I must say chief had never allowed to be films before.

    I tend to believe it – can you imagine the work that would've had to go into choreographing such an incredible dance and teach it to the actors in the film? It would've taken weeks of filming at the very least and I really doubt it would've come out that well. How much easier it would be to film a dance that had already been practiced for years. It looked quite aithentic to me.

  6. "On the set, cast and crew suffered from stifling heat, dysentery, malaria, fever, snakes and tsetse flies. The most bizarre danger, however, came from the indigenous Masai tribal members who were performing in the film. For one sequence, the Masai chiefs lifted the ban on ancient ceremonial dances so the film unit could observe their old war rituals. Five hundred warriors got so wound up chanting, dancing and screaming for two days, that they went berserk and began actually hurling their spears at the westerners. Deborah Kerr scrambled high up a tree for safety. Eventually calmer heads prevailed, but seven spears found their way into the camera case!" Cited from TCM
    So yes the dance sequence was real as were the tribes. Amazing.

    1. ...and glad no one was hurt during filming. Hard to believe. But you get that many warriors with weapons wound up on dancing and such and there you go. I'm surprised no one ever made a documentary during the filming.

  7. I'm glad to know that the dance was authentic. It always looked so to me and I love that really told main dancer with the white headpiece. This is such a terrific film. Today it would all be done with computer crap.


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