One of the main inspirations for the character of Indiana Jones is that of Allan Quatermain. This character was the star of a number of adventure novels by author H. Rider Haggard. The first of those novels, King Solomon’s Mines, was released in 1885 and was followed by more than a dozen sequels. That first novel had the distinction of being the first adventure novel to take place in the wilds of Africa. Unfortunately, most kids today only know of Quatermain as the influence behind Indiana Jones or, worse than that, the Sean Connery character in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
That should never be the case.
The novel was first adapted into a film in 1937 and remained relatively faithful to the source material. There were also two more recent adaptations of the book, one as a comedy in 1985 starring Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain. It was actually followed by a sequel in 1987, but both are simply parodies of the Indiana Jones films. I don’t know what to think of this conundrum, as it would indicate the influential source material was being used as a cheap copy of the movie it influenced to begin with. There was also an adaptation in 2004, made for television, and starring Patrick Swayze. The less said about that, the better.
The version I want to talk about is the 1950 film.
Allan Quatermain was portrayed by Stewart Granger, in a role that should have made him a star. It did help him find a little success as a swashbuckler in the same vein as Errol Flynn, but I would have thought, after this movie, he would have been huge. He plays Quatermain as a mix between Han Solo and Indiana Jones. I know I am using characters created thirty years later to describe the man, but I believe he was the template for many of these later character’s tics and traits.
Quatermain is a hired gun, a scout who takes people out on safaris for payment. The film starts with an astonishing elephant hunt. It would be the first time movie going audiences would see the wild, untamed animals of Africa in Technicolor and it is not disappointing. At times the film seems to be more of a National Geographic special, but that is part of its charm. Following the death of his loyal companion at the tusks of a charging elephant, he decides it might be time to retire from this line of work.
Much like the character of Indiana Jones, Quatermain is not a man who can just go to England and settle down. He does not fit in well with the civilized society of the cities and only feels at home in the wilds of Africa. Surrounded by natives who have accepted him as one of their own, he would prefer to live his life without the constraints of proper etiquette. A woman named Beth and her brother John come to Quatermain and ask him if he will take them into uncharted territory. He refuses, saying he is finished with that business and, besides, a safari is no place for a woman. When Beth offers him 20,000 pounds, he agrees on the spot.
Much like Han Solo, he is a man who will do anything if the price is right. Also like Solo, he has reasons for doing this beyond simple greed. He has a son who goes to a proper boarding school in England and he sends every penny of the money to him to make sure he has a good life. Quatermain is a conflicted hero, only caring about the mission, carrying a sexist attitude for women in general, and possibly a lack of concern for his own well being. However, he is trustworthy, protective and the one person you would want to have by your side when facing a stampede of charging animals. He is Han Solo, or rather, Han Solo is Allan Quatermain.
The sexual dynamic between Quatermain and Beth is classic screwball comedy, reminiscent of Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. It is clear it is another template shared by this film and Indiana Jones, especially the scenes in Temple of Doom between Indiana and Willie in the woods, with all the creatures of the night surrounding them. This entire scene seems to be taken directly from King Solomon’s Mines. However, it works so much better in here than in that second Indiana Jones adventure. While Kate Capshaw did nothing but annoy during her scenes in the wild, Deborah Kerr was a perfect balance between panic and confidence. The pairing of Granger and Kerr was just as natural as that between Indiana and Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The story was simple. Beth needed to find her husband, who had gone in search of King Solomon’s Mines, an almost mythical place where riches beyond your wildest dreams is said to live. However, the story is not concerned with finding Beth’s husband or the diamonds in the mine. This story is only concerned with getting there. We see all the wild animals you could imagine – crocodiles, poisonous snakes, elephants, wild cats, giraffes, zebras, giant spiders, fire ants and a number of other beasts. They face down a stampede, avoid capture by a wild native tribe and eventually find the mines of the title. The time spent in the mines is less than a couple of minutes, and the treasure is left behind. As I said, the final treasure does not matter, and that is the biggest difference between this and the Steven Spielberg films where the treasure might be a macguffin, but it is still the number one concern for Indy at the end of the day.
It is not a movie to watch if you want a cerebral excursion into the world of storytelling. However it is a great “Boy’s Adventure” tale and includes all the pratfalls and excitement you would get in the later Indiana Jones films. It is not up the level of those films, this was an early simpler time, but it is a great film to watch to see the progression that the genre took, leading us to that great treasure hunt that began our love affair with Dr. Jones.
Did I mention Allan Quatermain had a pet monkey?