Saturday, July 17, 2010

She (1964)

Peter Cushing was “branded by Nature with the stamp of abnormal ugliness.” Women hated the sight of him. His overall appearance could only be described as “monkey” or “baboon” like.

There! I bet that caught your attention!

What I am talking about is, of course, not Peter Cushing, the man, but the character he played in Hammer’s She, or to be even more precise the way his character was described in H. Rider Haggard’s original novel.

Truth be told, however, not a lot of the original source material made its way into the final film.

Though the basic shell of the plot – Ayesha (“She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed”) discovers the reincarnation of her long lost true love from a few centuries ago and tries to make him an immortal as well– remained the same, there were quite a lot of differences between these two appearances of She.

Born in Norfolk (June 22, 1856), H. Rider Haggard spent a considerable amount of time in South Africa where he was appointed Master and Registrar of the High Court of Justice of the Transvaal and also made a living as an ostrich farmer, before returning back to England to study law. He made a name for himself by writing articles on Africa as well as novels based in the “Dark Continent”. Though already a popular author prior to writing SHE in 1886 (KING SOLOMON’S MINES, ALLAN QUATERMAIN), it was the success of that book that allowed to him to give up legal work altogether.

His most popular books were all based on either his male hero, Allan Quatermain, or his female femme fatale Ayesha. No wonder so that following AYESHA – THE RETURN OF SHE (1905) he even ended up having both of his heroes meet up in SHE AND ALLAN (1921), his last novel. Haggard died on May 14, 1925.

SHE, both the novel as well as the film, is a thoroughly entertaining yarn, one of those stories that’ll “give one hour of joy/to the boy who’s half a man/or the man who’s half a boy”. But where the original novel often thrives on gruesome imagery, the film makes more for a straightforward adventure yarn. Either way, they’re both excellent examples of sheer escapism of the best kind.

The novel SHE had previously been filmed several times. The very first adaptation dates back to 1899 (La Colonne de Feu), was directed by none other than cinematic pioneer Georges Méliès and a staggering one minute in length. Five more silent movies followed until the first sound version from 1935 with Broadway Star and future Congresswoman Helen Gahagan in her one and only film role proved to be the last movie based on the classic novel until Hammer’s version came along. Gahagan played opposite Western Star Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey and Nigel Bruce in a pre-Watson performance as Holly.

Following the Hammer film, only Sandahl Bergman made any kind of subsequent impression in the role (1985) in a film that capitalised on her short lived status as Queen of Fantasy Flicks (Conan, Red Sonya). There also appears to be a version from 2001 with Ophélie Winter (yeah, me neither) in the title part that seems to have died a very sudden death at the box office.

Haggard’s novel follows the very popular Victorian concept of presenting the story as an originally unpublished manuscript that fell into the hands of the author who subsequently assumes the role of an editor in the process.

Holly, the narrator of the manuscript, is a fierce ugly, openly misogynistic, but otherwise quite likeable Cambridge lecturer who one night receives a visit from a mortally sick friend who asks him to raise his young son, Leo, like his own and also presents a mysterious iron box, only to be opened upon Leo’s 25th birthday. That box contains ancient sherds and documents that trace back Leo’s ancestry to Kallikrates, a legendary Priest of Isis. It also describes a mysterious African tribe “ruled over by a beautiful white woman (…) who is reported to have power over all things living dead”.

Inspired by these ancient tales they head off to Africa together with their servant Job. Stranded on the Eastern shore of Central Africa they easily get captured by the Amahagger, a cannibalistic, matriarchic tribe who have the awful habit of “hot potting” their enemies, i.e. slowly killing off their victims while still alive by placing red hot pots upon their heads and roasting them alive. Regretfully, none of these gruesome images made it into the Hammer movie.

The three survive with the help of Billali, one of the few wise male leaders of this otherwise female dominated society. Leo gets “married” to Ustane, a local girl. Well, she simply walks over to this vision, hugs him and claims him her own. It’s that easy, y’see.

The Hammer movie in contrast starts by updating the action to 1918, where our three adventurers meet up in Palestine following WW1. Not knowing their future plans (“We survived the war. Let’s hope we survive this place.”) they decide to kill time in a local bar. No longer averse to women we see Cushing’s Holly more than openly lusty after a couple of belly dancers; one of them practically topless if it wasn’t for those enraging nipple cover-ups that ensure that the movie would still get a decent release in 1960s movie theatres. Cushing also gets involved in a bar brawl. As short as the scene lasts, but watching a womanising, bar brawling, hard drinking Cushing does make for some enjoyable viewing.

There is no trace of Leo (John Richardson) being Holly’s step son. They’re just comrades in arms. In actual fact, Cushing’s character is addressed as “Major” and seems to have commanded the other two.

There is also no indication of any prior premonition on the team’s side that Leo may have been related to Kallikrates. Instead Ayesha played by Ursula Andress makes a very early appearance when Lee’s Billali discovers Leo’s uncanny similarity to the ancient priest whose portrait covers a golden medal. Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) makes a dash for Leo and gets him kidnapped and knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he sees Ayesha – and we get to listen to James Bernard’s beautiful leitmotiv - who promises everything he ever desired (including herself apparently) provided he follows a quest and makes it through the desert to her Kingdom. Not being able to resist that kind of offer our intrepid explorers go on a voyage that they barely survive if it wasn’t for Ustane’s help.

Ustane’s father – Andre Morell in a couple of screen minutes and inexplicably dubbed by George Pastell – is the leader of the Amahagger who have a much less prominent part in the film than in the novel where their rituals are described with nearly anthropological preciseness. Instead Ayesha surrounds herself with soldiers in ancient Roman uniforms (possibly left over from a previous film) which makes for a good image even if you’re left wondering where these originally came from.

Morell’s character is more in line with the novel’s Billali than Lee’s character in the film who comes across more of a Machiavellian power hungry second-in-command than the helpful friendly supporter of the original.

Once the three heroes meet up with Ayesha - in the film pronounced as “A-i-sha”, in the novel as “Assha” (the film’s version makes more sense) – in Kor (or Kuma as the city is renamed in the movie) the film’s plot appears much more similar to the novel’s, though it still shows some remarkable differences.

Ayesha reveals her true age and her belief that Leo is the re-incarnation of the true love she had killed all these centuries ago and invites him to join her in a bath in the flames that guarantee immortality. In the film Leo cures himself from a near lethal sickness and therefore passes Ayesha’s last test; in the book he only survived through her intervention. In a rage of jealousy Ayesha kills Ustane: In the novel this is done by magical means. In the film she is killed off-hand by Billali who produces her ashes in front of her father who subsequently starts a revolt that has no equivalent in the book.

I always disliked the attitude of purists who believe that a film should be 100% faithful to a source novel. It may be a pity that some of the original’s characterisations or scenes of cannibalistic terror were not transferred on film, but film and book are different media and as long as the film doesn’t bore me, I couldn’t care less about whether or not it is truly faithful. At times differences from the source can actually even improve the material.

Case in point: In Haggard’s novel Ayesha steps into the flames before Leo who is so enamoured that he has easily forgotten about loyal Ustane. The effect of the flames reverses the original anti-ageing effects (“She’s shrivelling up! She’s turning into a monkey!”). Jobs – a hapless, cowardish fool if ever there was one – dies of shock and fear and only Holly and Leo - who did NOT step into the flames, hence remain mortal - escape.

The film on the other hand makes for a more shocking and tragic ending. Apart from leaving Job (Bernard Cribbins) alive, Leo survives as an immortal and is forced to live throughout eternity now longing for Ayesha just as she had longed for his return. A fate that is far more touching in all its heart breaking implications than Haggard ever imagined.

She was Hammer’s first proper attempt at creating a monumental picture and with a budget of £323,778 their most expensive production ever. For once they left the confines of Deer Park and filmed the location shots near Eilat in Israel. And for once they probably also did not object to the A certificate that they received and that guaranteed that younger movie goers were also allowed to watch the film and that it would also attract a more mainstream audience than their usual fares. Had the film been more faithful in their adaptation of the novel’s more gruesome and violent elements, the company sure would have received objections from the censor and only been allowed an X certificate.

Hammer can’t be praised highly enough for hiring Ursula Andress for the title role: These days it is hard to imagine anyone else playing that part. The world’s most beautiful woman at the time simply had to be playing the world’s most beautiful legendary woman of all time. Though she is certainly not required to hold an Oscar winning performance, she sure leaves an unforgettable impression on the viewer. I’d follow her across the desert for her cute accent alone, though admittedly this was Monica Van Der Syl’s voice who had previously also dubbed her in Dr. No.

Andress was also kind enough to appear nude in the June 1965 issue of Playboy in order to help promote the film.

Michael Carreras had already decided on casting Andress when he saw her in the Bond movie and then patiently waited two years to have her free of other commitments (Fun in Acapulco, 4 For Texas) and ready to take on the title role, her first leading role.

It was up to makeup genius Roy Ashton to transform Andress’ ethereal beauty (I always wanted to write that!) into the hideous, decomposing 3000 year old body. There are more than obvious similarities to Ashton’s and Phil Leakey’s disintegration of Dracula in Hammer’s groundbreaking classic. Of course, it’s one thing seeing Christopher Lee decompose, but quite another to watch a similar scene with a beautiful lady.

No wonder Ashton welcomed the new challenge even though he found it slightly unnerving: “Yet despite all my preparatory work it was an unnerving experience to start my day by taking such a young and attractive woman and transforming her as she slept, into an ancient, gibbering crone!” (Greasepaint and Gore: The Hammer Monsters of Roy Ashton, p. 131)

Another problem was that he was only given one day to shoot the entire, complicated scene. If there are any doubts over some of the makeup effects, then the blame must certainly go to Hammer’s rushed schedule as opposed to Ashton’s true talent.

According to Aida Young, Andress – world famous for her beauty - found the transformation process so disturbing that she was reduced to tears after watching the first stage.

From a set design perspective it must be said that the monumental sculptures that greet the viewer when our heroes enter Kuma are easily on par with the best of its kind in other more expensive movies. The scenes where Ayesha looks over the old abandoned city in ruins – obviously miniatures - or where the flames are superimposed on the other hand all too obviously expose the financial limits of the budget.

Director Robert Day started his career as a Clapper Boy and Camera Operator before progressing to director status. He made a couple of Tarzan movies in the 1960s that can be seen as calling cards for this Victorian Pulp classic also based in Africa (Tarzan The Magnificent, Tarzan’s Three Challenges, followed post-She by Tarzan and the Valley of Gold, Tarzan and the Great River and Tarzan and the Jungle Boy) as well as directing Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee in their one outing together, Corridors of Blood. From the 1970s on his work was nearly entirely restricted to TV (episodes for the likes of Kojak, Police Story or Dallas). His last cinematic movie was the enjoyable turkey The Man With Bogart’s Face with cult favourites like Franco Nero, Sybil Danning, Herbert Lom, Yvonne de Carlo, George Raft and Victor Buono as well as Bogart lookalike Robert Sacchi in his one and only leading role. (A bit of a one trick pony that one.)

For She, Day did a tremendous job making this production appear bigger and more monumental than it really was.

Prior to She even the most ardent movie goer would have had trouble recognising John Richardson. He was – if at all - only really known for a part in Mario Bava’s Black Sunday. Following the success of She, Hammer, however, kept casting him again in One Million Years B.C. and The Vengeance of She. He subsequently starred mainly in a bunch of Italian flicks such as Umberto Lenzi’s Eyeball, Riccardo Freda’s Delirium or Michele Soavi’s The Church.

His classic good looks – one may even be forgiven for calling him bland - made for an ideal and convincing counterpart to Ursula Andress’ title character. Nothing more was expected of him than to stand around and look handsome; something he achieved magnificently.

Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros, who played Richardson’s native lover Ustane, was – apart from a part in The Magnificent Seven – virtually unknown outside her home country before shooting She and, despite a convincing performance as John Richardson’s fatefully loyal lover Ustane – and as such gaining the right to call herself a Hammer Glamour Girl - remained an international also-run. Though do look out for her in one of Karloff’s final performances in Mexican schlocker Cauldron of Blood, released after the actor’s death. She also starred in a French TV Series with Pierre Brice (Winnetou ou le Mascalero), in which he reprised his most famous part as Karl May’s hero Winnetou.

Hammer followed the success of She with The Vengance of She in 1968. Though allegedly also based on one of H. Rider Haggard’s novels this has even less to do with the original source and was penned by Peter O’Donnell, otherwise better known as the creator of Modesty Blaise.


Matthew Coniam said...

Brilliant overview of the film. You make me want to see it now, and fill me with guilt that I haven't bothered hitherto!

Holger Haase said...

You really should watch it. Pity the YouTube clip only featured predominantly the romantic scenes not any of the other stuff. It really is a fab movie and one of my Hammer Favourites.

Mark said...

I concur a ever Matthew it's one of my favourites too. Saw it as a child and loved it, a genuine Boy's Own adventure.

Nice to see Cushing and Cribbins together in something other than Dalek Invasion Earth 2150 AD too (as it was to see Cushing and Castle in Dr Terror's House Of Horror after years of only knowing them together in Dr Who and the Daleks)

I've never bothered with the book, and I doubt I ever will. They kill Job off? Terrible!!!