Saturday, May 19, 2018

Origin Story: The Legacy of King Solomon's Mines

Author H. Rider Haggard, often credited as a pioneer of the "lost world" fiction genre. (Photo: Getty)

A group of men take off on a quest into the unknown, seeking a potentially mythical MacGuffin and using their unique skills to get into and out of scrapes, with a few good-natured comic interludes thrown in along the way. That’s a setup of many popular films, and that’s part of why I found my recent experience reading H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines so interesting. Combined with a rediscovery of George Stevens’s 1939 film Gunga Din, which I hadn’t seen since childhood, catching up with Haggard’s classic adventure novel has provided some perspective on the origins of tropes that have begun to feel overly familiar after appearing in one franchise film after another.

Haggard’s 1885 novel follows Allen Quatermain and his clients Sir Henry Curtis and Captain John Good, who enlist the famed hunter in their pursuit of Curtis’s missing brother, who has disappeared in the middle of Africa while searching for the titular mines. They’re joined by the mysterious Umbopa, who has his own motives for following the other Curtis brother’s missing trail. The quest takes them into Kukuanaland, a territory uncharted by Europeans (though by no means uninhabited), where they find themselves caught up in a dynastic struggle between Umbopa, who reveals himself to be Ignosi, the long-lost heir to the throne, and the cruel usurper Twala. Using their knowledge of firearms, a conveniently-timed lunar eclipse, and savvy military strategy, the British adventurers manage to help place Ignosi onto his royal seat, and then eventually find their way to the legendary mines of the biblical King Solomon.

Although Haggard’s novel is 133 years old as of this writing, it’s striking how familiar many of its elements feel. The three white men who travel into Kukuanaland with Umbopa are the sort of protagonists we encounter in every film franchise from Indiana Jones to The Avengers – it was hard not to think of Cutter, MacChesney, and Ballantine’s horseplay from Gunga Din in moments such as the one in which Curtis and Quatermain force Good to remain in dishabille when they’re surprised by a Kukuana patrol and his stark white legs, combined with his half-shaved face and monocle, convince the natives that he’s a god. The trope of the “lost world” might not work as well in an era more attuned to the cultural insensitivities of the original, but it’s nevertheless familiar from countless science-fiction franchises, in which alien races replace uncolonized people of colour.

Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in Gunga Din. (Photo: Getty) 

At the same time, there’s an uneasy balance in the novel between its relatively progressive attitude (at least for the starkly racialized and pro-colonialist genre in which Haggard was writing) and its blithe disregard for the sort of racial and environmental concerns that are foremost in our 21st-century minds. On their way to find Sir Henry’s missing brother, the party drives a herd of elephants into a ravine and gleefully slaughters most of them, an act of seemingly pointless destruction that I found one of the more shocking and disturbing moments in the novel. Later, Good saves a Kukuana woman named Foulata from persecution, and when she in turn nurses him back to health after he’s injured in the pivotal battle against Twala, they enter into an interracial romance. It seems like this might prove to be a surprisingly subversive turn of events, given Victorian society’s strictures against such a relationship, but Haggard then uncomplicates matters by having Foulata die in the mines at the hands of Gagool, the evil crone who backs Twala and attempts to destroy Quatermain’s party by trapping them underground. Quatermain is notably blasé about the death of such a sympathetic character, commenting that it was probably for the best, as “complications would have been sure to ensue” from Foulata and Good’s permanent union.

And yet, there are still other moments when the book does become rather subversive, if not downright odd. While Quatermain notes that there are virtually no women in his narrative, he spends a substantial amount of time describing the “very shapely” physique of Umbopa, which indeed proves pivotal to establishing the exiled king’s royal bona fides. Even the journey to Kukuanaland evinces distinctly erotic notes; the main landmarks that the explorers use to orient themselves are the twin peaks of “Sheba’s breasts,” which Haggard frequently describes in rather graphic terms.

Even the choice to focus most of the story on the group’s adventures among the Kukuana evinces a degree of open-mindedness, given that the logic of colonialism tends to denigrate the importance of anyone who isn’t white and to depict autonomous political entities composed of such people as dangerous and dysfunctional. Instead, many of the book’s major characters are black, and their struggles in a kingdom largely removed from the influence of colonial powers form the centerpiece of the narrative’s second act. Quatermain asserts in the book’s opening pages that he considers many black men whom he has met as superior to white men of his acquaintance. There’s a limit to this seemingly progressive attitude: after all, Kukuanaland is still depicted as a relatively undeveloped land that sits atop the ruins of a much greater civilization, one which, Haggard hints, was built by people whom the novel’s original readership would likely have considered closer to their own racial identity.

A scene from Bennett & Marton's 1950 version of King Solomon's Mines. (Photo: IMDB)

Despite the fact that it’s been adapted for film on numerous occasions, King Solomon’s Mines has arguably never received a completely satisfactory cinematic treatment, and I suspect that the fact that the novel’s depiction of race is somewhat more nuanced than one might expect has something to do with this. Aside from a 1985 film made to cash in on the popularity of Indiana Jones, the best-known version is probably Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton’s 1950 version, which stars Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger. This version is at its best when it strays from focusing on the human element; at times, it feels like a fairly compelling nature documentary that’s unfortunately interrupted by the contrived antics of a group of annoying humans. As Pauline Kael noted, the white cast members are generally uninteresting, and “the Africans take all the acting honors.” The problem is that Helen Deutsch’s screenplay spends an inordinate amount of time on depicting Kerr’s Elizabeth Curtis struggling through the wilderness instead of Umbopa’s (Siriaque) struggle to regain his throne, a plot element which doesn’t emerge until the second half of the film. While Haggard has Quatermain acknowledge that there are virtually no women in the original story, the decision to include a female character who inevitably has to flounder through various hardships and fall back on a strong man feels like a step backwards. The movie was an important landmark in establishing the importance of location shooting as something that could add to a film’s production values, and thereby draw in audiences, but it doesn’t pair that innovation with a compelling human element at its center.

By contrast, the 1937 British film version largely sticks to the original storyline, although there’s a lamentable decision by the movie’s stable of screenwriters to include a pair of comic Irish types who initiate the plot, rather than Sir Henry’s missing brother. However, the writers largely compensate for this misstep by giving Paul Robeson top billing in the role of Umbopa. He’s predictably fantastic, and a couple of musical numbers have been thrown in for him, because why not? The focus on Robeson’s character helps to give this movie a tighter narrative structure than the 1950 version and makes it more compelling, as well. It also doesn’t hurt that Cedric Hardwicke plays Quatermain, or that Roland Young manages to capture the comic appeal of Good (although there is, again perhaps predictably, no hint of interracial romance in this version).

Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson in the 1937 version of King Solomon's Mines. (Photo: BFI)

The 1937 version is also interesting simply by virtue of its having been made around the same time as Gunga Din and the 1930s serials that inspired George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Gunga Din, of course, has had a much more direct influence on our modern cinematic narrative conventions, with director Rian Johnson citing it as an inspiration for The Last Jedi. It’s noteworthy, however, that in this narrative, colonialism wins the day (naturally, it’s based on a handful of works by Rudyard Kipling), whereas Haggard’s heroes must bid a tearful goodbye to their former companion Ignosi and agree never to return to Kukuanaland. There’s a blithe self-confidence to the three sergeants in Gunga Din that’s largely missing from King Solomon’s Mines, in which Quatermain continually underplays his considerable survival skills and keeps fatalistically assuming that things will turn out for the worst.

Gunga Din was somewhat controversial even when it came out in 1939, and, while it’s a superior piece of filmmaking, I’d argue that some of its more sensitive racial and political elements have aged more poorly than something like the 1937 version of King Solomon’s Mines, or indeed than Haggard’s original novel. It’s hard to say if the appeal of the tropes introduced by King Solomon’s Mines is inextricably linked to the historical and cultural baggage carried by the book and the works that it influenced. Some film franchises, such as Star Wars, have increasingly tried to move away from the sort of manly-white-man protagonists who have traditionally been at the center of the narrative, but it’s not clear to me if changing whom we focus on in the story will change the ways that we tell those stories. Recent box-office successes such as Wonder Woman and Black Panther have generally hit the same narrative beats as their fellow superhero movies, while the Tomb Raider franchise has already been rebooted once, with little obvious artistic benefit from making a woman the focus of a King Solomon’s Mines-style quest, so perhaps not. Perhaps we’re in a fundamentally different place from Haggard’s era, when there were still blank spots on the map and people from non-Western cultures were still largely seen as a mysterious Other, rather than fellow human beings. Perhaps we’ll see a reboot of a franchise like Indiana Jones with an actor of color in the title role, and that will demonstrate the durability of the storytelling tropes that have endured to this day. Or maybe the passing of the sort of world that spawned those tropes will lead to new and different kinds of stories, and the legacy of Haggard’s work will become, like the mines themselves, not entirely forgotten, but largely buried and invisible.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory

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