From the studio and director behind many of Charles Bronson's funniest films comes King Solomon's Mines (1985), an unsuccessful but not awful fantasy adventure. Many have unfairly compared this with MGM's semi-classic 1950 film of the same name, even though this adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's 1885 novel is really nothing more than an Indiana Jones clone. The picture was one of a half-dozen or so medium budget films produced by Cannon Films in an attempt to get out of the grindhouse market and go mainstream (Superman IV: The Quest for Peace being another example).
Over time, Haggard's classic story of King Solomon's Mines has become the template for countless jungle and science fiction films. Jesse Huston (a 26-year-old Sharon Stone) hires adventure/fortune hunter Allan Quartermain (Richard Chamberlain) to find her missing father, lost deep in the Dark Continent. The elder Huston has been kidnapped by a thick-skulled German soldier, Colonel Bockner (Herbert Lom), and a barbaric Turk, Dogati (John Rhys-Davies), for the old man is in possession of a map leading to King Solomon's legendary diamond mine.
Despite its terrible reputation, Cannon's King Solomon's Mines isn't half-bad. In attempting to replicate the pace of the Indiana Jones movies, the picture is almost non-stop, Republic serial-like action, and on those terms works reasonably well. In fact, the first 20 minutes is nothing but action -- with virtually no exposition at all as the movie gets underway with an orgy of explosions and shattered candy-glass. By Golan-Globus standards, the film is also quite lavish, with lots of extras, decent sets, good location work (in Zimbabwe) and elaborate stunt set pieces. Unlike the usual tiny orchestral or synthesizer scores budgeted for most Cannon films, King Solomon's Mines has full-bodied, even overbearing music by none other than Jerry Goldsmith.
Although the dialog is too campy for its own good, the film overall is commendably straight-faced and old fashioned. It's the kind of picture where the heroine's clothes never seem to get dirty, people can jump off trains and out-of-control planes and escape injury, and where a giant spider worthy of Cat-Women of the Moon is casually tossed into the mix. Many dislike the film's more outrageous elements -- at one point Chamberlain and Stone are nearly boiled alive by cannibals in an impossibly huge cauldron -- but scenes like those are really no more absurd than anything in the two Indiana Jones sequels.
Some of Gene Quintano and James R. Silke's jokey dialog almost works. Surrounded by thousands of cannibals and urged by Jesse to "do something!" Quartermain casually tells her, "You take the thousand on the right, and I'll take the thousand on the left." Generally though, the jokes seem out of place, as if the writers were hedging their bets and didn't want to look foolish writing straight adventure. Much of it anachronistic too, and Solomon's potential as a family film is tainted by their incorporation of a few racial slurs. (Its Israeli producers presumably weren't especially sympathetic to the story's German and Muslim villains.)
The cast does what it can with their paper-thin characters. Chamberlain, after starring in Shogun and The Thorn Birds is miscast here, though he tries to distinguish himself from Harrison Ford's popular hero. Chamberlain's quite good in a few scenes, especially those that call on Quartermain's bravado and quick wit to save the day. A permed Sharon Stone has less luck with her generic damsel in distress, a cross between the plucky heroine played by Karen Allen (in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and the gratingly stupid one played by Kate Capshaw (in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom). Only the great Herbert Lom, in the kind of part formerly played by Gert Frobe, can overcome the weak material. As he did so well in the Pink Panther movies, he brings to a smoothly comic, well-timed delivery, in this case a mostly funny lampoon of a Teutonic nitwit.
Video & Audio
In a mindless move by MGM's Home Video department, King Solomon's Mines is presented in a 4:3 letterboxed transfer while other parts of the world enjoy the same film in 16:9 anamorphic format. What gives? DVD technology has improved to the point where even zoomed in on 16:9 sets the original J-D-C Scope cinematography doesn't look too bad. However, the decision to let out even a movie as minor as this in 4:3 format when a 16:9 transfer exists seems downright perverse. (Conversely the sequel, Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold is 16:9 enhanced.) The Dolby Stereo sound is fairly impressive with a lot of directional sound effects. A French track is offered, along with English, Spanish, and French subtitles.
The only extra is a trailer, also in 4:3 letterbox, this time cropped to about 1.85:1. You'd think including a trailer for the sequel would make sense, but no sign of it here.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo! The Incredible World of Japanese Fantasy Films. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.