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King Solomon's Mines (1950)

Warner Bros. // Unrated // January 11, 2005
List Price: $19.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted December 31, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The movie

H. Rider Haggard's adventure novels are classics of the genre, and King Solomon's Mines is at the head of the class. It's no surprise that this novel was adapted for the screen... and I suppose it's no big surprise that the 1950 Hollywood adaptation jettisons just about everything from Haggard's book, keeping only the title, the character of Alan Quartermain, and a few bones from the skeleton of the book's plot. To give credit where it's due, what we end up with is a passably entertaining film in its own right; it just bears very little resemblance to its source of inspiration.

Set in 1897 in the wilds of Africa, King Solomon's Mines gives us the great white hunter Alan Quartermain (Stewart Granger), who is discouraged with his life of leading hunting safaris full of clueless Europeans eager to bag an elephant or two. Enter Mrs. Curtis (Deborah Kerr) and her brother, who propose to hire Quartermain to lead a truly daring expedition into the "dark" of Africa to find Mrs. Curtis' missing husband. (Incidentally, fans of the original novel will no doubt note the change from "Quatermain" to "Quartermain" as the hero's name; the change in spelling is fairly typical of the free hand that the filmmakers took with the novel as a whole.)

King Solomon's Mines is quite an interesting film, one that is half adventure story and half wildlife documentary. There's no plot to speak of (going from Point A to Point B isn't really much of a plot) and the adventure story part of it comes mainly in the last half hour or so of the film, when a few segments from Haggard's novel actually make it back into the story. The rest of the film is mainly a travelogue, with Quartermain pointing out various wildlife and discoursing on the cycles of life and death in the jungle.

The wildlife footage in King Solomon's Mines probably had the effect in 1950 that eye-popping CGI does now: that is, to wow the audience and encourage them to forget that there's really not a whole lot of substance to the movie. The film certainly benefits hugely from its on-location shooting; it has a remarkable degree of expansiveness and sense of authenticity that are still impressive even fifty years after it was made. And while modern viewers have probably seen enough wildlife documentaries to not be especially impressed just by the presence of wild animals in the frame of King Solomon's Mines, it's undeniable that some of the footage we get here is truly amazing. There's a massive stampede (and no, those aren't CGI zebras filling in the background...), and some breathtaking footage of running giraffes, a group of elephants, a pride of lions, and so on.

What's perhaps most curious about King Solomon's Mines is how it doesn't feel absurdly dated (most of the time). To be sure, it's predictably sexist ("any woman who wants to go on a safari must have something wrong with her") but that actually doesn't interfere too much with the story, and apart from the utterly predictable and lame romantic sub-plot, Deborah Kerr's character does pretty well for herself. Given that it was made in 1950, viewers should be aware that what look like real on-screen animal deaths almost certainly are real (the elephant in the first scene in particular made me wince), but oddly enough, the overall attitude of the film in general and Quartermain in particular is fairly respectful of the wildlife. (Well, we do get a totally gratuitous snake killing, but at least it's implied rather than actually shown.)

The presentation of the native African characters is probably the best-handled part of the film. All the Africans speak in their own languages, whether amongst themselves or talking with Quartermain, who is portrayed as speaking several African languages. This is infinitely better than the sadly typical "foreigners speak in English with funny accents" approach, both in terms of being respectful and in terms of making a more exciting movie. This respectful style isn't limited to the handling of dialogue, but extends throughout the film: we see Africans not just working as bearers (and even then it's clear that Quartermain respects them as comrades) but also as warriors and kings. With the one exception of a ludicrous dance and combat at the very tail end of the film, the use of native African songs, dances, customs, and attire is very nicely done and certainly adds interest to the film.

All told, King Solomon's Mines is an oddly paced film. It's essentially a picaresque travel story, with various minor incidents happening along the journey, but no real plot development at all; viewers who are used to action-packed films will undoubtedly find the film a little slow. Still, at 103 minutes, it's not over-long, and it does manage to offer an entertaining and engaging viewing experience, even if it's not quite what I would have expected.

The DVD

King Solomon's Mines is packaged in a plastic keepcase (not a snapper) and features cover art that looks like it's a reprint of the original 1950 movie poster, which adds a very charming retro look to the packaging.

Video

It's clear that King Solomon's Mines has been given a restoration treatment for DVD; while it's not perfect, it looks extremely good considering that it's more than fifty years old. Colors are handled very well, looking consistently natural and lively. Some fluctuations in tone appear here and there, but they're slight and generally short-lived, leaving us with an image that looks quite attractive. There's a slight overall softness to the picture, but this appears to come from the original print, not the transfer, and certainly close-ups are nicely detailed. The main reminder of the film's age comes in its noticeably worn print; there are scratches and flecks appearing throughout the film. All in all, though, King Solomon's Mines is quite watchable.

The film is presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as it was originally presented in theaters in 1950.

Audio

The original mono soundtrack is included (along with dubbed French and Spanish mono tracks). As with the video, I suspect that the soundtrack has been cleaned up for the DVD transfer, because it's a clean, clear track with no background noise or distortion in the sound. Obviously, it's flat-sounding, and at times the dialogue isn't as clear as it could be, but it's a respectable audio track. It would have been nice to have gotten a remastered stereo track, as there are many scenes that are just begging for surround sound, but what we do get is fine.

Extras

The only special feature is the original theatrical trailer, which is quite amusing to watch (and given its severely worn appearance, will make you appreciate the film's restoration).

Final thoughts

The 1950 version of King Solomon's Mines remains a watchable, if oddly-structured, adventure/travelogue film. It's the kind of film that kids would enjoy, as long as they're not totally jaded by modern action films, and undoubtedly has nostalgia value for a lot of adult viewers. With its nicely restored transfer, the DVD gets a "recommended."

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