Africa in the late nineteenth century, and prospectors Patrick O'Brien (Arthur Sinclair) with his daughter Kathy (Anna Lee) believe they have a gem to sell until they are told that it's simply a crystal, and therefore worthless. Not to be deterred, O'Brien starts casting about for another way to make money, and opts to head for the coast, latching onto a wagon train that is going in that direction. The leader of that is white hunter Allan Quartermain (Cedric Hardwicke), but that is not all that catches O'Brien's eye...
This British version of the popular H. Rider Haggard tale, which was still being adapted well into the twenty-first century, was the first sound movie to be made of the material, and a substantial hit in its day. To modern eyes it's somewhat leisurely paced, but back then it was accused of lacking snap as well, not that it harmed the box office of the production as Haggard was still enough of a draw to make this a success. Hardwicke may be a curious choice for Quartermain, yet what he lacked in physical stature he made up for in an imposing nature.
But he was not the top-billed performer, as that title went to Paul Robeson, at the height if his fame and given a few songs to sing in that unmistakable bass voice just so audiences who enjoyed Showboat would not feel shortchanged thinking the star was not being utilised to his full complement of talents. Refreshingly, Robeson was able to play his role not as many of his contemporary African-American actors would do, as the humiliating to our opinions comic relief, mainly because audiences in the nineteen-thirties did not wish to see him in that kind of part, not that he would have either fitted it or been especially pleased to take it.
Robeson wound up being lambasted in his American home country later in his career for his left-wing views, having embraced the civil rights crusades decades before it became a more pressing matter to the authorities there; he ended his life in sad isolation, deliberately cutting himself off from the society he had earlier fought so hard to change. Better to recall him in one of his hit movies such as this one, in his Umbopa role, as we discover a king in exile who happens to have the map to the mines of the title, for his powerful presence was ideal for these kinds of adventures. Mind you, his map is so basic that it seems more luck than design that they find that lost tribe in the last half hour.
If Robeson was allowed a noble spirit, the O'Briens were rather less than forward looking in their conception, conniving Irish who may get the plot moving but are not the most flattering depiction of their national character abroad. After a while that didn't matter quite so much as the script forgot about the stereotypes and concentrated on the adventure, which is unexpectedly uneventful - basically the expedition gradually winds down, losing men and supplies until it looks as if those left will perish. Fortunately that lost tribe show up to add interest (actual African locations were used), even if that by now hoary old cliché of fooling the natives into thinking you have magic powers when an eclipse occurs is put into play - Tintin used it too, you may recall - but a volcanic eruption was where much of the budget went and it was well implemented for a rousing finale. If not as timeless as a Tarzan movie, this version was enjoyable enough. Music by Mischa Spoliansky.