Pounding drums herald this MGM super-spectacular. Based on H. Rider Haggard’s novel and shot on location in Africa, the story concerns great white hunter Allan Quartermain (Stewart Granger - in his Hollywood debut) who forswears his life of adventure after losing his native guide in an elephant stampede. Quartermain is approached by John Goode (Richard Carlson), whose sister requests he lead an expedition in search of her missing explorer husband. Suspicious of her motives (“Any woman who wants to go trekking through the jungle must have something wrong with her”), Quartermain initially refuses but the sight of Elisabeth Curtis (Deborah Kerr) in a frilly, low-cut number and the promise of five thousand pounds turns him round. The trio set off into the jungle for an adventure that brings danger, treasure and romance.
Upon release, clueless critics dismissed the film as a Tarzan rip-off, seemingly ignorant of the 19th century novel that predates Edgar Rice Burroughs’ jungle hero by twenty-seven years. A South African movie adaptation was first off the mark in 1919, while the 1937 British version starring Cedric Hardwicke and Paul Robeson is much underrated. MGM invested a then-staggering $3.5 million into this lavish Technicolor adventure that found more favour with the public than the critics and netted several Oscars. In a role offered to Errol Flynn (who opted to do Kim (1950) instead), Stewart Granger is rather a rather terse, but virile incarnation of Haggard’s worldly-wise hero.
Granger’s Quartermain is a borderline nihilist who observes jungle life as “endless and pointless”, and seems to relish putting Elisabeth in her place - stripping off her constricting corsets and swatting a giant spider off her dress, while her brother and their African guide grin approvingly. Deborah Kerr - almost always struggling with repressed passion in her movies - eventually succumbs to a romantic clinch up a tree and wins his respect with her quiet strength. The pair spark well together, something MGM quickly capitalised on with The Prisoner of Zenda (1952) and Young Bess (1953).
As the first Hollywood production to be shot in Africa since Trader Horn (1931), this succeeds in making an audience feel the heat, sweat and dirt of the jungle. Full of incident, but sluggish at times (compounded by the lack of a good, rousing score), unlike the Paul Robeson version, not much is made of the twist revealing their travelling companion as a lost king. The climax is well mounted, but involves a character we’ve barely gotten to know, leaving us emotionally unengaged.
This was a troubled production with Compton Bennett (“a drawing room director” according to co-star Richard Carlson) replaced by the more action-friendly Andrew Marton. Marton and director of photography Robert Surtees (who won an Oscar for his work) deliver fantastic footage of rolling plains, tribal warriors and as many wild animals as they could cram in. Elephants, tigers, rhinos, lions - plus a thundering stampede of various beasties that remains the action highlight. So much wildlife footage was shot that it was recycled for various productions well into the eighties, including Watusi (1959), a B-movie rip-off made by producer Sam Zimbalist’s brother Al, and the 1985 version of King Solomon’s Mines. Which is a whole other story.