Fondly remembered by bad movie fanatics, the third version of H. Rider Haggard’s classic adventure novel was produced by those titans of trash, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus at the legendary Cannon Films. The studio that gave us Enter the Ninja (1982), Masters of the Universe (1987), and untold sleazy Charles Bronson vigilante thrillers. It’s a pretty blatant attempt to ape Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and recasts hero Allan Quartermain as a wisecracking, daredevil Indy-type.
The brisk plot skips the traditional set-up and dives straight into Africa, where rugged adventurer Allan Quartermain (Richard Chamberlain) helps Jesse Huston (Sharon Stone) trace her missing archaeologist father. He is held prisoner by silly, Wagner-loving, German Colonel Bockner (Herbert Lom, who replaced Telly Savalas) and Turkish sadist Dogati (John Rhys-Davies), who want the secret location of the legendary diamond mine. After a swift rescue and reunion with daddy, Jesse gets her hands on a small idol that holds the map leading to the fabled treasure. Together with Quartermain and his faithful guide Umbopo (Ken Gampu), she races into the jungle with the German army on their trail and cannibal hordes lying in wait.
A full-blooded score by Jerry Goldsmith ensures this sounds like a rip-roaring epic even if it doesn’t move like one. The set-pieces, including a chase through a marketplace with Jesse stuffed into Persian rug and a fight with Quartermain hanging from a moving train, deliberately evoke Raiders, but although capably staged, the stunts and blue screen work fall well short of their role model. Although he brought avant-garde touches to pulp adventure material like McKenna’s Gold (1969) and The White Buffalo (1977), veteran J. Lee Thompson directs with a surprisingly listless hand. Campy and self-conscious with dumb gags that seem more amusing when you’re eight years old, the film is dated by some racist insults (“You towel-headed creep!”), but has a few memorable moments.
Frankly, undiscriminating Eighties kids were fairly happy to settle for this between Indy sequels and still reminisce about Jesse and Quartermain trapped inside a giant, runaway cooking pot, the friendly tree-dwelling, upside down Ubugua tribe, or Sharon Stone in short-shorts. Sadly, her whiny, proto-Valley girl character is far from endearing, with a tendency to gasp “Quartermain!” at inane moments. Whereas Raiders evoked the spirit of 1930s adventure serials but with a progressive attitude, this is really old-fashioned with a dumb blonde heroine, cowardly natives and comedy German stereotypes.
The script, co-written by Police Academy scribe Gene Quintano, includes bad taste gags like the German torturer who tries to rape Jesse’s father and gets shot in the bollocks, and throws away Haggard’s lost king subplot as a meaningless aside. Strange how only the 1930s version explored this in any great detail. Late in the day, the film suddenly adds a scary witch-queen (June Buthelezi) in a Tina Turner fright-wig as a secondary villainess, while after the descent into the mines and underwhelming encounters with a frozen Queen Sheba, a shoddy giant spider, and the treasure of Solomon (which consists of a small cave with a few chests of gold coins), Thompson lets the climax lapse into chaos. He doles out unsatisfying deaths including one baddie hurriedly gobbled by a prehistoric sea monster, another leaping merrily to their death (why?), while Rhys-Davies’ glowering Turk is shot, crushed, buried alive and set on fire, but he keeps on coming.
As for Richard Chamberlain, many maintain he is miscast but he’s suitably dashing and athletic, caught between his swashbuckling 1970s roles and a brief stint as the very first Jason Bourne. Though how he escapes a train full of German soldiers by playing “Camptown Races” on his trumpet, we’ll never know. The film was successful enough to warrant a sequel: Allan Quartermain and the Lost City of Gold (1986).