AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 106 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
Professor Holly, his valet Job and young Leo Vincey have just received honourable discharges from the British Army in 1918 Palestine. When the three go to a nightclub, Leo is lured by a girl named Ustane to a place where he’s knocked out and brought to a house. There, he meets the mysterious Ayesha, who gives him a ring and a map and urges him to find her in the city of Kuma, with the promise that everything he desires will be his. Intrigued by the possibility of discovering a legendary city and a lost civilisation, Holly, with Job in tow, decide to join him and set off on an expedition into a previously unexplored region of north-east Africa. The trek is perilous and Holly and Job want to turn back, but Leo, lured on by visions of Ayesha, soldiers on like a man possessed….
This is the eighth version of H. Rider Haggard’s Victorian novel, a book which has only seen two adaptations since and which is probably considered too old fashioned and even racist [I wouldn’t say that it’s racist if taken on its own, but the book does belong to a cycle of Victorian tales that pronounced the superiority of white explorers to black African natives] and it’s easily the most seen, though for my money it doesn’t really match up to the fine 1935 version [I haven’t seen any of the others], which is both a delightfully absurd and quite thought provoking piece of antique Hollywood exotica. Exotic is not something that can really be said about Hammer’s version, nor is it especially thought provoking, while it’s often painfully obvious that its budget, despite being three times higher than that of the usual Hammer production, was still far too low for a successful realisation of the tale, which has also sadly lost some of its fantasy content. Still, this simplified, slightly pacier version remains quite pleasurable viewing, with a charming, dated innocence about it, and is probably a far better watch for kids. I used to love it as a youngster until I eventually saw the earlier version in my late teens.
It was Kenneth Hyman, Seven Arts’ Vice President, who suggested Haggard’s book to producer Anthony Hinds in 1962, who got John Temple-Smith to write a script which added lots of action which would been too expensive to film. Ursula Andress was attached because of a deal with her husband John Derek whereupon Seven Arts financed three films of his. Crime writer Berkely Mather was hired to write a new, more faithful, script, but by now the intended US distributors and co-financiers Universal had lost interest. Joseph E. Levine and AIP both turned it down until MGM finally picked it up, and got Robert Day, who had made two [good] Tarzan films, to direct. By now a third screenplay by David T. Chandler had been written which discarded some things from the novel like the Cambridge opening, though the two main ingredients that the 1935 one altered – Leo not being the reincarnation of Ayesha’s old love from 2000 years ago but just his descendant from only 500 years ago, and Leo’s other admirer changed from a native girl to another white explorer – were corrected. The film was shot in Elstree Studios and Israel, where star John Richardson caught dysentery, Bernard Cribbins was hospitalised when an explosive burned his bottom, and another explosive blew an effects man’s finger off. Things were tense because of the political climate, with Arabs wielding guns not far from the set. When the budget overran, a scene where Christopher Lee sung a chant for which he’d written the words himself went un-filmed. Andre Morell was dubbed by George Pastell while Andress was dubbed by the same woman who’d dubbed her in Dr. No, Monica Van der Syl, which led me to think it was her real voice for years. She was a considerable hit, and was often billed with One Million Years B.C.
This film has such an enticingly mysterious main musical theme which alternates with tribal drums as the titles cut back and forth between tracks past [obviously fake] vegetation around the Flame Of Life and natives dancing. A stock shot of a city in Palestine then cuts directly to a belly dancer writhing on the floor of a rather seedy nightclub, a sign that this version will have a higher sex content than the older one. Our ‘hero’ Leo is extremely lucky, getting to kiss first the delectable Ustane, than the stunning Ayesha, within a couple of minutes of each other while his friends get involved in a ruckus in the club. Ustane has been used by Ayesha to lure Leo to her, and seems to fall for him immediately, but from now on he only has eyes for Ayesha. It’s a rather silly addition to the story to have Ayesha come all the way from her lost city to Palestine and then back again, unless we’re supposed to believe it’s due to some kind if vision or magic, but then it’s obvious in the first half that the filmmakers were obliged to get as many shots of Andress in as they could before Leo eventually finds her. There’s a rather clumsy skirmish with some Arabs, near sacrifice by some black natives who live outside Kuma, and finally we meet Ayesha. Nice to see that the book’s idea of the occupants living in catacombs beneath an extinct volcano while the remains of Kuma are below them, has been kept.
As before, She slumps a bit when we get to Kuma, but throws in more action near the end with the natives revolting and quite a decent fight between Leo and Bilali, Ayesha’s high priest who thinks that he’s more deserving of bathing in the Flame of Eternal Life than Leo. Meanwhile the philosophical dimension is considerably muted, and the fact that Leo ignores the loving, caring and devoted Ustane not made at all convincing [sure, Andress is beautiful, but so is Rosenda Monteros]. One interesting thing though is that this Leo chooses eternal life rather quickly and actually steps into the flame with Ayesha, something which leads to a close which manages to be both rather poignant and rather ironic, Leo now having gained immortality but not wanting it any more. He doesn’t even have Ustane to comfort him. Her love for Leo, who isn’t at all condemned in the movie for basically condemning her to death, is rewarded by being killed, the moment where Bilali produces her ashes to her horrified father being quite a shock when seen for the first time. Another strong moment is when slaves are chained to each other and one by one pushed into a lava bit where you can see two of them bouncing off the side! At times She interestingly appears to almost exist at the edge of Hammer horror, and it’s a shame that the climax just redoes the 1935 version’s device of cutting to the aging Ayesha a few times to show her increasingly decrepit instead of giving us a Dracula-style effects scene, though I guess would have garnered the film an ‘X’ certificate back in 1965.
Though there’s a quite impressive matte painting of some mountains, cuts directly from a large statue [which clearly seems to have a huge amount of space in front of it] to inside the catacombs fail to convey location well, while the model that represents the remains of Kuma that Leo and Ayesha look down upon, and that Leo later looks down upon himself [in an otherwise rather fine moment where he imagines the city in its prime and trumpets and the sound of crowds are heard on the soundtrack] is so unconvincing that I actually really thought that what they were looking at was meant to be a model. Meanwhile, while there’s a vague attempt at Egyptian-style décor which makes sense because Ayesha and her group were exiled ancient Egyptians, there’s no attempt to make the people actually look Egyptian, while the soldiers actually wear Roman outfits. They were probably just borrowed to save money, but it just seems daft. And the people of the Yamahaga are not only half populated by obvious Europeans but just seem to lurk around in nearby caves with seemingly nothing to sustain them. Some aspects of She haven’t really been thought through at all and it awkwardly strives for an epic feel which it just can’t achieve.
Andress looks terrific as usual and displays a kind of vacant cruelty which works for her part, but neither she nor Richardson have any chemistry, which weakens the emotional dimension. Monteros though is quite touching and Cribbins is wonderful, almost being comic relief with his amusingly down to earth attitude and comments. Lee and Peter Cushing are both fine but are basically playing variations of earlier roles, though Cushing is given a good rumination about love to say around half way through. The score by James Bernard, who was given longer than normal to write it, is one of his best. That mysterious, almost ethereal theme for She recurs throughout, sometimes with Leo’s theme, which on its own suggests adventure, playing beneath it. There’s a fine march, more than the usual throbbing Bernard action pieces, and some nice mysterious stuff. It’s a shame that only half the score existed to make it onto the CD release. I think that Hammer somewhat overstretched themselves making She, and therefore didn’t pay enough attention on making it as compelling nor as convincing as they should have done. It has some very good ingredients and moments though, and I do always enjoy watching it even if it seems to be a little weaker to my eyes with each viewing.