History in the Movies: King Solomon’s Mines


The novel, King Solomon’s Mines, was written in 1885 by adventure writer H. Rider Haggard, and with  more than 83 millions copies sold, it’s still read widely today, ranking as one of  the biggest best sellers of all time. Its hero, the dashing Alan Quatermain, was the inspiration for the character of Indiana Jones. There have been six attempts to date to capture this work on film,in 1937, 1950, 1985, 1986 for television, and 2004 as a TV miniseries.  The version which I was lucky enough to catch on TV today is the 1950 production, starring a very young Deborah Kerr,  Stewart Granger, and Richard Carlson, and while some major changes were made to the original plot (in which there were no women), it remains a compelling tale. This film was a huge hit in its day, as audiences enticed with the new Technicolor technology flocked to the theaters.  The acting is competent, but it’s the spectacular East African scenery and wildlife that make this worth watching. It’s also fascinating to watch the tribal sequences, with authentic music and dancing performed by actual natives.  The cinematography (by Robert Surtees ) is nothing less than amazing, particularly during a truly spectacular stampede sequence; an Oscar was in the offing for that stellar work.

The plot is a relatively simple one. Quatermain, played by a somewhat inexpressive Stewart Granger, is hired by a beautiful young Englishwoman and her brother to locate her missing husband, who was searching for the legendary lost diamond mines of the biblical King Solomon. The mine is  merely a device to set the safari in motion, and most of the movie plays out as a kind of travelogue. For it’s time, it manages to avoid blatant sexism, although there is some winking among the men over Kerr’s good looks. It maintains a relatively respectful attitude toward the hundreds of animals that contribute to the drama, with Quatermain refusing to kill unless overtly threatened.  The tribesmen speak their own languages, with Quatermain translating, and the directors (Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton) refrained from belittling them as savages or primitives. There’s an interesting subplot involving a deposed tribal king who hooks up with the safari with an eye toward vanquishing the usurpers once he arrives back in his kingdom.  As for character development, there’s not much to say, and the ending is devoid of real impact. But that stampede makes watching this production more than worthwhile. It’s fun when something more than 50 years old can make you sit up in wonder.


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