Book Into Film – “She” (1965)

Hammer made a substantial number of changes for its version of She. For a start, H. Rider Haggard’s novel was published in 1886, three decades before the time in which the film which took place at the end of World War One.  While the three main characters – Horace Holly (Peter Cushing in the film), his manservant Job (Bernard Cribbins) and the younger Leo (John Richardson)  – remain the same, their relationships are significantly different, in that in the book Holly is the legal guardian of Leo.

The book is far more Indiana Jones than sheer adventure, the journey into the unknown instigated by a piece of parchment and a translation of a potsherd from the fourth century B.C. In the film the spur towards the journey into the unknown is a vision. But in the book the adventurers already know before they set off that ancient Egyptian high priest Kallikrates found Ayesha and the sacred flame and was killed by her because he loved another.

Unlike the film the book has no trek through the desert either which renders them hungry, thirsty and exhausted and leads to visions of Ayesha for Leo. Instead, they are shipwrecked. And their peril comes from swamps and wild animals such as lions and crocodiles. In fact, the filmmakers clearly resisted the opportunity to include one of the tropes of jungle adventure, namely a wild animal battle, in this case crocodile vs. lion, which was a feature of the book.

While they shoot a water buck for food, nonetheless they do later face exhaustion, only rescued by the sudden appearance of an Arab, who mentions She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed and arranges for them to be transported in litters to a mysterious land in the heart of African darkness. This land is rich and fertile, with herds and plenty of food.

Two important elements introduced here shape the book but are ignored in the film. The first is that Leo, seriously ill at this point – and not capable of being strung up for the movie’s sacrifice –  remains ill  for the rest of the book so that it is Holly who enjoys most of the encounters with Ayesha. Secondly, and a rather advanced notion for the times, the women in this country are independent, neither considered chattels nor subordinate to men, and are free to choose their own lover. But it is only now that Leo meets Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) rather than in the film which brought them together almost immediately.  Here, they also meet Billali (Christopher Lee) whom Holly rescues from a swamp.

With Leo still ill, it is Holly who first encounters Ayesha, who dresses as she will in the film, in a gauzy white material. In the writer’s eyes her beauty lay in her “visible majesty” as well as more obvious physical features, which could not be dwelt on at such length in a Victorian novel. Holly falls in love with her on the spot, even though he is “too ugly” to be considered a potential suitor, and learns of the fate of the earlier Killikrates and also catches a glimpse of her bemoaning her fate, imprisoned in immortality for two thousand loveless years.

“It is hard for a woman to be merciful,” proclaims Ayesha as she puts to death the villagers. Throwing them down the pit was invented by the screenwriters. By this point Leo is nearly dead and only saved by a phial administered by Ayesha. She also decrees that Ustane must die because “she stands between me and my desire.” In the film it is Leo who intervenes to attempt to save Ustane. But in the book it is Holly. He blackmails Ayesha, threatening to reveal her secret, that she had killed Killikrates in the past. Ustane claims she has taken Leo as her common-law husband. Ayesha promises to spare Ustane if she will give up her claim to Leo and go away. But Ustane refuses. In the book, there is an astonishingly visual and terrifying scene where, in revenge, Ayesha claws at Ustane’s black hair, leaving there the imprint of three white fingers. 

It is the film that introduces the element of palace intrigue, with rebellious subjects and Billali believing he is entitled to immortality. That is not in the book.

When Leo finally wakes up, he is reunited with Ustane, but Ayesha catches them and kills Ustane, not by throwing her down the pit, but by her magic power. Despite being appalled, Leo cannot resist Ayesha. Even so, he is fully aware of his predicament, believing he has been “sold into bondage” and forced to love a murderess. But when she enters the sacred flame – naked, it has to be said, in the book, which was an exceptionally daring image for that era – she dies.

Holly in the book is more a narrator than a protagonist and shifting the emphasis more squarely back to Leo suits the film’s dramatic purpose. There was no real reason the film could not have followed the thrust of the book except that it would perhaps cost more costly to bring a jungle and swamps  to life than a desert and arid mountains. More importantly, perhaps, was the need to introduce the physical Ayesha more quickly than in the book.

It is worth pointing out that the concept of She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed was not so alien to British readers. After all, when the book was published, the country was ruled by a woman, Queen Victoria. And although democracy had reduced elements of her absolute power, the people still had to bow down before her. In addition, the British celebrated the rule of a previous female monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, who had been an absolute ruler, in the days before there was any notion of democracy and Parliament, and in those days anyone who opposed such a figure was liable to meet as swift a death as that meted out by Ayesha.

She (1965) ****

Ursula Andress certainly knows how to make an entrance. Emerging out of the sea in a bikini in Dr No (1962) proved a Hollywood calling-card but failed to put her center stage. She fixed that with She and dominates this superior adventure hokum. Studio Hammer lucked into a solid piece of storytelling, a classic, and all it had to do – with the help of a bit more finance than was usual for their productions courtesy of MGM – was not muck it up.

Three soldiers are celebrating the end of the First World War in a Palestinian night club and while archaeologist Holly (Peter Cushing) and his bowler-hatted valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) are tripping the light fantastic with belly-dancers, blond-haired Leo (John Richardson) is seduced away by Ustane (Rosenda Monteros) because he bears a stunning resemblance to an ancient medallion. Encountering a vision of Ayesha (Andress) he is urged to embark on a dangerous journey to the lost city of Kuma where she awaits.  

Despite the theft of their camels and loss of water, the trio trek exhausted across desert and mountains, Leo sustained by his vision, by the fact that he seems to know the way and with the assistance of Ustane. But a savage tribe reckon Leo would make an ideal sacrifice to the gods. Just as the tribe are driving themselves into ritualistic frenzy, high priest Billali (Christopher Lee) comes to the rescue, escorting the explorers into Kuma.

The regal Ayesha is as beautiful in the flesh as in the vision, but more ruthless, condemning slaves to a terrible death for disobedience and, noting the attraction between Leo and Ustune, planning also to rid herself of her rival. Leo’s arrival will fulfil an ancient prophecy with the Englishman attaining immortality, and he seems to be able to “float through the sea of time” and remember events from two thousand years ago. However, Ayesha has a dubious past, providing one of several unexpected twists.

Most films of this sub-genre rely on improbable mumbo-jumbo and are loaded down with wearying amounts of exposition. But here is nothing but clarity, the ancient backstory tale told with minimum visuals and verbals and the intellectual sparring between Holly and Ayesha on the one hand and the archaeologist and the high priest on the other are intelligently-put, presenting opposing options for the development of civilisation, absolute monarchy vs. democracy and immutability vs. change.

But that takes place within a highly-charged drama, the enfolding romance between Ayesha and her chosen man both touching and perilous, while the battle for the life of Ustane is brilliantly presented. Lack of reliance on special effects and art direction  utilizing the MGM millions – the mountain-sized statue outside Kuma (prefiguring perhaps Game of Thrones) and the set for Ayesha’s room especially magnificent, as is her golden crown – prevents the picture falling into the camp camp. Instead, it emerges as an adventure classic.

Ursula Andress (4 for Texas, 1963) is stunning, every inch a goddess and yet believably mortal. Her looks tended to mask her abilities and while she rarely received credit for her acting she holds her own in some redoubtable company. John Richardson (Black Sunday, 1960) doesn’t quite step up and remains more a creature of adoration. But the supporting cast more than compensates. Peter Cushing (The Skull, 1965) has had a persona transplant, replacing his normal grim demeanor with fun and enthusiasm, not lacking courage where required, and delivering a very fine performance. Bernard Cribbins (Crooks in Cloisters, 1964) provides the humor. And we still have Christopher Lee (The Gorgon, 1964), filled to bursting with self-entitlement, in malevolent form, Andre Morell (The Vengeance of She, 1968) and Rosenda Monteros, scandalously under-used in films since The Magnificent Seven (1960). It’s interesting to see Cushing and Lee, who dealt with immortality in the Dracula series, engage in conflict without coming to blows.

Director Robert Day (Tarzan’s Three Challenges, 1963) keeps up a brisk pace at the same time as focusing on character and provides Hammer with a marvelous adventure template for the future.  Five features and two shorts had already been adapted from the H. Rider Haggard classic, but the last was in 1935, starring future U.S. House of Representatives member Helen Gahagan. This version presents the best shot at visual interpretation of the classic.

Catch-Up: Ursula Andress was reviewed in the Blog for 4 for Texas (1963), The Blue Max (1966) and The Southern Star (1969). Christopher Lee pictures already reviewed are: The Devil-Ship Pirates (1964), The Gorgon (1964), The Skull (1965), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Five Golden Dragons (1967) and The Curse of the Crimson Altar/The Crimson Cult (1968).

A Home of Your Own (1964) ***

The phrase “classic silent British comedy” isn’t one that naturally trips off the tongue. Add in “of the 1960s” and you can guarantee furrowed brows. Thanks to the boom in recycling Hollywood silent classics in the early 1960s – which I may come back to in a later Blog –  there was a subsequent mini-boom in what were called “wordless” pictures, as if using the term “silent” was blasphemous. The oddity is that so many emerged from Britain, primarily in shortened format – not more than one hour long – as the second feature in a double bill.

Blame for this development lay in the hands of producer and later writer and later still director Bob Kellett, Britain’s unsung comedy king.

A Home of Your Own is beautifully structured, following the mishaps in building a block of new apartments. A credit sequence covers the stultifying bureaucracy involved so that what was a pristine site at the beginning of the endeavor turns into a waterlogged dump before the first brick is laid. Sight gags and slapstick abound with mostly everyone getting in each other’s way, or not, the traditional approach of the work-shy British builder being to provide an audience for someone else to dig up a road or a trench.

No paddle goes unsplashed, mud only exists to drench people, and in pursuit of comedy gold most of building materials end up misused. The gatekeeper’s main job is to make tea and there is naturally an union official whose chief task is to obstruct.

Pick of the gags is Ronnie Barker’s laying of cement, delivered with exquisite comedy timing, followed by Bernard Cribbin’s stonemason delicately chiselling out a plaque only to discover at the end in a laugh-out-loud moment that he has misspelled one word, and the carpenter who appropriates the closest implement with which to stir his tea. Some of the jokes grow legs – the morning tea break, a ham-fisted carpenter, the pipe-smoking architect arriving in a sports car, and a patch of ground on the road outside constantly being dug up by different contractors representing water board, gas, electricity.

Once the building is complete, the job has taken long enough for the aspiring apartment-owner, a mere fiancé at the outset, to lift his wife over the threshold accompanied by three kids. Any sense of personal accomplishment – the British thirst for owning property quenched – is undercut by problems the young couple now face thanks to the shoddy workmanship we have witnessed.  

All this is accompanied by a very inventive Ron Goodwin score which provides brilliant musical cues. As a bonus, the film features a roll-call of British television comedy superstars  including Ronnie Barker (The Two Ronnies, 1971-1987), Richard Briers (The Good Life, 1975-1978) and Bill Fraser (Bootsie and Snudge, 1960-1974).  Peter Butterworth and Bernard Cribbins were Carry On alumni. Janet Brown achieved later fame as an impressionist while Tony Tanner hit Broadway as the star of Half a Sixpence before expanding his career to choreographer-director, Tony-nominated for Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

A Home of Your Own went out as the support to the Boulting Brothers’ comedy Rotten to the Core (1964) which gave a debut to Charlotte Rampling. Despite being effectively a B-film, primarily made to take advantage of the Eady Levy (a cashback guarantee for producers), it was surprisingly successful.  “Will delight arthouse patrons” commented Box Office magazine in America (“Review,” October 4, 1965, p160) as British comedy films in those days tended to end up in the arthouses. In part, this was because it was the official British entry to the Berlin Film Festival. It was distributed in the U.S. there by Cinema V in a double bill with Rotten to the Core and launched in what was misleadingly called a “world premiere engagement” at the prestigious Cinema 1 in New York.

Jay Lewis (Live Now, Pay Later, 1962) directed and co-wrote, along with Johnny Whyte, the mini-feature. Kellett continued in this enterprising vein with the 55-minute San Ferry Ann (1965) – which he wrote – about a group of British holidaymakers going abroad and the 49-minute Futtock’s End (1970) – which he directed – featuring a bunch of guests descending on an ancient country house owned by Ronnie Barker.

Television stars showcased in these two featurettes included Wilfred Bramble (Steptoe and Son, 1962-1974), Rodney Bewes (The Likely Lads, 1964-1966), Warren Mitchell (Till Death Do Us Part, 1965-1975) and Richard O’Sullivan (Man About the House, 1973-1976). Ron Moody composed the Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968) while Joan Sims and Barbara Windsor made their names in the Carry On series and theatrical knight Sir Michael Hordern appeared in Khartoum (1965) and Where Eagles Dare (1968).

Though disdained by critics, Kellett went on to become by far the most influential British comedy director of the 1970s. His output included the Frankie Howerd trilogy Up Pompeii (1971), Up the Chastity Belt (1972) and Up the Front (1972), as well as The Alf Garnett Saga (1972). He was well ahead of his time with the transgender comedy Girl Stroke Boy (1972) and female impersonator Danny La Rue in Our Miss Fred (1972).

You can find all four films in a compilation released by Network under the title Futtock’s End and Other Short Stories.  Thanks to Dolphin PR for a copy. You can catch it on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital services.