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.

Selling Ursula Andress – The Pressbook for “She” (1965)

Dr No (1962) had only enjoyed moderate success in the United States so it was far from given that Ursula Andress meant much to American audiences. The first Bond outing had finished 43rd in the annual box office rankings and Andress had not exactly swept Elvis Presley off his feet in her only Hollywood offering so far, Fun in Acapulco. However, she was the immediate beneficiary of one of the most extraordinary pieces of luck to fall to a barely-known star.

The gargantuan success of Goldfinger (1964) had sent studio United Artists back to the vaults to resurrect the first two films in the Bond series and put them out in a double bill – the first of many such Bond pairings – in April 1965, a couple of months before She hit the big screen in the U.S. Dr No/From Russia with Love was a record-breaking sensation, attracting three times the numbers that had attended the first release of Dr No.  So outstanding a performer was the double bill that it hit number five on the annual box office chart.   So by the time She was launched Ursula Andress’s iconic bikini-clad entrance in Dr No was fresh in audience memories.

MGM, the U.S. distributor of the Hammer picture, had wisely not counted on the unexpected resurrection of Dr No and had a stack of other promotional wheezes up its sleeve. The 12-page A3 Pressbook kicked off with a “phone stunt” whereby exhibitors would set up a message on a telephone line purportedly from “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed.”  The statuesque figure of Ursula Andress in figure-clinging costume was a natural for a standee in a cinema lobby as was the setting up of an artificial flame.

There were any number of ideas for competitions held in conjunction with a radio station or local newspaper: famous women who had ended up as film titles – Cleopatra and so on; famous female rulers; or a list of “love goddesses” to whose ranks it was decreed Andress deserved a place – in posters MGM had no hesitation is calling the actress “the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Journalists were to be hooked into running editorial pieces by a variety of interesting facts that could be cobbled together for an interesting article. The luxurious furs used to decorate the queen’s inner sanctum had been insured for $300,000. Andress had worn a total of nine gowns, designed by Cal Tomms, but none weighed more than a few pounds, the gossamer-like material both free-flowing and clinging to her natural assets. The crown weighed 3lb, a heavy object to carry around on your head for a week, as Andress had. Her cloak contained 3,000 feathers. No doubles were used for the duel between John Richardson and Christopher Lee, both being accomplished swordsmen.

There were human interest items as well. Both Andress and Richardson had previously signed contracts with major studios without ever being given any roles. Andress, shy in real life, had learned to claim to be someone lese when approached by fans.  Filming Dr No, she was grateful it was shot in Jamaica: “I didn’t want anyone to see what a fool I might be making of myself,” she said.

However, she was certainly self-assured in general. Interviewed exclusively for the Pressbook, she said, “Beauty gets you everywhere. It is a gate opener. It takes a long time to discover a good mind, but a beautiful woman attracts attention right away. Only stupid people think that a woman who is attractive must be silly.”

She added: “I will give you a list of the qualities that are most important for a woman – emotional range, beauty, intelligence, education and talent. Emotions are the most important, the ability to feel and love. Beauty next, and intelligence after that. Education is less important than intelligence because if you have the latter you’ll acquire education.

“I have never made a study of acting,” she explained. “I just do it if and when I feel like it. I have no desire to work on the stage and what I do in front of the camera is instinctive and spontaneous. My best takes are the first. Repetition distracts from the quality of my performance. Ayesha in She was a difficult part because this mysterious queen is 2,000 years old  and I had to be very stylized.”

Andress was central to the advertising campaign and although there were a number of different adverts, the actress featured in all, the only difference being her position on the poster, left, right or central. “She had waited 2,000 years waiting for her lover to be reborn – the lover she had slain by her own hand.” To whet audience appetite, a variety of scenes were included at the foot of some posters. 

To grab the attention of the exhibitor, and ensure full cooperation in selling the picture, MGM was offering a treasure chest of rewards for the best local campaign – a total of $10,000 in prize money. To gain additional publicity there was a single record and, more important, a new tie-in edition of the famed novel by H. Rider Haggard, which had already sold 20 million copies in America.

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).