Thursday, December 10, 2015

ALLAN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD (1987)



PHENOMENALITY: *uncanny*
MYTHICITY: *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *sociological*

1985's KING SOLOMON'S MINES, the first entry in this two-film series, strayed quite far from the titular source-novel, unlike this more accurate 1937 adaptation. Yet I recall that the 1985 effort was at least "dumb fun" of the kind for which producers Golan and Globus became infamous.

ALLAN (whose full tite I won't deign to type more than once) is based on Rider Haggard's second-published novel, entitled simply ALLAN QUATERMAIN. I've not read this novel, but it does deal with a "lost city" of white people in Africa, as does the movie, though as thousands before me have written, the primary inspiration is the Indiana Jones film-franchise. I would not be surprised to learn that the white people of the novel, like those of the movie, ride herd on the local Black Africans, since Haggard used the same trope in his very next novel, SHE. I find it interesting that, as the still above shows, some of the black henchmen wear white hoods. This visual trope also appears in the 1937 film-adaptation of Haggard's first Quatermain book. Perhaps some scripter picked up the trope from that source and stuck it into the ALLAN screenplay simply because both films in the series were shot back-to-back.

To be sure, the only major action by one of the white-masked black guys takes place at the opening. Quatermain (Richard Chamberlain) is scheduled to depart from his beloved Africa for America, where he's to wed his spunky girlfriend from the first film, Jesse (Sharon Stone, who was apparently told to imitate the scream-happy female lead from the second Indiana Jones flick rather than Karen Allen in the first one). A half-dead explorer makes his way to Quatermain's door. This proves of intense interest to the hero because Quatermain's brother Robeson (named for one of the stars of the '37 film?) took part in the explorer's expedition to the legendary City of Gold. Though the explorer dies a little while later, he's managed to stay ahead of a white-masked assassin from Gold City, who's apparently been trying to make sure the explorer didn't tell nobody nothing. The henchman fights Quatermain and dies in a fall, so the hero decides that he can put off his marriage to his obnoxious intended and go looking for his brother.  After running off in a snit, Jesse later joins Quatermain's expedition, as do comic-relief Indian named Swarma (Robert Donner), fierce Zulu chief Umslopagus (James Earl Jones), and a handful of Black African red-shirts.

Though in the 1980s ALLAN was attacked for its use of colonialist-- and presumably racist-- elements, no Black African character gets treated as badly as the film's sole Indian character. While one may fairly expect comic-relief characters to be stupid, cowardly and greedy, Swarma isn't even moderately interesting as a character, like "Beni" from the 1999 MUMMY film; he's just a walking collection of cliches. Haggard's Zulu character Umslopagus is a different matter. He's arguably the first important Black African literary character to emerge from European fiction, and starred in his own Haggard-novel, the 1892 NADA THE LILY. James Earl Jones certainly had the moxie to render a high-quality version of the character. Unfortunately, the script gives Jones nothing but hackneyed lines and routine action-scenes. Later, when the expedition reaches the City of Gold, the Zulu does get to split a stone table with his massive axe, but that's his best scene in the film.

The expedition makes an extremely swift journey to the City, delayed only by a weird corridor that's been gimmicked-up to drop visitors into a chasm (this was the script's feeble attempt to emulate the suspenseful cave-exploration in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK). John Stanley's concordance claims that the explorers also meet "snake monsters," but I think these were meant to be naturalistic creatures; they're just represented by crummy-looking visual effects. Once the expedition reaches the City of Gold, Quartermain happily finds his brother, but he also learns that his brother's a threat to the sacrificial cult of high-priest "Agon" (a name with a Greek resonance, though no one else shares a Hellenic cognomen). Agon also has his own favorite "outre device:" a device he uses to dip his sacrificial victims into a lake of liquid gold.  He's horribly played by Henry Silva, who looks like he can't wait for his scenes to be done, and he receives assistance in his evil from Queen Sorias (Cassandra Peterson, who gets no lines in the film). There's also a good blonde queen to balance out the evil brunette one, but the audience doesn't get any backstory on the two queens, the provenance of the white colony in Africa, or how they came to worship lions (in the book, it's hippopotami). Agon enlists the traitorous Swarma to help him get rid of Quatermain and friends, all of which leads to a big, generally underwhelming battle-scene and the inevitable victory of the good guys.

One phenomenon at the climax comes close to evoking the supernatural. While a storm rages overhead, Quatermain, surrounded by Agon's men, climbs atop a giant lion's head statue made of gold, and then gets Umslopagus to toss him the big axe. Somehow the hero's hitting the lion's head draws the lightning from the storm overhead, and the energy-- represented as animated force-lines-- causes the statue-head to spew molten gold down upon the soldiers. Why Quatermain isn't electrocuted by all of this energy goes unexplained-- but the phenomenon seems to fall into the uncanny domain, specifically that of "exotic lands and customs."

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