State of Andress

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Fiona and I had both had the same experience of the Hammer film SHE — as kids, we’d caught the ending on TV and been horribly fascinated by it. Watching as adults, we had relatively meagre hopes for the movie, but it proved to be solid fun. It grips from the beginning, loses its way slightly in the desert, and arrives at its climax amid plenty of drama. Roy Ashton’s makeup effects are predictably crude, but the (spoiler alert) accelerated aging of Ursula Andress’s Ayesha still has some power to disturb, especially when Andress is replaced by a genuine old lady in heavy prosthetics — the hunched posture would be impossible for an actor to mimic.

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We were watching because of the Peter Cushing Centenary Blogathon hosted by Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog. Cushing is typically fine in this, and it’s nice to see him in heroic mode, but it’s not one of his most memorable roles. He forms part of a trio of heroes a bit like the lads in GUNGA DIN, with John Richardson from ONE MILLION YEARS BC as the purportedly handsome one (Cushing is striking, which is better than being handsome) and Bernard Cribbins as the token working-class comedy relief.  Cribbins, his head a knob of gristle, ears like jug handles protruding either side, is played more grotesque than usual, I feel. He’s one of the neglected figures of British cinema (still going strong today) with roles in FRENZY, several of the CARRY ON series, and supporting roles to Peter Sellers. He also co-starred with Cushing in the awkwardly titled DALEKS’ INVASION EARTH: 2150 AD before returning to Doctor Who on TV in recent years.

Cushing’s hero was Olivier, and he aspired to his idol’s crisp delivery and athleticism — you can really see it in the climaxes of CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and DRACULA, and in his Sherlock Holmes. “We admired the precision of his movements within the frame,” said Martin Scorsese, though I take leave to doubt how many of the future filmmakers teenage pals were appreciating Cushing’s use of his body as a compositional element in those 42nd Street grindhouses of the early sixties.

Cushing’s best scene in SHE, delightfully, is played opposite Christopher Lee, as the high priest of this lost tribe of Egypt (who are all curiously white). The film, true to H. Rider Haggard’s source novel, displays a number of retrograde attitudes, with the black natives a primitive bunch easily dominated by the pale pseudo-Egyptians (though the black uprising at the end is viewed more or less with favour!), but Cushing’s scene is amusingly sexist, as he tries to understand why Lee and his cohorts allow themselves to be dictated to by a mere woman. “You are many, and men, whereas she is alone, and a woman.” He reckons without the power of Andress’s frosty stare.

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Ah, Andress. She dominates the proceedings, not by means of acting, but by an admirable refusal to contemplate anything resembling a performance. She simply impresses. Director Robert Day lets it go at that, happy to move things around her as briskly as possible, while reveling in Les Bowie’s cheap-as-chips (but charming) special effects. Andress is also dubbed, by Nikki Van der Zyl, who not only revoiced her in DR NO, but replaced Raquel Welch’s too-American cave-speak in ONE MILLION YEARS BC — meaning that in both of his most famous roles, John Richardson found himself acting with Van der Zyl.

The movie made me admire Haggard, whom I’ve never read, more than previously. If this film is even remotely accurate to the book, Haggard’s original clearly not only inspired L’Atlantide, that much-filmed piece of Saharan exotica, but also bits of Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King. Not bad going. The film’s weakest point is probably the use of Roman soldier costumes for its Egyptians. Not quite clear what the thinking was there.

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The adventure yarn is a genre Hammer dabbled in, but didn’t really pursue with the doggedness of their horror cycle. I suspect the reticence was budget-driven. A shame — the hallucinatory mess that is THE LOST CONTINENT is probably Michael Carreras’ finest achievement, and SHE is one of their most entertaining non-horror flicks.

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19 Responses to “State of Andress”

  1. Yes, you should read Rider Haggard – I read a bunch of his stuff ages ago and enjoyed all of it. He’s no Robert Louis Stevenson but he’s not a million miles away….

    It gives me great delight to see my daughter becoming a Bernard Cribbins fan via his CBeebies show Old Jack’s Boat, which also has something for the Dads in the shape of Freema Agyeman.

  2. I should probably read more Kipling first — he’s the cat’s pajamas. I’ve read lots of Stevenson of course, but there’s still plenty good stuff untouched.

    Am attempting to take a break from Wodehouse by trying The Great Gatsby. Allows me to partake of the zeitgeist without seeing a Baz Lurpak film.

  3. La Faustin Says:

    Kipling is BAGHEERA’s pajamas. He makes fantastic eerie use of the “cinematograph” in his 1904 story “Mrs Bathurst”.

  4. david wingrove Says:

    Ah, Ursula Andress! An exquisitely beautiful lady who never bothered to act…for the simple reason that she didn’t need to.

    Her looks alone were enough to power a film, and she knew it!

    Glamour of that magnitude is simply impossible today.

  5. Precisely Mr. Wingrove. Her entire life is a performance.

  6. For some reason I’ve never been attracted to reading The Jungle Book stories, and now that I think of it, I clearly should — since no adaptation makes them seem fun without utterly travestying them, obviously something special is going on.

    Matthew Barney had the right idea for how to use Andress, since any movie with her in is automatically more like an art installation than a drama.

  7. Watching Peter Sellers act opposite Andress is a bit like watching a tennis star hitting backhands against a wall — a beautifully decorated wall.

  8. Well put: “She dominates the proceedings, not by means of acting, but by an admirable refusal to contemplate anything resembling a performance. She simply impresses.” I have read a few H Rider Haggard novels and they are what I have heard referred to as ripping good yarns. It would be interesting to compare all the surviving adaptions of She. Thank you for sharing a delightful essay.

  9. Christopher Says:

    this was a popular matinee for kids at the theaters in the early 60s where I first saw it twice..Watched it again recently myself..The closest Hammer got to capturing the colors of a maria Montez ..those deep greens and golds….plays very much like a serial from the 30s and 40s.

  10. The DVD in the Hammer box set doesn’t do very well by those colours, and the aspect ratio is wrong, alas. The movie got matinees on UK TV too — though I guess they must have censored the semi-nude belly dancers at the start.

    Joe, thanks! I haven’t watched the 1930s “ice follies” version of She, but I really must. The silent seems to have some striking imagery too.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    I’ve managed to get a copy of SHE in the correct widescreen ratio – if you’re curious. It’s the closest Hammer ever came to a super-production!

    CREMASTER 5 is a masterpiece…and Ursula’s lasting memorial.

  12. I finally read Haggard’s SHE a few years ago and really enjoyed it. Saw traces of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Tolkien in there too. The 1935 Cooper/Schoedsack film is great fun (good reuse of the giant gate from KING KONG), and the 1925 silent version is surprisingly true to the book.

  13. They got their money’s worth out of that gate! Even its incineration paid dividends, in Gone with the Wind.

    David W, an upgrade of She would be lovely.

  14. a)”The film, true to H. Rider Haggard’s source novel, displays a number of retrograde attitudes”…

    b) … “The movie made me admire Haggard, whom I’ve never read, more than previously.”

    But but but… if you’ve never read Haggard… how can you be so sure of its faithfulness to the novel, or the novel’s ‘attitudes’? And how do you admire a writer you’ve never read?

    I have no intention of being smartarse or snarky, I do in all seriousness find these 2 statements confusingly contradictory.

    Anyway, I too recommend Haggard, and She is a cracking read. But King Solomon’s Mines isn’t. Nor its sequel Allan Quartermain; the amount of animal slaughter, clearly quite admirable as far as Rider Haggard is concerned, made those 2 books (for me at least) queasily unpleasant and ultimately off-putting to the point of unreadability. Prime examples of what Alan Bennett so memorably designated the ‘snobbery with violence’ genre.

  15. You’re quite right to ask. I’m guilty of speculating as to what Haggard must be like — here’s what I based my speculations on –

    It might have been that Haggard treated his African natives with respect, but this struck me as improbable based on the fact that King Solomon’s Mines was inspired by a popular Victorian belief that archaeological finds in Africa were “too sophisticated” to be the work of the local population, and so there must have been other races present. Since Haggard bought into this myth, I figured the racial attitudes displayed in Hammer’s SHE were fairly close to his own (Hammer were pretty reactionary in most things, too). But I was really guessing.

    Checking Wikipedia’s plot synopsis, I see that screenwriter David Chantler made major changes and simplifications. I hadn’t though Hammer could do such a good job — but Chantler did co-write the excellent Cash on Demand, so he was pretty on the ball.

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