Quartermain and the Pit

Maybe the 1937 KING SOLOMON’S MINES is the best?

I do have a story from the 1950 version, though, courtesy of my late friend and spy in the pages of film history, Lawrie Knight. He reports that one morning, Stewart Granger was nowhere to be found on the African location. He had heard lions roaring in the night, from his tent, and jumped on the first flight back to Merrie and Lion-Free England. That is all.

The ’37 one is in part a vehicle for Paul Robeson, which means its inherent colonial racism gets softened somewhat. Also, it has more singing than any other version — no bad thing. It’s also, just as significantly, a vehicle for Roland Young, whose comedy mutterings deflate a lot of the would-be grandeur and again soften any hint of white supremacy. You just can’t make a case for that kind of beastliness if one of your prime exhibits of pallid masculinity is the daffy, tight-lipped Young.


The charm offensive is enhanced by the director’s lovely wife Anna Lee, doing what she fondly imagines is an Irish accent, and then there’s John Loder who’s inoffensive here, acting as a kind of foam wadding between the more charismatic players, and then there’s Cedric Hardwicke as Allan Quartermain, a surprising choice when you compare him to Granger or Richard Chamberlain or even Sean Connery, but quite an effective one — he has more authority than all of them, and manages to ACT the necessary ruggedness. You believe he could be a great white hunter, or possibly a gray-white hunter.

It’s interesting that director Robert Stevenson, at the far end of his long career, would wind up tackling similar boy’s-own nonsense in Disney’s ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD. And there’s a trick to this one — the impressive African locales were all shot with stand-ins by co-director Geoffrey Barkas, with the expensive cast nowhere to be seen. The only bush they went near was Shepherd’s Bush. The footage is nimbly cut together with Stevenson’s English material (studio and exterior, usually low-angles to conceal the lack of dark continent vistas) and the illusion is almost perfect — the fact that you CAN see through it just provides an amusing tickle of subconscious entertainment running parallel to the plot and character business.

The later Disney film is similarly discombobulated, but much worse, for there the two kinds of footage try to join hands through the medium of rear-screen photography, so we have poor Donald Sinden jogging on the spot in front of process shots of Norwegian lava. (I can’t recall for sure, not having seen this film since I was ten, but I strongly suspect the lava was of the miniature variety, too.)

We saw the movie on Talking Pictures TV and were glad of it. Regrettably, great fuzzy blobs of genital fogging descended upon it, despite the lack of genitals involved. Their targets were the bazooms of the native girls, proudly displayed during ritual dances or just standing around, “to swell a scene” as T.S. Eliot would put it. Gone are the days, it seems, when the National Geographic double standard held illimitable dominion over all — native girls in their native attire on their native land were deemed not obscene, by the BBFC it seems as well as by estimable ethnographic magazines consumed avidly in private by schoolboys.

Transplant those same girls to UK or US soil, and you’d have pornography. It struck me that in the original TV roots, there was nudity on the slave ship crossing the Atlantic, a rarity for TV but one considered justified by drama and historical and ethnographic concerns and political seriousness. But the breasts stopped at Plymouth Rock, or wherever it is slave ships dock. The abducted women were now Americans, and could not therefore be seen topless.

(Is it coincidence that the first female nude in mainstream American cinema is African-American, in Sidney Lumet’s THE PAWNBROKER? Was there a mental connection to National Geographic that made Thelma Oliver’s dusky chest easier to swallow? Of course the extreme seriousness of the film’s theme must have helped too, as the nudity of Oliver connects directly via the main character’s mental association to his memories of the Holocaust. Very un-sexy tragedies seem to be key to be overcoming prudish censorship.)

Things mumbled by Roland Young in KING SOLOMON’S MINES ~

“No reason for being insanitary, even in Africa.”

“Mn, ah, mm, steady, mm, naaah…”

“My only toothbrush is in that wagon.”

“And what’s left of my trousers.”


“Owh. Owwwhh.”


“I suppose we’re going to have melons today? Don’t the birds in this country ever lay eggs?”

“Seem to be a lot of people about, for an uninhabited country.”

“So unlike the home life of our dear queen.”

“Funny to think it’s Derby Day back home.”

Of a hundred-year-old witch doctor: “Would you say that she was… well-preserved?

Also: “Reminds me of my poor old Aunt Hannah… she came to no good.”

“It is too bad that just when we get to a fortune in diamonds, the mountain should decide to sit down on it.”

Also, on espying vultures circling, Young asks of Robeson, “What are those birds?”


“Must be, to live in a place like this.”

Considerable wits were involved in the screenplay — Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett, and humorist Roland Pertwee.

The South African locations and Alfred Junge sets are augmented by nifty model shots — this scene looks very LORD OF THE RINGS, and minutes later we will realise that Tolkein’s Mount Doom has a lot in common with Rider Haggard’s subterranean realm, at least as visualised here — a secret tunnel opens out onto an underground lake of lava, complete with your basic Dramatic Overhanging Precipice. Throw in an ancient treasure and The Hobbit is prefigured also… This movie came out the same year as Tolkein’s first book, so it’s unlikely to have been a direct influence, but if young John Ronald Reuel had decided to celebrate publication by taking his best girl on a hot date to see the latest Cedric Hardwicke flick, he would certainly have looked upon these scenes and said, “This is just the sort of shit I like!”


7 Responses to “Quartermain and the Pit”

  1. david wingrove Says:

    Have never seen this version but I simply adored THE ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD when I was 10. Years later, I actually met the winsome Viking heroine – who now bore an uncanny resemblance to the airship in the first few scenes!

  2. I remember liking it as a kid, but then being dismayed when I saw a few minutes on TV some years later. I also remember being very keen to see One of Our Dinosaurs is Missing, so I guess Stephenson was my first auteur…

  3. There were earlier – much earlier – nude scenes in US cinema than THE PAWNBROKER. In the 1920 Lon Chaney film THE PENALTY there is even pubic hair on a sculptor’s model.

  4. True. I was thinking of those that came along after the Breen Office got its hooks into everything.

  5. “Would it help if I showed them my legs?”

  6. bensondonald Says:

    “Island at the Top of the World” was a great visual idea — Victorian airship finds Viking kingdom at the North Pole — in search of a script. Many Disney live action films started out like their animated films: concept sketches, storyboards and even songs before a script was drafted (Ray Harryhausen and Charles Schneer took a similar approach, starting with dynamation set pieces).

    Sometimes it worked, as with “Swiss Family Robinson” and “Mary Poppins”. IATTOTW failed as a story; part one was the tycoon and airship pilot bickering as they headed for the inevitable title island, and part two was running away from the Vikings. There could have been something with the tycoon’s rebellious son — what if he refused to come home? — but nothing came of it.

    It felt like a very conscious effort to recall “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”. I suspect the ill-starred “The Black Hole” had that same movie in mind; in addition to a Nemoesque madman, an eerie android funeral is clearly modeled on the undersea burial.

    Mako, who played the agitated pidgin-talking Eskimo, went on to win a Tony Award as the star of Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures”.

    A concrete reason to regret IATTOTW’s failure is that it put the kibosh on a major, proto-steampunk expansion of Disneyland. The headline attraction would be a ride based on the movie; when the movie tanked the whole project was scuttled (although some elements were recycled at the Paris and Tokyo parks).

  7. By coincidence, I’m reading Gregory “Fletch” MacDonald’s Snatched, which has a big sequence at “Fantazyland,” an obvious but presumably non-actionable substitute for Disney’s theme park. I’m not really sure why he felt it necessary to use a fake, since, despite being a kidnap drama, the story isn’t defamatory in any way. But Disney have a lot of muscle, I guess.

    Simon, yes, I should have quoted that line too!

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