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.
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.
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.
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.