H. Rider Haggard, today a faded but still legible name on the scroll of beloved fantastical writers, was a hugely successful author in his day, a writer of no great style who nonetheless had such commercial and creative reach he can only be compared to a combination of Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, and Joss Whedon today. His works like King Solomon’s Mines are perennials that helped define the popular culture at the turn of the twentieth century, and She: A History of Adventure still rides high on the list of all-time biggest selling works of fiction. Movie impresario Merian C. Cooper, fresh off his own colossal, zeitgeist-defining hit King Kong (1933), chose She as a follow-up, whilst his partner in filmmaking and globetrotting Ernest B. Schoedsack branched off to make The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). The attraction of the material for Cooper is obvious, as She offers the same précis as Kong: adventure into unknown quarters, encounters with isolated barbarian cultures, and an ultimate confrontation with a bizarre and powerful force of super-nature that stands as metaphor for the simultaneous stature and fragility of the life force, whilst also invoking weird erotic dimensions. She was not another success for Cooper and RKO, and in fact lost a chunk of change on initial release, a failure blamed mostly on the casting of Helen Gahagan, stage actress and opera singer, in the vital title role, resulting in a one-time-only movie career. She was thought lost for a time, perhaps because Gahagan had tried to buy up all the copies when she made a run for Congress.
A print was eventually located in Buster Keaton’s movie collection, and since then has occasionally been celebrated as a camp-schlock classic in a manner similar to Robert Siodmak’s Cobra Woman (1944), which itself filches Haggard’s tales. Haggard wrote five novels about Ayesha, or “She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed,” a woman blessed with immortality and mystical powers after bathing in a mysterious flame of life, including one where she meets up with Haggard’s other great character, Allan Quatermain. This adaptation, co-written like Kong by Schoedsack’s wife Ruth Rose, follows the first book closely but combined elements from some of the follow-ups, chiefly to create a solid romantic rivalry. She is not, as some would have it, a bad film; it’s an entertaining, occasionally striking, ungainly achievement, with problems that chiefly stem from an incapacity to translate the source material into effective cinema as well as casting. The film starts with Leo Vincey (Randolph Scott), an American offshoot of a well-heeled English clan, called over the pond to visit his dying grandfather John (Samuel S. Hinds). Leo is fascinated by his close resemblance to one of his ancestors, another John Vincey, whose portrait hangs above the fireplace. His grandfather explains this John’s special place in family history as a great explorer who, along with his wife, ventured into the frigid wastes of Siberia and did not return. His wife turned up years later in Poland, wretched and dying, clutching a golden relic depicting a woman standing in fire. Grandfather John, with his friend archaeologist Horace Holly, entrusts Leo with the mission of retracing his ancestor’s mission, to see if the myth the relic encodes, of a flame of eternal life-giving properties, really exists, in the hope the elderly man can stave off death.
Leo and Holly travel together up to the Arctic fringes, and, unable to find anyone willing to cart their gear north, cut a deal with frontier supplier and guide Dugmore (Lumsden Hare) to let him come along if he arranges for porters, as he assumes, on seeing the relic, that they’re after gold. Dugmore drags his naïve, convent-edcuated daughter Tania (Helen Mack) along to perform servile duties. After weeks trekking through frozen wastes, the party reaches a huge glacial barrier, and find preserved in the ice both of one John Vincey’s men and the huge beast – a sabre-tooth tiger – that attacked him, confirming one vital aspect of John’s wife’s account. But Dugmore starts an avalanche with his blundering that destroys the passage down from the glacier, and kills Dugmore and most of the party, leaving Leo, Tania, and Holly to survive alone. They penetrate a cave system under the ice and encounter a primitive people who propose to make them part of a sacrificial rite, but the intervention of seemingly more civilised people under the command of chamberlain Billali (Gustav von Seyffertitz) saves their hides.
All of this is good fun, whilst building a sense of impending mysteries and exploits with impeccable pacing and good special effects and photography, surpassing Kong’s early scenes. The intended sacrifice of the interlopers by the gruesome tribe sees the savages proposing to lower a red-hot helmet on their heads, a memorably nasty notion that looks forward to the transference-rich Sadean fantasies of The Naked Prey (1966) but also working an anthropological idea, that the oppressed gatekeepers of Kor mimic the religion of the higher civilisation but without its pretences. The novel’s imperialist-era, racially suspect understanding of what civilisation can be defined as permeates, so the revision of Haggard’s novel from an African setting might have been worked for the sake of slightly more credulity with the Siberian setting still a largely mysterious place to the average American audience of the time, and also to make this stuff less specific and irksome, in a similar manner to what Cooper did with King Kong in deliberately creating an artificial culture to libel. Cooper and Schoedsack, as documentary filmmakers, had made cinema and sold their work by offering through it a spirit of adventure they readily embodied. Rose’s status as the secret auteur of their films suggested by King Kong as a burlesque on her relationship with the two huckster-swashbucklers, is apparent here too, as Tania, like Mack’s previous character in Son of Kong (1933), is the plucky waif who’s unfazed by following her love into killing zones of climate and refuses to back down morally in the face of omnipresent power. The surviving trio are brought before Ayesha, the all-powerful god-queen of Kor, who, as a believer in reincarnation, has been waiting for centuries for the return of her singular love, John Vincey, in whatever form he might come in. Leo’s resemblance signals to her that her demi-millennial dream is fulfilled. But Ayesha correctly senses that Tania, like John’s wife, represents an attachment she must strike down or be foiled by.
Once She reaches the inner sanctums of Ayesha, the film stalls, however. She was codirected by actor-director Irving Pichel, who had also split helming duties with Schoedsack on The Most Dangerous Game (1932), and here worked with Lansing C. Holden, an air force buddy of Cooper’s who probably contributed to the film mostly in a design capacity, with his touch apparent in the film's many dramatic, frieze-like vistas. The duo created a memorable fantasy city in Kor, with its towering statues, guttering pyres, drenching shadows, and monstrous blend of cyclopean antiquity with art-deco apparent in the outsized architecture, accomplished on a scale that would have made Cecil B. DeMille envious. Ayesha’s first appearance is well-staged, glimpsed at the top of a giant flight of stairs, speaking from behind a vaporous curtain with stentorian yet ethereal authority, and then bursting out into the open as she realises that her singular fixation has come true. Gahagan’s chilly presence actually suits Ayesha to a certain extent, as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed is defined by a blend of imperious entitlement and anguished neediness, with a fatal tunnel vision that craves her lover but can only use the apparatus of power to answer her needs: she appeals to Leo to awaken the dormant spirit she imagines in him, but ultimately can only bully, not attract. She interestingly represents a partial inversion of the compelling theme of satyr sexuality glimpsed in both King Kong and The Most Dangerous Game, as it deals with the monstrous side of the feminine rather than masculine. Leo is briefly awestruck by Ayesha’s zealous romanticism and aura of holy power, reducing him to masculine fetish object, leaving it to Tania to resist her regime, scuttling through the halls of Kor’s palace and defying guards human and numinous to reach Leo and give Ayesha what-for. But Tania, through the jealous Billial’s connivance with Ayesha, is trussed up in S&M-accented fashion complete with silk gag and draped veil, to be sacrificed at a Kor religious ceremony, and the film lurches closer to John Willie territory.
The trouble is that all of this makes for rather static drama, like some mutant version of one of those Women’s Pictures where Joan Crawford can’t get a man because she likes wielding an iron hand in the boardroom too much, but without the gloss of by-play one of those would have. The fantasy plays on that universal wish for immortality, and the more specific, presumed feminine fear of loss of the power of desirability: diva wilfulness unbound by time and scruple. Gahagan, although often fetchingly attired to become an icon of stylised female power (to the extent that Disney modelled the evil queen of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1938, on her), lacks charisma and erotic presence. Her version of regal hauteur and pagan sadism is a breathy American patrician brand, like Margaret Dumont in a trimmer package. Scott is a bit of a cold fish here too, although his familiar ability to inhabit upright masculinity without seeming pompous is apparent. The dance of sensual enticement and abhorrence that is supposed to define their relationship therefore just never lights up, whilst Mack isn’t much of a romantic alternative either, all chirpy lines deliveries and girlish eyes. Tellingly, Ursula Andress’ presence in the 1965 Hammer version helped make that film a hit for its studio: Andress perfectly embodied the kind of warrior-queen image that had inspired a close artistic relative to Haggard’s creation, Klimt’s painting of Pallas-Athena, all haughty domme chic and classical Teutonic features. Like many films embraced as camp (e.g. Devil Girl from Mars, 1954), She beholds the notion of gynocracy, the rule of women, with a mixture fetishism and weak-kneed, ultimately punitive uncertainty.
The film also cuts much of Haggard’s mythology, which grew ever-denser and weirder in his sequels, presenting the possibility of a pseudo-science fiction explanation for the flame of life as well as a supernatural one. Revelation of Ayesha’s epoch-spanning memory is limited to a wistful recollection of an encounter with an early Christian – possible Jesus himself – who preached a pacific creed She doesn’t ascribe to, overseeing as she does pagan sacrifices and brutal executions because, it's suggested, they satisfy her unchecked egotism as the holder of the power of life and death. Holding back on the richness of Haggard’s creation whilst failing to capture the obsessive, mythical romanticism that’s supposed to drive the tale means that She leaves itself without much to do in its middle third. A further hunk of the film’s running time is devoted to the entirely extraneous yet mesmerically staged ritual preceding Tania’s intended execution, the ultimate suggestion of which seems to be that Kor was actually founded by a lost troupe of the Ballet Russes. Rectilinear framings of dancers attired in costumes and settings recall Fritz Lang’s cubist-medievalism in Die Spinnen (1919) and Die Nibelungen (1924), and also DeMille’s similarly shot dances in Madam Satan (1930), another film that wrestled with the spectre of female independence. Indeed, I suspect that between this and The Last Days of Pompeii, Cooper and Schoedsack were making an overt play to capture DeMille's crown as king of spectacle. But there's an interesting quality of cultural smudging recorded in such imagery, blending modernism's refined sense of form and function with the tropes of a host of classical cultures from Greek to Balinese, silently asking questions about the nature of power and gender in a world quickly losing its traditions in regard to both.
She remains visually impressive all the way through, from the vision of the frozen smilodon to the colossi in Kor's temple described by guttering firelight, mere humans dwarfed at their carved toes. When finally action does break out again, as Leo realises Tania is veiled victim under a priest’s knife, She kicks back to life for a strong finale, as extras skip out of the way of spilling, burning oil and Nigel Bruce springs in the fray to sock the high priest, a sight any movie fan must surely savour. She badly lacks such derring-do, but there’s one great sequence as the escaping trio leap over a chasm onto a balanced rock on the far side, and then push the rock off its perch along with several pursuing guards, all depicted in deadpan long shot with a clever blend of FX elements. At its best She does capture the fervent strangeness of Haggard’s world-creating and mysticism, particularly in the very climax when Leo, Tania, and Holly finally enter the abode of the flame of life, viewed as a spuming vortex of white amidst strangely geometric stonework. Ayesha ventures again into the flame of life to assure Leo of its safety, only to be steadily transformed into a withered crone, whether because she overexposed herself to the flame’s life-giving properties or tempted fate too often with her hubris, recounting her mantra of triumph over the pettiness of Tania’s mortal beauty even as hers disintegrates. Unlikely to be endorsed by L’Oreal.