H. Rider Haggard's 1886 novel "She" is a marvelous example of the Ripping Yarn. It's a novel whose strength relies on the author's ability to craft a thoroughly convincing imaginary world complete with historical underpinnings and a sense of consistency that make the story's long digressions into the anthropology of its made-up universe as enjoyable as its action scenes. "She" tells the tale of Ayesha, who rules the lost African kingdom of Kor using the power and skills she's amassed over the millenia of her unending life. This cruel queen, known as She Who Must Be Obeyed to those who serve her, is vulnerable--she is pining for her lost love, the Greek Kalikrates who she murdered in a blind fit of jealousy 2,000 years before the time of the story. Enter English adventurer Leo Vincey, handsome descendant of Kalikrates, who has inherited a mysterious pottery fragment that tells the tale of Ayesha. Leo and his adoptive father Horace Holly travel to Africa to track down the truth behind this legend, only to meet Ayesha face-to-face. Confronted by a man she believes to be the reincarnation of her lost love, Ayesha sets about winning Leo's heart.
The beauty of the novel is in its subtleties--it's not a clear-cut story about female evil. Themes of mortality, the nature of love, gender roles, colonialism and even some discussion on the definition of "being human" combine to create a surprisingly rich narrative that has a lot more ambiguity than one might expect from a Victorian adventure story.
With this in mind, I knew that any film adaptation would, by its very nature, fail to live up to the epic scope of the source novel. Ninety minutes is only enough time to cover a portion of the story. The 1935 film adaptation of "She" leaves out much of the texture of the novel and takes some Hard Lefts before settling into a pretty-satisfying final half. The missteps start early--this film inexplicably relocates Kor from Africa to the Arctic, removing the exciting shipwreck that strands Leo and Holly, forcing them to forge into the unknown jungle. The fact that Kor is magically tropical, residing in a ring of volcanoes, is admittedly a neat touch, though. The story significantly tones down the undercurrent of misogyny and suspicion of female intelligence, substituting some treacly stuff about the power of true love in its place (seriously--it's worth turning this off BEFORE the coda about "the true fire of the heart is at home"--*barf*).
The creepy touches of the cadaver torches, necrophilic foot worship, and the charnel house nature of Kor are absent, although the Egyptianate attire of the denizens of the ancient city alludes to this culture of death. Perhaps the most inexcusable of the creative choices in this film is the fact that the 2,000 time span between Ayesha's murder of her lover and the present time is reduced to a mere 500 years, and instead of an ancient Greek, the love of Ayesha's life is an Englishman. By compressing the span of time, it eliminates some of the impact when Ayesha encounters Leo.
These plot differences only really rankle in the context of the source novel, and this is a fun adventure flick that plays a little like a mash-up of "King Kong" and "The Mummy," even if it's a little scantier on a thematic level than either of those films. With the exception of Ayesha, the characters are fairly one-dimensional. Randolph Scott as Leo Vincey is a brainless lug whose occasional lapses into an antiquated Brooklyn accent caused some giggles, and native love interest Ustane is replaced by Tanya Dugmore, very Anglo daughter of opportunistic and also-very-Anglo Arctic dweller Dugmore. Holly is a pip-pip-what-what Britisher rather than the homely, reluctant misogynist of the novel, and is set up here as a Watson-ish sidekick. The Amahagger who serve Ayesha are portrayed as stereotypical old-timey cavemen that reminded me quite a bit of the boogeymen from "Babes in Toyland" (a film that occasioned no small measure of nightmares in Wee Me). Ayesha is played as a tragic figure as well as an imposing one, ruling through fear and holding fast to her authority, if without the sense of magic that infuses her character in the book. As might be surmised from the title of the film, this is HER show, and she is undoubtedly the most interesting screen presence. Her grand vizier, Bilali, is played with GREAT AWESOMENESS by Julius Adler, whose Yiddish accent and eyebrow-arching facial expressions provide the best character-actor performance in the film.
Once the protagonists encounter the Amahagger at about 30 minutes in, the film gets on its track. Make no mistake--the real star of the movie is the gorgeous Art Deco mise en scene. Everything is DRAMATIC in the halls of Kor, from Ayesha's first appearance through a sheet of smoke to the giant size of the doors, portals and impossibly titanic staircases. The Egyptian- and Aztec-inspired clothing of the residents of Kor, from the bird-headed helmets of the temple guards to the columnar gowns worn by the serving girls, provides a consistency of vision that's a delight to behold. The highlight of the film occurs at the climax with an astonishingly extravagant procession of priests and musicians that lasts for almost 10 minutes of screen time, including metal-masked celebrants, formalized "native" dancing and positively Suess-ical instrument design.
As an example of ambitious set and costume design, "She" certainly delivers a wonderful viewing experience, but comparisons to the source novel as well as to other films of the Art Deco period ultimately bring it up a bit short.