I first saw Hammer’s adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s adventure novel She on broadcast television, in black-and-white. It intrigued me enough to track down the novel, but only a few pages were enough to be clear it wasn’t for me. I nonetheless remembered the idea had enough visual potential as a kind of lapidary mirage to warrant watching the film again in color and widescreen, however limited my memory of the film.
Haggard’s story is clearly an antique, with action, characters and attitudes so retrograde that their otherworldly feel has less to do with the author’s fantasy about the “lost world” of Kuma than the reality of past popular culture. The resulting film is practically an act of archaeology itself, or perhaps like a Model T on the freeway. It can exercise momentary fascination, but it isn’t long before you wish it out of the way.
Leo Vincey (John Richardson) is a decommissioned British soldier in Palestine after the end of World War I, hanging out aimlessly with Professor Holly (Peter Cushing) and their orderly Job (Bernard Cribbins). Leo is apparently the spitting image of Kallikrates, an ancient Egyptian murdered by Ayesha (Ursula Andress). The immortal Ayesha longs to be reunited with Kallikrates, but before accepting Leo as the reincarnation of her lost love, she submits him to a series of tests to prove his mettle.
While the tests on the way to Kuma are decidedly routine, the implicit pornographic fantasy is much more successful. In their Aryan perfection, Andress and Richardson are absurdly qualified to arouse (literally flaming) masturbatory excitement (though the pretense that either is Egyptian is risible). Neither have to act; they just have to excite the lust in the viewer they presumably feel for each other. This being a 1960s mainstream feature, however, things don’t go too far, and in any event, it is one of the disadvantages of the story that Ayesha (“she who must be obeyed”) is almost untouchable.
Instead, the eroticism is displaced on to a sweaty, sadomasochistic rendition of the adventure, with people being tortured, thrown into smoldering pits and skewered like kabobs in order to delay Leo and Ayesha’s consummation as long as possible. Normally that would provide time to appreciate the Hammer designers’ imaginative fantasy world, but while the technicians make the best with limited resources, they inevitably fall a little short. It is one thing to suggest the dark horrors of Dracula’s castle with bargain basement resources. It’s quite another to recreate an entire civilization.
The visual disappointment may result from a limited budget, but nothing in the film quite delivers on the lascivious promise. The adventure is weak, the sex is necessarily constrained and even with the help of the irrepressible Christopher Lee as Ayesha’s factotum, Billali, the dramatic conflict feels distended and contrived. Perhaps Haggard’s little boy Victorian fantasies seem more appropriate for the movies than they are. We can only hope.