Stuff I Got For Free: King Solomon's Mines (1985)
Stuff I Got For Free is a column where I write about stuff I got in the mail for free
Welcome to the second entry in Stuff I Got For Free, the only poorly read column devoted exclusively to ensuring that Nathan Raebin gets sent a never-ending parade of awesome free stuff. For this particular entry, I will be honoring a release from Olive films, a DVD release company with uncanny insight into my psyche.
It’s as if Olive secretly performed some weird X-ray of my mind and soul and used it to determine which movies to distribute, using some weird, possibly Satanic algorithm. In this case, that weird, possibly Satanic algorithm somehow knew that my bottomless fascination with the Cannon crap factory and its charismatic maestro, Menahem Golan, made me a sucker for 1985’s King Solomon’s Mines.
The film was a product of a brief boom in old-fashioned, serial-style adventure movies following the zeitgeist-capturing success of Raiders Of The Lost Ark. Cannon opportunistically realized that there are lots of Indiana Jones-like figures in literature, perhaps none of them as famous, or as suspiciously identical to Harrison Ford’s pop icon, as Allan Quatermain, the swashbuckling adventurer created by novelist Sir Henry Rider Haggard in a series of popular and influential pulp novels.
You would imagine that an adaptation of a colonialist fantasy like Allan Quatermain would take steps to update the material for contemporary audiences by, for example, toning down the egregious racism, sexism and imperialism of the source material. King Solomon’s Mines takes a different approach. Instead of updating the film’s racial and gender politics, it instead decides to double down on the racism and imperialism.
It’s as if the filmmakers decided that that what audiences really loved about Indiana Jones movies wasn’t all the adventure and excitement and derring-do but rather a period setting full of creaky stereotypes depicting the non-Western world as a dangerous, exotic realm full of sinister brown-skinned people with ominous agendas.
Richard Chamberlain lends his fading star-power to the lead role of Allan Quatermain, an adventurer for hire who hooks up with an insufferable daughter of privilege played by Sharon Stone. Now this is a Cannon production, so the stories behind the scenes are guaranteed to be more entertaining and crazy than the often entertaining craziness onscreen.
According to b-movie lore, the future star of Basic Instinct ended up in King Solomon’s Mines, and its filmed-at-the-same-time sequel Allan Quatermain And The Lost City of Gold, because Menahem Golan angrily demanded “that Stone woman” for the female lead in his Indiana Jones knock-off.
He reportedly was referring to Kathleen Turner, star of Romancing The Stone, a much better, much more successful Indiana Jones knock-off but Turner was too busy at the time being a huge star and way out of Cannon’s price range to be available, so the production got themselves a woman named Stone, albeit not the one Golan wanted.
Stone was apparently a nightmare on the set and Chamberlain’s disdain for the actress, and not just the character she’s playing, is palpable. Stone is not much of an actress but she is one hell of a movie star. As a proudly, even bizarrely retro throwback to the days before white people were made to sometimes feel bad about their racism and colonialism, King Solomon’s Mines thankfully calls for fizzy star-power more than it calls for acting.
Stone’s character is incredibly racist in both keeping with the tenor of the times and also the film’s intense racism. When she or Alan Quatermain calls a sweaty, twitchy, sinister Arab character a “towelhead” or a “camel jockey” the movie seems ready to give them a high five rather than condemn their racism.
It’s not just the American characters and the production that are incredibly racist. The supporting characters are written and performed as racist caricatures and for double the old-timey bigotry, quite racist themselves. Herbert Lom, for example, plays Bockner, a bald-headed German Colonel with a flamboyant handle-bar mustache who looks like a cross between The Iron Sheikh (ironic, given his racism) and a pressed ham. In a beautiful illustration of the film's subtlety, the character's defining characteristic is his love of munching knockwursts and his obsession with having his beloved Wagner playing wherever he goes, no matter how remote or exotic. Bockner forms something of a double act with Dogati (John Rhys-Davies of the Indiana Jones), a slave trader perpetually exchanging racist epithets with Bockner after they form a pragmatical alliance to achieve their evil goals.
But it’s not just Arabs and Germans who are depicted as crudely stereotyped heavies out of our ugly collective racist imagination. The continent of Africa and all of its inhabitants are similarly depicted in ways that would embarrass the racists of the 40s and 50s. At one point our heroic white leads literally end up in the soup when a group of cannibals decide to boil our adventurers before serving them up to hungry villagers.
King Solomon’s Mines was directed with tongue-in-cheek élan by J. Lee Thompson, who in a happier time helmed movies like Guns Of Navorone and the original Cape Fear while continuously ripping off both Indiana Jones and the movies that inspired it. The rousing theme in particular feels only a couple of notes away from plagiarizing the Indiana Jones theme but the similarities do not end there. In fact the similarities between these two franchises (or rather one robust franchise and one wannabe franchise) end only with Indiana Jones being good and the Allan Quatermain movies being, at best, enjoyably bad.
Still, as with the first entry in this installment, I got pretty much exactly what I wanted out of it. I didn’t necessarily want or expect King Solomon’s Mines to be good. I wanted it to be bad in a way that was distinctive, and compelling, and intriguingly abhorrent. I wanted a bad movie with personality and on that level I was satisfied.
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