She (1965) She (1965) **˝

     If you look at cases where an original work in one medium has been adapted repeatedly into another, you’ll notice a tendency for each successive adaptation to draw at least as much on the one before it as on the source material itself. I call the phenomenon “adaptation drift,” although I can no longer remember whether I got the term from somewhere, or whether it was something I thought up on my own. The example that springs most immediately to mind occurs across the several Jekyll-and-Hyde movies made between 1920 and 1941. Rather than starting from scratch with Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella, the Frederic March Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is quite specifically a remake of the John Barrymore version, while the Spencer Tracy version is quite specifically a remake of the Frederic March. I’m sure you can think of plenty of similar situations. The commonness of adaptation drift is such that the case of Hammer Film Productions stands out glaringly. Few studios have ever been more remake-prone, but few remakes have ever exhibited less adaptation drift. Hammer’s interpretations of previously filmed properties like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were rarely anything like faithful, but neither did they owe much to any previous adaptations. The studio got into the habit for legal reasons, seeking to avoid entanglements with Universal over The Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, but they mostly kept it up even after that ceased to be an issue. Hammer’s version of She is one of the later examples. Although it diverges at least as far from H. Rider Haggard’s novel as the RKO movie from 1935, it does so in completely different directions. Hammer’s She returns the setting to Africa and ditches the sci-fi reading of the flame of immortality, but it makes Ayesha herself the driver of the story rather than some ancestor of ostensible hero Leo Vincey. It also turns the whole scenario into an explicit cautionary tale about being seduced by absolute power, and delivers what sure does look like a subtextual critique of the colonialist mindset that animated both the novel and most of the previous film interpretations.

     Egypt, 1918. Newly demobilized British Army officers Horace Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson, from Battle of the Stars and Cosmos: War of the Planets) have been a bit at loose ends since the armistice put a stop to the Great War a few weeks ago. Right now, they’re knocking around the collapsing husk of the Ottoman Empire with Holly’s adjutant-turned-valet, Job (Bernard Cribbens, of Frenzy and Daleks’ Invasion Earth, 2150 A.D.), trying to stave off boredom while figuring out what to do with themselves in the absence of daily threats to life and limb. One night in Cairo, while partaking of the most un-halal entertainments on offer at a certain seedy establishment, Vincey notices and is noticed in turn by a gorgeous Arab girl who will later identify herself as Ustane (Rosenda Montero, from Eve and The Skeleton of Mrs. Morales). Ustane’s chaperone— who, you’ll observe, took an interest in Vincey before his companion, and indeed before Leo spotted the girl— unaccountably wanders off to leave her alone, at which point the dashing young officer makes his move. He doesn’t think to question his luck even when Ustane agrees to leave the tavern with him, despite everything experience should have taught him by now about Islamic social and sexual norms, and thus it is that Vincey suffers the fate of all great suckers. The guy who was with Ustane before emerges quietly from a dark alley behind the couple, and socks Leo upside the head.

     Vincey awakens, rather to his surprise, in the inner court of a luxurious house, under guard by several big, scary black guys. Neither Ustane nor her chaperone are anywhere to be seen. Instead, Leo is greeted by a radiantly beautiful blonde (Ursula Andress, from The 10th Victim and The Sensuous Nurse) garbed in something like the fashion of Ptolemaic Egypt, who introduces herself as Ayesha. She seems to expect Leo to recognize her, but he’s certain he’s never laid eyes on the girl in his life. In response, Ayesha blathers a lot of unintelligible gibberish about destiny and the centuries and who knows what, but it’s only when she mentions wealth and power that Vincey really starts paying attention. Hey— he’s a British military officer in Africa, in 1918. The only thing his sort likes more than wealth and power is a stupidly dangerous adventure, and that’s the next thing Ayesha mentions. It seems she wants him to undertake a perilous journey south across the Sahara to her country, where she will wait to greet him with open arms (and open legs, too, if I’m reading her right). The trip itself is a test of sorts, so Ayesha won’t actually tell him where he’s supposed to go. She just hands him a decidedly unhelpful-looking map and a gold ring inscribed with the seal of the ancient priesthood of Isis, then sends him on his way. That’s when a towering man of non-specifically Semitic dress and appearance (Christopher Lee) emerges from one of the adjoining rooms. This guy was the architect of Leo’s kidnapping, which he apparently staged because Vincey looks just like someone of considerable importance— sufficient importance, anyway, to have gold medallions struck with his likeness on them. The Semite— Billali is his name— has spent years searching for such a lookalike at Ayesha’s direction, but it isn’t yet apparent what either one really wants with him.

     Holly, upon hearing Leo’s story and examining Ayesha’s ring, connects the whole strange business with legends he’s heard about a lost city somewhere beyond the desert. He never took the tales very seriously before, but Vincey’s experiences this evening are enough to make the older man wonder if maybe the fabled civilization could still be a going concern. Meanwhile, the completeness with which Ayesha and Billali have vanished by the time Leo leads his companions to the house where he was taken only makes the mystery more tantalizing. The men were looking for excitement and occupation now that they’re out of the Jerry-killing business, right? So why not hunt up this curious woman and her hidden land?

     Well, maybe because the route there is both vaguely delineated and lethally perilous, or because somebody keeps sneaking up on the adventurers’ campsites overnight to steal exactly the thing whose absence will most complicate the next leg of the journey. That would certainly suffice to deter me. On the other hand, those very factors soon place Vincey and company beyond the point of no return, so that it’s get where they’re going or die. They almost take the second option, too, but they’re bailed out at the last minute by Ustane, who was moved to intervene because she wasn’t just faking her attraction to Leo before. A funny thing, though. Upon rescuing the travelers on the very threshold of their destination, Ustane urges them to go back where they came from, and forget about the whole thing. Job is the only one who even considers taking her advice, but that might just make him the smart one here.

     I think it’s high time we learned what’s really going on, don’t you? Ayesha, Billali, and Ustane do indeed hail from a forgotten civilization, which has been chugging along in a comfortable iron age rut for about 2500 years, taking only slightly more notice of the outside world than the outside world has taken of it. In fact, Ayesha is the ruler of this ultimate hermit kingdom, and Billali is her grand vizier. Ustane is a person of minor prominence as well, for her father, Haumeid (Andre Morell, from The Giant Behemoth and The Shadow of the Cat), is the overseer of the Amahagger, a savage and primitive tribe that lives in vassalage to Ayesha’s domain. The latter gig is sort of an honor and a punishment simultaneously, because it’s a miserable, socially sullying job that nevertheless confers considerable power and authority; Haumeid got it as the result of his part in a conspiracy against Ayesha many years ago. If the place looks vaguely Egyptian to you, there’s a very good reason. The founders of the kingdom were refugees from the Ptolemy pharaohs, led by a renegade priest of Isis called Kalikrates— which explains that ring Ayesha gave Leo. Kalikrates was also the Vincey doppelganger whose face adorns Billali’s medal. All those ages ago, he was murdered by his lover, who caught him dallying with another woman. And the perpetrator of that crime of passion? That would be Ayesha.

     Vincey doesn’t believe it at first either, but then Ayesha casts a spell on him to dredge up memories from his past lives, and damned if it isn’t just as she says. That brings us to the greatest secret of Ayesha’s domain, a perpetual fire that burns cold when the astronomical conditions are just right. Exposure to those chill flames confers eternal life, and Ayesha availed herself of that strange property soon after murdering Kalikrates. She was certain that he would be reincarnated one day, you see, and she was hell-bent on sticking around to catch his return, however long it took. But because good things very often don’t come to those who merely wait, Ayesha decided to take a more proactive approach during the present generation. The night of the cold fire is coming up again soon, and it was Ayesha’s hope that the reborn Kalikrates would join her in immortality. Thus she and Billali went looking for him, which is about where we came in.

     Obviously that’s rather a lot to spring on a guy you only just met. Leo had his hands full simply pondering the implications of getting to bang Ursula Andress; he hadn’t even considered that getting to do so forever was on the table, let alone as co-ruler of a hitherto-unknown Afro-Semitic city-state! Mind you, there is a downside. Ayesha is an unapologetic tyrant, an Oriental Despot in the grand style, and being the next best thing to a goddess hasn’t exactly moderated her approach to governance or increased her respect for human rights. Vincey would be wise to remember what happened when his former self displeased her all those centuries ago. Furthermore, as Holly points out, attitudes like Ayesha’s have a way of rubbing off on people— especially on those who insulate themselves from the concerns of ordinary men by, say, becoming an undying god-king. Ayesha’s attractive, no doubt about it, but is she worth the risk of becoming a moral monster? That question’s about to become no idle exercise in philosophical theory, either, thanks to Ustane’s continued mooning over Leo. Despots, after all, are not often fond of competition.

     She gets off to a strong start, spins its wheels pointlessly for the better part of an hour, and then gets so good so quickly that I’m willing to forgive all the nothing that happens for most of its length. This movie features two of Hammer’s best tweaks of a source plot, a subtext curiously and openly at odds with H. Rider Haggard’s own perspective, and a scene-stealing supporting role for Peter Cushing that will come as a welcome surprise to even his most well-versed fans. And if Ursula Andress makes for a disappointingly limp antiheroine, she is strongly supported by Christopher Lee as the increasingly villainous Billali. She is a hard slog, but worth it in the end.

     I suppose I should deal with the slogging first, which I mean more or less literally. She devotes what feels like hours to Vincey, Holly, and Job’s trek across the desert, but those scenes have basically nothing going for them beyond the novelty of Hammer having sprung for a location shoot. The terrain in Israel’s Negev Desert just isn’t that interesting, and She has no tricks up its sleeve comparable to the Basil Poledouris music that would later enliven the similarly drawn-out hiking and camel-riding sequences in Conan the Barbarian. The explorers’ arrival at their destination is small reprieve, too, for this movie’s version of the sojourn in Ayesha’s kingdom is just as static as those in the preceding two adaptations. The 1965 She suffers as well from the miscasting of the title role. Beautiful though she may be, Andress just doesn’t have the presence for the part— a defect made all the more frustrating by this Ayesha’s unprecedentedly active role in setting the story in motion.

     Fortunately, before we face any of that, She gives us cause to extend it the benefit of at least some doubt. Viewers familiar with prior iterations of the story will have their curiosity aroused when this one begins with the protagonists already in Africa, and transforms them from scholars into gentleman soldiers. Further promise is revealed when it becomes clear that Ayesha is hunting Vincey and not the other way around. Then there’s the relationship between Ayesha and Billali, which is obviously going to be much more complex and significant than in Haggard’s telling. All of those checks get cashed in one way or another during the breathless final act, and having them already outstanding at the start of the boring part gives reason to hope that the movie will eventually get its shit together. And on a cruder level, it’s worth pointing out that the belly dancers at the tavern where we meet Vincey, Holly, and Job provide the frankest display of eroticism in the English-speaking cut of any Hammer production since The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll— one not to be topped by the studio until the whole British film industry popped its corset in 1970.

     The belly dancers are more important than they seem, too, because they set up the opportunity for Holly to do something I’ve never seen from Peter Cushing in any other film. They give him the chance to be jovially randy. Apart from a few moments of sexual rat-bastardry in the Hammer Frankenstein series, Cushing was pretty much the maiden uncle of mid-century British genre cinema. Even when his characters had wives or children (almost invariably daughters, I suddenly realize), one got the impression that that sort of thing was all behind them now. And indeed Holly says as much of himself here when he encourages Leo to make a move on Ustane. But you watch the way Cushing looks at those belly dancers. Check out the expression of sheer delight on his face as they coax him out of his chair to stand among them clapping the rhythm. Holly’s approach to the pleasures of female flesh may be less hands-on than it was back when he was Vincey’s age, but let nobody say that he’s forgotten how to have fun! Just the same, though, that hedonistic streak doesn’t stop Holly from becoming the moral center of the film once Ayesha’s true intentions come to light. Much more clearly than Vincey, Holly sees the full implications of the deathless queen’s plan, and he opposes it by both fair means and foul. On the former front, Holly relies on his stature as Leo’s trusted mentor to nudge the younger man away from succumbing to Ayesha’s blandishments, and makes principled protest to the tyrant herself when she makes her move against Ustane at last. And on the latter, Holly encourages Billali to take a hard look at his role in running the kingdom, and to consider whether the rewards he’s thus far received are properly commensurate with the services rendered. Throughout it all, Cushing dominates the picture in a way that only Christopher Lee even occasionally manages to challenge; poor John Richardson and Ursula Andress simply fade into invisibility whenever he’s on the screen.

     Jumping ahead to the other end of the film presents me with a bit of a conundrum. What happens after Ayesha sets her sights on Ustane is both She’s redemption and the lens through which its most interesting subtext becomes legible. I’m torn between conflicting impulses to tell you all about it, and to keep my mouth tightly zipped so that you can experience the movie’s final act as at least an echo of the welcome shock that it came as to me. I suppose it’s safe to point out how little Haumeid and the Amahagger have figured in the story thus far, and to confirm the suspicions which that ought to raise about them having a much bigger role in the endgame. I mean, Haumeid is Ustane’s dad; you had to know he would have something to say about it if anyone ever threatened her, even if the somebody in question was Ayesha. The key point about the Amahagger uprising is that by the time it occurs, Holly has primed us to see it not as an outburst of primitive savagery, but as a just response to Ayesha’s tyranny. She is a cruel and pitiless ruler, unconcerned for the wellbeing of her subjects, and it is therefore not right that she should wield such power. Notice, however, that Ayesha has done nothing to the Amahagger that wasn’t standard operating procedure for British colonial governors all over Africa. If she deserves to be overthrown, then what about them? We’re bound to think of that, too, since everything about She points in its fanciful way toward Britain’s 350-year program of global exploration and conquest. Hell, the source novel was even written by a man who spent his youth on the staff of a British colonial governor. This film therefore takes its place alongside The Stranglers of Bombay as a subliminal critique of Empire concealed within an outwardly apolitical adventure yarn, and as with The Stranglers of Bombay, I’m honestly not sure to what extent that critique was consciously intended. What I do know is that She works quite well as a cautionary fable for a people who think themselves better than the despots of antiquity, even as they aspire to the same kind of bloodstained power.

 

 

This review is part of a long overdue B-Masters Cabal tribute to Peter Cushing, indisputably the classiest motherfucker ever to stake a vampire, build a monster, or blow Alderaan to tiny bits. Click the banner below to read my colleagues’ contributions:

 

 

 

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