Hammer Films Retrospective (Part VI) The Golden AgeThe Dark Herald
Okay, it is Hammer Films so gold-plated is probably a little more accurate.
You could always tell a Hammer Film just by the look of it, even if you had surfed-in just flipping channels on a Saturday night. There was something about it’s aesthetic. Something about its style. Hammer in the Mid-Sixties was at its height. Their gorgeous look was and still is unmistakable. On a minuscule budget, Hammer delivered films that seemed pretty close to C. B. DeMille’s epic.
For a while anyway. Here are Hammer’s two biggest films of all time.
Before there was Tolkien, there was H. Rider Haggard.
Haggard didn’t really do fantasy, his books were romantic adventures usually set in Africa but he his writing laid the groundwork for both high fantasy and sword & sorcery fiction. Haggard’s hand can be felt in both Middle Earth and the Hyborian World of Conan. While best known for the Allan Quartermain novels and King’s Solomon’s Mines in particular, Haggard did dabble in fantasy with SHE.
Aeysha was an immortal queen whose beauty was so painful to behold she often went completely veiled lest the power of beauty break the men who gazed upon it. While She was wiser than Solomon (her own claim) yet She was also petulant and willful. She could be cruel as the whim took her, yet also just merciful if her mood was right.
Aeysha while powerful was also pitiable. Two thousand years before she had murdered the love of her immortal life Kallikratees. In her mountain kingdom, she awaited his rebirth when he would be reincarnated and would travel across the world to find her.
As 19th-century fictional luck would have it, an intrepid team of British colonialists stumbles upon her kingdom and wouldn’t you know it, one of them, Leo, is the reincarnation of Aeysha’s dead lover.
She was made immortal by a pillar of fire that only does that neato trick every few centuries when the constellations are just right. Again as luck would have it, they are just in time for that rare event. SHE leads a reluctant Leo into the Flame beside her. Problem: While entering the Flame will make you immortal, entering it a second time will strip your immortality away from you. The centuries come crashing down on Aeysha and she turns to dust in minutes, leaving a heartbroken but now immortal Leo to await the time when the Flame can be entered again and end his curse of immortality.
While nearly forgotten today, She was arguably more famous than King Solomon’s Mines back in its day. It has been made and remade into films in 1908, 1911, 1916, 1917, 1925, and 1935.
In 1965 it had the advantages of being a well-known property that hadn’t been remade in a long time and it was in the Public Domain. The last studio to have made it was bankrupt and their rights had lapsed, making it perfect for Hammer.
Their usual American partners all turned up their noses at it, except for MGM who gave them triple of the requested budget.
SHE was probably Hammer’s most lavishly funded film and kind of shows. Hammer also decided this film would have to be built around a lead actress instead of an actor. They hired Ursula Andress who had just made her debut in Doctor No. Hammer’s favorite sparring partners Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee were secured, as well as their new Handsome Man, John Richardson. Bernard Cribbins was the comedy relief manservant.
The film was about as close to the source material as you were likely to get, 19th century narratives always had trouble translating to film. This iteration was set in Palestine in 1918, the setup was kind of interesting three newly discharged British veterans of the Desert War are contemplating what to do with themselves now that the fighting is over and all of their roots had been shot away. It was a decent start and it upheld the “lost world” tropes that Haggard invented.
While I still like it, I admit that it is a triumph of style over substance but the same thing could be said of most of Haggard’s works, in their own way they still hold up and so does this.
Ursula’s profound limitations as an actress quickly made themselves apparent. Director Robert Day was used to that issue with Hammer’s more recent leading ladies and shot around her “acting.”
Ursula figured it out and was apparently pissed when she found out that Nikki van der Zyl would be dubbing her voice yet again.
Consequently, when Hammer came calling again for their next picture Andress gave it the cold shoulder. This opened the door for an unknown American actress named Raquel Welch.
1,000,000 Years BC (1966)
Okay, so about style over substance…
1,000,000 Years BC was originally a 1940s Victor Mature film. It was reasonably popular in its day and that day was only twenty years before Hammer shot their remake. So the decision was understandable and financially it was a good one bringing in about twice its budget. Marketing costs were nowhere near as brutal today.
John Richardson, hot off of SHE was handed a loin cloth and sent to the Canary Islands to be the champion of the Brunette tribe. He falls out with the chief and is sent into exile, eventually falling in with the Blonde Surfer Dude tribe and becomes the love interest of Raquel Welch. He gets the boot after getting into it with Raquel’s previous love interest. Richardson and Raquel drift around a world where Cro-Magnons and dinosaurs are intermingling freely courtesy of Ray Harryhausen. Eventually, this mixed-race couple goes back to the Brunette tribe where Raquel gets into a catfight with Martine Beswick. The old chief is killed, a volcano blows up (of course) and the survivors of the Brunette and Blonde tribes amalgamate into a miscegenated race of slightly less attractive Dish Water Blonde people.
This movie has no business being anywhere near as good as it is. Okay, it’s not one of the all-time greats but Hammer’s touch carried it a lot farther than it should have. And there is no question that it features some of Ray Harryhausen’s best work. He had finally worked the kinks out of his system of integrating actors and his stop motion creations. Does CG look better today, well it does if Marvel isn’t doing it, but any of the new breed will freely admit Harryhausen was true craftsman.
In real life, John Richardson hooked up with Brunette tribeswoman Martine Beswick and got married for a few years. For whatever reason most of Richardson’s work was in Italy where believe it or not he was at the time viewed as being bigger than Clint Eastwood in the Spaghetti Westerns. He was one of those guys who could never quite catch the brass ring. He was almost Sean Connery’s replacement as Bond but lost out because of his height and physique. He had the face to be a superstar but he didn’t have the body to match.
For her part Raquel would later always claim that she only took the part because she thought no one would remember it.
Sure you did.