When Hammer Films decided to try their hand at adventure films. H. Rider Haggard’s classic She must have seemed an obvious choice. Unfortunately any subsequent movie adaptation will always be judged against the wonderful 1935 version, and Hammer’s attempt doesn’t quite measure up.
Having said that, the Hammer movie is still a great deal of fun. They were trying for a Hollywood epic feel on a Hammer Films budget, and although there’s some obvious corner cutting it does succeed surprisingly well in achieving the epic feel.
Haggard’s 1886 novel is one the classics of Victorian adventure fiction. The movie transposes the action to 1918, and has the heroes as recently demobbed soldiers in Palestine. A chance encounter in a bar with the exotic beauty Ustane leads a young officer, Leo Vincey (John Richardson), his old commanding officer Holly (Peter Cushing) who happens to have been his university lecturer in archaeology, and his batman Job (Bernard Cribbins) on what seems like an insane trek across the desert in search of the fabulous lost city of Kuma. They are tempted to abandon the expedition, but Leo is led on by visions of the beautiful Ayesha (Ursula Andress) and by his conviction that his destiny is somehow linked to hers.
They find the lost city, a survival of the culture of ancient Egypt. There are two races inhabiting the city, one a black slave race and the other, the ruling class, descended from the Egyptians. The city is ruled by Ayesha, known as She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha has ruled the city for 2,000 years, and for the whole of these two millennia she has awaited the return of her lover Callicrates. She had killed him in a fit of jealous rage, but has always known that he would return. Leo bears a striking resemblance to Callicrates, and he is soon convinced by her story, and intoxicated by her beauty and by her promises that he will share her immortality. Of course things are not going to be quite so simple.
The movie captures much of the fun of Haggard’s novel, but misses some of its strangeness. In the novel Holly is a more important character than he is in the film and his truly bizarre attitude towards women is one of the more interesting features of the book. Holly is clearly terrified of women, which explains much of the novel’s weirdly ambivalent attitude towards Ayesha.
Peter Cushing gives a solid performance in an undemanding role. Christopher Lee as Ayesha’s high priest Billali also doesn’t have much to do, but both Cushing and Lee make the most of what the script offers them. Bernard Cribbins is surprisingly not all that annoying as Job. Rosenda Monteros is quite good as Ustane, who loves Leo but knows she can never compete with what Ayesha can offer him.
It’s always going to be the performance of the actress who plays Ayesha that makes or breaks a movie adaptation of She. Ursula Andress isn’t really required to act. What is demanded of her is that she should have an extraordinary presence, a cruel and exotic beauty, and a sense of complete indifference to the fate of mere mortals. She must give the impression of believing that she is close to being a goddess. Hammer were afraid that the Swiss actress’s accent would put viewers off so they dubbed her voice ( a fate she suffered in several early movies), which limited Andress’s opportunities for acting even more.
It makes no difference. She was a perfect choice for the role, and her limited acting abilities work in her favour. A better actress might have made Ayesha more human, which would have been a grave mistake. Andress plays her as a goddess who has deigned to walk among mortals - remote and cold, but capable of terrifyingly jealous rages, rages that are all the more chilling because her anger burns so coldly. Andress’s acting range may have been severely limited, but this role is well within that range and she does a superb job. Her performance is the highlight of the movie. Ayesha isn’t exactly sympathetic character, but Andress manages to give her dignity and despite her cruelty she’s strangely admirable. She really is a superior being to those round her.
If only Hammer had been able to come up with a male lead worthy of her! John Richardson is terribly dull. It’s difficult to believe that a woman like Ayesha would waste her time on such a sorry specimen.
The special effects are adequate, the sets are quite good, and the costumes are reasonably good (although Ayesha’s troops look suspiciously Roman). Ayesha’s strange feathered gown adds the right touch of exoticism and Andress wears it with style.
While I still prefer the 1935 film, Hammer’s version is entertaining and with Ursula Andress’s iconic performance it’s well worth seeing.