Sunday, November 24, 2013

Ursula Andress Is She Who Must be Obeyed

Although Hammer Films remains best known for its horror films, the studio frequently dabbled in other genres. In fact, it achieved solid success with historical adventures about Robin Hood, pirates, and smugglers. Its most ambitious adventure yarn was She (1965), an adaptation of H. Rider Haggard's venerable 1887 novel about "She who must be obeyed." Haggard's novel had reached the screen in several previous incarnations, mostly notably an expensive 1935 version produced by Merian C. Cooper (King Kong) and starring Randolph Scott. Of course, Hammer's She had one thing not found in the earlier films--Ursula Andress.

Set in Palestine in 1918, the tale finds three Army veterans trekking through the desert to find the lost city of Kuma. The reason: The youngest of the trio, Leo (John Richardson), had a vision in which a beautiful woman named Ayesha (Andress) promised endless wealth and more. After overcoming minor obstacles like murderous bedouins and death from thirst, the three men--with assistance from a young woman who fallen for Leo--arrive at their destination.

Andress with Christopher Lee.
They are welcomed hospitably until the local townsfolk realize that Leo's face adorns their local currency. It turns out that he's the spitting image of a previous ruler, who just happened to be Ayesha's lover. It seems that the merciless Kuma queen (hence her nickname of "She who must be obeyed") is over a thousand years old. Naturally, she looks pretty stunning for her age and that seems to be all that matters to Leo. And despite the fact that she murdered her former lover for infidelity, Ayesha appears ready to accept Leo as his reincarnation and live happily forever--literally forever--after.

Peter Cushing as Leo's friend
Major Holly.
After making a string of cost-conscious, profitable pictures, Hammer briefly considered moving to larger-scale productions. She would end up being the studio's most expensive film and it shows on the screen. While it lacks the scope of Hollywood epics like Ben-Hur, She is a vast improvement over earlier Hammer movies that were clearly shot on cheaply-made sets (e.g., the flashbacks in The Mummy). It helps noticeably that the exteriors for She were film in Israel.

Another upgrade for Hammer is James Bernard's soundtrack. Bernard was the studio's "in-house composer" and wrote some marvelous scores for classics like Horror of Dracula. However, due to time constraints, Bernard sometimes had to borrow from himself. Listen closely to the music in the Dracula films and it all sounds very familiar. For She, Bernard crafted separate musical cues for Leo and Ayesha that recur throughout the film--perhaps a little too often. Still, it's a lovely score and one of Bernard's best.

John Richardson as Leo.
Alas, despite the improved production values, She can't overcome sluggish plotting and a dreadful performance from John Richardson. If one removed the desert journey and the extraneous dancing scenes in Kuma, there's probably about 45 minutes of plot left (or so it seems). Still, that might be forgivable with a more convincing lead than the wooden Richardson. Given his portrayal of Leo, it's impossible to fathom why Ayesha seems so intent on making him her immortal lover (we'll talking centuries of marital boredom, people!). I do believe that Richardson must have had an amazing agent, given that he was cast as the love interest for both Ursula Andress and Raquel Welch (One Million Years, B.C.).

The rest of the cast in She ranges from excellent (the always reliable Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee) to adequate (Andress). In Hammer Films: An Exhaustive Filmography, director Robert Day said of his female lead: "She's a great presence but had little experience. I really had to work with her. It wasn't easy!"

Olinka Berova in
Vengeance of She.
Although She failed to be the boxoffice smash Hammer hoped for, it still made money. Three months after its release, the studio announced a sequel called Ayesha--Daughter of She starring Andress. That film never came to fruition nor did another proposed sequel called The Return of She. In 1968, though, Hammer released The Vengeance of She. Initially, the studio planned to cast Susan Denberg (Frankenstein Created Woman) in the lead role, but ultimately it opted for an unknown Czechoslovakian beauty named Olga Schoberova (but billed as the more exotic Olinka Beroka). And in case you were wondering, her co-star was John Richardson.

Finally, for all you Rumpole of the Bailey fans, it was indeed Rumpole's intent to reference H. Rider Haggard's fearsome ruler when he referred to his spouse as "she who must be obeyed."

5 comments:

  1. I actually just watched this yesterday myself, and I think you hit the nail on the head. You left out the subplot about the other tribe and the chief's daughter who shows up and is threatened whenever there's a lack of conflict. Andress is pretty, and thank God they dubbed her voice. It's a fun movie, but still has too many noticeable problems to ever become 'good' in any way.

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    1. Danny, "fun but good" is a very apt description.

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  2. I remember seeing this at the movies and loved it so I bought a DVD from Amazon, what's the saying 'you can never go home' the passage of years has dimmed it's appeal somewhat. The supporting cast is the best thing in it for me now and the sound track's memorable themes.

    Richardson must have had a 'great' agent as he managed to also get the role of Barbara Streisand's past life love interest in 'On a Clear Day'. A very pretty face but not much else going for him. I can't believe he was considered for James Bond at one point.

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    1. I forgot Richardson was in ON A CLEAR DAY (which I saw earlier this year). I guess that emphasizes that he's quite forgettable to me. Yes, he would have been an awful Bond!

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  3. Pretty much spot-on with your review here, Rick. It's a fun film, though quite flawed. The original novel is still quite readable. I read it in my junior high days and found it quite captivating. No movie version has yet to do it justice.

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