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."


  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.

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

  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.

    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!

  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.

  4. Not sure why you say She "failed to be the box office smash Hammer hoped for." It was a dull film, but with MGM's great add campaign and promotion, big box office.

    The finished film would not be recognizable as a Hammer production if Cushing and Lee weren't in it And the comparison isn't with the gothic's only. Every genre the company handled had a kind of Hammer touch . . . dynamic and realistic. The war films were hard hitting, the early gothics made the unnatural seem as real as possible.

    "She" stands alone as a dull and unconvincing spectacle. It hard to know for sure but most of the blame seems to fall on Robert Day. The direction lacks conviction and the picture has no atmosphere. This isn't a budget problem. It looks cheesy because the direction is stilted It seems as if the material held no interest for Day.

    This is not Terence Fisher material but he would have turned out a better picture with more atmosphere and dynamic action. And certainly more convincing performances from Richardson and Andress. Getting convincing performances was one of Fisher's major strengths. It was tied to his belief that he had to make the audience suspend disbelief and connect emotionally with the characters up on that screen. Robert Day by comparison is just managing traffic.

    It is one of James Bernard's best scores score and he provides whatever atmosphere and conviction the picture. Although I'm not sure why you say he was already copying himself when he scored Dracula. The repetition happened much later in the late 60's. But the Dracula score?

    Bernard brought a very new musical language to horror films. Orchestration that effectively used gongs, snare drums and brass. His music had a magisterial tone, a sense of authority, that was new to horror pictures. He didn't shy away from expressing the emotions the character's were feeling. . . and not just fear, but loss. anguish, even joy.

    There's no borrowing of thematic ideas in Bernard's Dracula score. Likely you're confusing Bernard's unique musical language from a vantage point 50 years later when it's no longer so unique.

    Something similar is happening with opinions about Bernard Robinson's sets . . . they all look alike. That was true by the mid 60's. But the sets in the late 50's were all very distinct. Maybe the problem is with viewers who can only recognize "period" settings but have no idea that interiors and wardrobe from the 1860's (Curse of Frankenstein) were completely different than the 1880's (Dracula).

    Bernard Robinson and his team were well aware. It's not their fault if an audience doesn't know the difference.

    In a way that's the kind of direction Robert Day provides with She. He doesn't have a clue what genre or period he's working in. There's no conviction.

  5. We think of Hammer initiating all their pictures. But that was not always the case. Kenneth Hyman, the son of Hammer's silent partner, Eliot Hyman, brought "She" to Hammer after he made a deal with MGM to finance and distribute. To MGM it was a low budget picture ($300,000) but to Hammer it was three times what they spent at that time.

    Eliot and Ken Hyman were Hammer's most important behind the scenes partners. They were instrumental in setting up the deal with Warner Bros to distribute Curse of Frankenstein. Of course Hammer had to deliver a picture that got Warner's excited. And they did. That's clear from the campaign Warner's came up with that made "Curse" a huge hit.

    In later years, under their Seven Arts banner, the Hyman's continued to support Hammer's output while also financing pictures like West Side Story, The Misfits, and Lolita. This is very odd. Why would they be connected with two extremely different types of movie making . . . high brow that was also big box office and low brow that was becoming more and more hit and miss at the box office? Maybe it's an example of James Carreras gift for making strong and lasting business relationships.

    It's another piece in the Hammer puzzle. What I mean is Hammer's success was never assured. They could have made Curse of Frankenstein but not found a market for it.

    At the time it was very unlikely that Warner Bros would have been aware of, let alone distribute a low budget British horror picture. US audiences were not partial to British pictures at that time, and most were shown in art houses along with films from France and Italy.