Cheesy movies are a special joy. Despite an earnest attempt to create compelling stories, filmmakers often miss the mark. Some movies turn out simply mediocre. Others become entertaining in spite of their flaws or authorial intent. They become cheesy. In Your Weekend Cheesy Movie, we’ll examine some of these misguided efforts for what they fail at achieving and what they manage to do right.
This week: Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold
It’s time for another Cannon Films classic!
To recap, Cannon Films was a distributor of cheap horror movies and skin flicks before it was purchased by Isreali producing duo Menahem Golan and Yorum Globus. Golan, the chief creative force of the partnership, loved movies but hated the rigor required to make quality pictures. As a result, Cannon became a cheese factory producing the Ninja and American Ninja series, the Death Wish sequels and any sort of schlock which struck Golan’s fancy.
And somewhere in the mid-80s, he finally saw Raiders of the Lost Ark and wanted a pulpy adventure series of his own. At which point, someone must’ve suggested using H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain — an inspiration for Raiders‘ Indiana Jones — in lieu of whatever crazy counterfeit character Golan no doubt came up with. Haggard’s Quatermain series charts the journeys of a British born hunter living on the African continent. Since they were written in Victorian times, some of the material is unavoidably racist and classist even as Haggard espoused some more progressive attitudes toward women and various peoples of the continent. Nevertheless, he still believed the British Empire had a right and obligation to “uplift” the natives into civilization.
Colonialism is as seductive and pernicious as any opiate.
But the headier aspects of Quatermain were never going to be part of Golan’s plan. He just wanted an Indiana Jones he could control for as little money as possible. Screenwriters Gene Quintano and James R. Silke took liberties with the source and gave their version of King Solomon’s Mines a comedic edge which intrigued star Richard Chamberlain. Battle for the Planet of the Apes J. Lee Thomson directed and while the movie is something of a critical bomb, it birthed a sequel: Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold. A movie quite worthy of being this weekend’s cheesy selection.
Picking up sometime after King Solomon’s Mines, Quatermain (Chamberlain) and his fiancee Jesse Huston (Sharon Stone) are planning a return to the States for their wedding when Quatermain gets news his brother Robeson (Martin Rabbett) has disappeared during an expedition to find a legendary city of gold (and the mysterious white race who lord over it). As he was always uncomfortable with the wedding plans, Quatermain sets off to build a search party for his brother and the lost city. He is joined by Umslopogaas (James Earl Jones), an old friend based on a character from Haggard’s novels and Swarma (Robert Donner) a shifty guru who would be a more offensive stereotype if the script and actor committed to a single culture for the character. And though initially set on going to America, Jesse talks herself into joining her fiance’s latest adventure.
The group finds booby traps and encounters some less than friendly Esbowe as they make their way across the Sahara and other wilds to an underground river and, finally, the lost city. There, they discover Robeson is alive and well, but local politics have been swayed by Agon (Frank Silva), a high priest allied with city’s less-than-noble co-regent, Queen Sorais (Cassandra Peterson). He’s also allied with the Esbowe, who are spiriting gold mined by the citizens out of the region. Robeson, meanwhile, is friendly with the other co-regent, Queen Nyleptha (Aileen Marson), and the common folk of the city. Quatermain and his companions immediately set to freeing the city from Agon and his allies, which happens so quickly, you’ll be sure you dozed off for 15 minutes and missed some important plot developments.
And if this all sounds a little half-hearted, that’s part of the charm. Despite continuing the comedic tone of King Solomon’s Mines, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold is a fantastically tired affair in terms of its story. While adapted from Haggard’s second Quatermain novel, Allan Quatermain, it does so in fashion fantastically devoid of stakes; even for a comedy. In fact, part of the thrill is watching how boldly the film backs away from things like jeopardy while Jerry Goldsmith’s hero theme from the first film plays on an unending loop.
That lack of jeopardy, even for comedic purposes, is quite surprising when you consider how expensive parts of the film look. In a rejection of the Golan-Globus philosophy, the City of Gold set was apparently purpose-built and unusually well-crafted for a Cannon film — even if it’s more plaster-white than gold-leaf. It’s major interior set, the Queens’ throne room, also looks good with its giant trap door hovering above a decent-sized pit. But the Cannon cheapness becomes apparent whenever anyone almost falls in and their obvious safety harnesses hamper the effect.
The cheapness is also on display during the underground river scene — one of the key moments pulled directly from the novel — which utilizes some passable model work, but some of the worst greenscreen ever filmed. A subsequent moment in which the main characters must avoid an oil-fire in the lake also slows things to a crawl while failing to create any tension.
But it seems the lack of tension was a-okay with Chamberlain. While talking up the first film, he said it was a delight to play a part like Quatermain after a decade of heavy dramatic roles in film and on television. That delight is more apparent in King Solomon‘s Mines as the concept is a little more fresh. Though apparently shot concurrently, Chamberlain’s interest level in playing a silly adventure hero appears to have cooled to a mere bemusement in much of Lost City of Gold. Then again, Chamberlain and Rabett were apparently in a relationship at the time, so perhaps the pair viewed the film as more of an extended vacation in Africa than any sort of work.
Sharon Stone, meanwhile, is magic in this movie. As one of the greatest terrible actors our Hollywood industry has ever produced, Stone is somehow charming as the constantly aggravated and whiny Jesse. It’s essentially the part Kate Capshaw played in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but it is easy to see why Hollywood thought Stone had the star potential. There is something about her even as her performance strains credibility.
Jones brings the sort of dignity to Umslopogaas that only he could muster. Largely free of any overt comedy, he is consistently portrayed as the only really competent character in the film; which is a good thing as the movie dances dangerously close to some “Darkest Africa” stereotypes with its depiction of the Esbowe warriors and another band of backwards raiders allied with Agon.
Which brings us to another place where the movie fails in its ambitions: the villains. As played by SIlva, Agon is such an unhinged weirdo that it hard to believe he is masterminding the plan to smuggle gold out of the city. That’s not say Silva’s choices with the character are wrong. In fact, Agon as a mad believer in some local god would be more interesting than a banal opportunist. The problem really comes down to an issue of timing. Agon and Sorais are not introduced until the last third of the film; giving both Silva and Peterson no time to make an impression. And at least Silva has lines. In the finished film, Peterson’s Sorais is completely mute, leaving the viewer to wonder why the production bothered to ship Elvira to the set.
Okay, to be honest, Peterson is quite fetching, even in the ridiculous costumes she wears in this, so that might have something to do with it.
The end result is a climax so anemic, the end credits begin to roll before the movie resolves all of its half-hearted plot points — another Golan specialty. But at only 90 minutes, the film manages to do too much and too little all at once, making its sudden stop all the more laugh-inducing and silly. But really, that’s the fun. Perhaps more than the Indiana Jones movies, Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold captures the energy of the pulp serials and their low-watt ambitions. It also captures the drudgery and some of the racism, but it makes for an enjoyable cheesy movie experience.
Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold is currently available on Hulu. It is also available on Blu-ray and DVD.