Before watching the movie:
This is clearly a cash-in on the Indiana Jones franchise, but it’s a response to a pulp adventure pastiche with one of the original pulp adventurers. I don’t know much of anything about Allan Quatermain (I’m discounting everything I might remember from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because it’s a bouillabaisse of literary big names with little regard for detail) other than that he’s the inspiration for a lot of more recent adventure throwbacks.
I guess I saw him in The Three Musketeers, but I don’t really have a very strong impression of Richard Chamberlain yet. I have a hard time keeping the Musketeers that aren’t D’artagnan straight.
After watching the movie:
Jesse Huston has hired the hunter Allan Quatermain to escort her to find her father, who had gone missing pursuing his research into King Solomon’s Mines. They quickly find that he was captured by a German military expedition also searching for the Mines, led by Colonel Bockner and guided by Turkish slaver Dogati. Jesse and Quatermain rescue Professor Huston, but only after they had finally extracted from him the location indicated by the map he believes is genuine. He urges them to get to the Mines before the Germans do, crossing the savage African plains.
This movie is in a bit of an unfortunate place. It’s clearly meant to be funny, but the tone is inconsistent. It’s often downright campy, but aside from some of the gags between Bockner and Dogati, it never feels like it meant to be camp. It doesn’t feel like it’s inviting the audience to laugh at the jokes that aren’t dialogue, leaving some question as to what’s an intentional joke and what’s just a poorly thought out action moment. For example, I can’t tell if all the vehicles that explode when crashing are funny because they’re supposed to be, or because they just are now that the trope has been so fully parodied. Since the plane lets the characters get in an entire conversation before exploding, I think it may be a joke, but it’s so understated. And if it’s serious, what about the bodies that burst into gasoline fireballs the moment they touch lava?
Also unfortunate is the treatment of African native tribes as savages to be feared. The second half of the movie features two very long sequences where Quatermain and Jesse are captured first by cannibals and then by a tribe ruled by a cackling, wizened, witch who orders them put to death out of what seems like caprice. Neither tribe speaks any English, leaving them as unreasonable forces of nature covered in body paint and jabbing spears at our heroes. If Indiana Jones is pulp adventure as we’d like to remember it, this is perhaps more what it was really like, dripping with entrenched racism that only serves to divert from the plot for a bit of excitement and tension.
Beyond the pointless diversions, it feels like a serial in that the action sequences feel very disconnected from each other, and in that it doesn’t feel like we have a proper introduction to the heroes. The very first action sequence is a chase through the town for the abducted girl that strongly reminds of some Indiana Jones scenes that I’m sure it takes half an hour to get to.
What we do get shown of Chamberlain’s Quatermain is that he’s quippy, and not a very moral person. Jesse is horrified by a slave market, but Quatermain only comments that they’re a bargain, without any acknowledgment of any kind of ethical issue. Past that establishing scene though, it doesn’t really come up, and he’s just a man with skills caught up in an adventure. Sharon Stone as Jesse starts out as an enjoyable foil for Quatermain, making trouble for him because she’s charging in outside her area of expertise, but still rather intelligent. The pair reminded me a lot of Romancing the Stone at first. However, as the story progresses, Jesse does less rushing in and more whining, and by the end she does nothing but annoy. Lom and Rhys-Davies are quite fun to watch together, but they feel like an entirely different story, crossing paths with Quatermain so little. Dogati has a vendetta against Quatermain, but Quatermain seems to regard Dogati as a mild nuisance.
This could have been much better. The first half is hilarious, intentional or otherwise. Bockner and Dogati entertain all the way until they have to actually be villains. Jerry Goldsmith delivers a fantastic score. I appreciated that the treasure is purely non-magical and it stays relatively realistic until the Mines inexplicably have a giant spider and the African version of the Loch Ness Monster. However, the tone, racism, pacing, and production value (it looks like a cheap early 70s film in 1985) drag it down. When it comes to jungle-based adventure comedy, Romancing the Stone and The Phantom just did it better.