The new commanding officer of a remote desert outpost relates the story of how he and a colleague discovered the lost kingdom of Atlantis deep in the Sahara, and how events took a tragic turn when they became involved with the ruling Queen.
Pierre Benoit’s 1919 novel was a smash hit in Europe, despite its obvious resemblance to H. Rider Haggard’s 1905 classic adventure ‘She’. Several critics were unkind enough to point out the similarity, and an incensed Benoit sued one of them for libel…and lost. As a novel, it hasn’t stood the test of time either; being light on plot, character development and action. What it does have is lots of stodgy detail; mainly concerning French contemporary politics, philosophers, the history of expeditions in Africa, and the customs of obscure desert tribes. The central premise is also a tad implausible. Perhaps the only real virtue of the book by modern standards is that it’s fairly short.
So, how on earth can you take a book like that and turn it into a silent film that lasts almost three hours? How? By faithfully filming every single incident in the story. For a start, this French-Belgian film retains the novel’s ‘layered’ approach. This structure was popular in literature at the time and means that the audience gets flashbacks within flashbacks within flashbacks. The only other well-known example that springs to mind is the Humphrey Bogart WWII epic ‘Passage To Marseilles’ (1944), which was based on a similar literary source. It’s not confusing here, but it is clumsy.
Our heroes are two French Legionnaires; worldly-wise Morhange and his youthful companion St. Avit. They are only recently acquainted, but have become friendly enough to take a trip together, which gets side-tracked when the scholarly Morhange hears about some strange graffiti in remote caves. Their guide dies on the way, almost immediately after they save the life of a mysterious nomad. A quick interface with some hashish later, and they’re waking up in Atlantis! These things can happen after a night with the lads gets out of hand. The kingdom, left in the desert after the flood waters receded, is ruled by Queen Antinea, who goes through lovers at an alarming rate. It’s especially alarming for them, as they end up as mummified corpses or committing suicide when she discards them. St Avit falls head over heels for her, but Morhange remains impervious to her charms. Unfortunately, he’s the one that Antinea realty wants and she’s not accustomed to being turned down.
This adaptation is really a mixed bag for the modern day audience. On the one hand, technically is quite impressive. The sets and production design do convey a pleasing sense of the scale of the lost kingdom, and of cultural achievements now in decline. The desert landscapes are also impressive, and authentic. Unfortunately, the decision to film every last page of the novel and create a film of such staggering length is a serious error. Do we really need an extended flashback of servant girl Tanet Zerga’s life story? lt adds nothing to the drama, and it arrives when the film should be building up a head of steam toward the climax.
Performances are acceptably generally, but it is seriously hard to believe in Stacia Napierkowska as the obsessive object of every man’s desire, notwithstanding that concepts of beauty may have changed over the intervening years. She also overacts quite atrociously by modern standards, and the film threatens to lurch into comedy whenever she’s on screen.
What is most interesting now are the two places where the film differs from the Benoit’s novel. Morhange and St Avit are separated on arrival in Atlantis, and the older man seems interested only in their reunion. Ok, so it’s easy to understand why he has no time for the faintly ridiculous Napierkowska but her actual character is supposed to be irresistible. The reason provided by the film (not present in the novel) is that Morhange is a devout Christian, and indeed we are given a scene where Antinea is tormented by the symbol of the cross, which is a further addition by the filmmakers. There is little biographical information on Benoit, beyond the fact that he was a Nazi sympathiser, and there are certainly no overt references to homosexuality in the novel, but it seems to have been enough of a possibility for the decision to provide Morhange with some alternative motivation.
The other change from the original story is the addition of some doped cigarettes, likewise to provide one of the main characters with motivation for actions which could have alienated audience sympathy. This was the first of several adaptions of Benoit’s novel; all of which struggle to overcome the obvious shortcomings of the source material. A more reasonable length would have helped here, but it’s still mildly interesting for several reasons and the production design remains superior to any subsequent version.
In recent years, the film has been retitled ‘Missing Husbands’ – somewhat nonsensically as we have no information about the marital status of any of the male characters, even the mummified ones!