After wandering for years, two lovers reach the kingdom of a deathless Queen, who offers the promise of Eternal Life. But the gift is only offered to the man…
This 25-minute film may not have been the first screen version of the famous H Rider Haggard novel about the immortal Queen Ayesha, but it is the first attempt at a full adaptation that has survived. French movie magician George Melles juggled with the concept of ‘an eternal flame’ in ‘La Colonne de feu/The Pillar of Fire’ (1899) and ‘The Mystical Flame’ (1903). However, these were ‘trick films’ showcasing his fantastic facility with production design and early SFX and contained nothing else from the original story. Sadly, Edwin S Porter’s 1908 version, which likely did, is lost to time.
The time: 350 BC, the place: Egypt. Kallikrates (James Cruze) and Amenartes (Viola Alberti) are in love, but the prospects of a long-term relationship aren’t good. She is the Pharoah’s daughter, after all, and he is just a priest of Isis. They flee together; him on a camel, her jogging to keep up! Twice twelve moons later, with a baby in tow, they reach the coast of Africa and the kingdom of She-who-must-be-obeyed (Marguerite Snow). Unfortunately, Snow takes a shine to Cruze and offers him the chance to bath in the flame of eternal life with her. He prefers to stay with his family, though, and the next thing we see is Alberti running back to their camp, grabbing the baby and getting the hell out of there. A helpful caption tells us that she knows ‘her son or his descendants shall return to avenge her husband’s death.’
Fast forward to the second half of the film and 1885 in Cambridge, England. Academic Horace Holly (William C Cooper) takes charge of a pre-pubescent Leo Vincey (actually played by a girl, Marie Eline), the son of a close friend now deceased. Eline grows up into James Cruze, of course (neat trick, that!) and on his 25th birthday, he and Cooper open the old box that forms his inheritance. A letter from his offscreen dad informs him that he is descended from Kallikrates and that the old man’s murderer is most likely still alive 2000 years later and living in a lost city in Africa. So, nothing unexpected there, then. The papers also charge him to avenge his ancestor’s death because a couple of millennia is never too long to hold a grudge!
It probably seems ambitious to attempt to cover the events of an entire novel in just 25 minutes. However, the enterprise may not seem too foolhardy to those familiar with the source material. Haggard’s original is slow, more than a little stodgy, and not exactly packed with incident. Of course, some things have to be discarded; our heroes time with the rock people, the character of Ustane and the guided tours of Kôr, but the main events remain. Director George Nichols even gives us the original Egyptian scenes, which are only told in flashback in the novel. There is also an attempt to show the journey to the Hall of the Eternal Flame, which is one of the book’s best sequences, rather than the chamber being close at hand (in the 1965 Hammer version, it seems to be in Ursula Andress’ basement). It’s also good to see the People of the Rocks armed with what appear to Roman spears and shields.
The Thanhouser Film Corporation who were behind this production tackled ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) next and brought several of these performers back for that venture, including Cruze in the title role. However, it’s best remembered now as the film where Jekyll and Hyde were played by different actors, Henry Benham donning the fright wig and fangs for at least some of Hyde’s scenes. Cruze and Snow were married in real life, but Cruze was physically abusive, sometimes in public, and she divorced him in 1923. Gifting some valuable real estate to their daughter Julie in 1933 to avoid giving up to creditors, he began legal action in an attempt to get it back from her five years later. He was unsuccessful.
Rider Haggard’s novel was vastly influential in the fantasy genre, both literary and cinematic. This filmed version is, of course, rather primitive when viewed today. Leaps in technique, performance, staging and SFX were occurring at an accelerated pace in the early days of the medium, and this effort probably looked hopelessly dated within a decade or so. However, you can’t fault the filmmakers’ ambition taking on such a project and, bearing in mind it’s vintage, it delivers the goods on its, admittedly limited, level.
Certainly of historical interest.