Monday, December 15, 2014

Film Review: KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1985, J. Lee Thompson)

Stars: 2.5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Tag-line: "The Adventure of a Lifetime"
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Richard Chamberlain (SHOGUN, THE MUSIC LOVERS), Sharon Stone (BASIC INSTINCT, SLIVER), John Rhys-Davies (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING), Herbert Lom (THE DEAD ZONE, SPARTACUS).  Written by Gene Quintano (POLICE ACADEMY 3, POLICE ACADEMY 4: CITIZENS ON PATROL) and James R. Silke (REVENGE OF THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION).  Music by Jerry Goldsmith (THE OMEN, GREMLINS, ALIEN).  Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.  Directed by J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN).
Best One-liner:  "I'll take that rug!"

KING SOLOMON'S MINES is an unabashed, unrepentant rip-off of the Indiana Jones series, sloppily orchestrated by everybody's favorite 1980s production company, Cannon Films.  The utter shamelessness of the effort is staggering... and brilliant... and absurd. 

First, a little background.  Cannon Films wanted to celebrate the centennial of Henry Rider Haggard's famed adventure novel, KING SOLOMON'S MINES (1885) and make a few dollars along the way by ridin' the Indiana Jones gravy train.  They shot two movies (this and ALLAN QUATERMAIN AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD) simultaneously to maximize the profit (as was the case with 1970s classics like THE THREE MUSKETEERS/FOUR MUSKETEERS and SUPERMAN/SUPERMAN II, among others).  Tobe Hooper was originally slated to direct, but instead used his Cannon Connections to do LIFEFORCE the same year.  In his absence, resident director and Charles Bronson-wrangler J. Lee Thompson took over.  Apparently the shoot proved to be so cursed that he (possibly apocryphally) hired a witch doctor (!) to make sure things didn't get any worse.  
As our Indiana Jones– er, I mean, Allan Quatermain– they hired Richard Chamberlain who so brilliantly portrayed Tchaikovsky in Ken Russell's THE MUSIC LOVERS, but Cannon was probably excited he'd made some recent success in the TV miniseries department (SHOGUN, THE THORN BIRDS).  
Chamberlain and Stone encounter the natives in KING SOLOMON'S MINES.

Ford and Capshaw encounter the natives in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.

Sharon Stone is our female lead, and any similarity to TEMPLE OF DOOM's Willie Scott (Kate Capshaw) is surely coincidental.  
Sharon Stone as  Jesse Huston.

Kate Capshaw as Willie Scott.

When I saw Golan speak a few years back he said (with utter charm) "Sharon Stone is our discovery.  She was a nobody before us."  And I think this exact quote from the IMDb trivia page says it all:  "Sharon Stone was hired by mistake Golan had wanted another actress instead of her."  That's perfect.

But back to the movie.  This thing is awful.  But it is also spectacular.  I'm not even sure how I feel about it.  It often plays like goofball parody, but it's got that sincere Cannon moxie, too, mixed with plenty of non-sequiturs. I suppose the major question here is this:  Is Cannon Films taking the piss?  Is this an elaborate joke on the audience?  I genuinely can't tell. On the one hand, it's directed by stiff-lipped Englishman J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, THE GUNS OF NAVARONE), who managed to make a scene where Bronson assaults a man with a dildo feel earnestly grim.  On the other, it's co-written by the guy who did POLICE ACADEMY 3 &4.  Hmm.  

Let's look at the opening scene as a case study.  RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK-alumnus John Rhys-Davies (who is a fan of paychecks) is trying to force some poor sap into translating the writing on a mystical artifact. 
The poor sap translator's buddy makes a run for the door, whereupon he triggers a deadly trap that skewers him against the doorway with what is essentially a giant meat tenderizer.
It's sort of gruesome, and is not played for a laugh.  Then John Rhys-Davies' crony, who apparently owns the building they use for intimidating potential artifact translators, pops up and exclaims, "MY DOOR!"
like how Charles Bronson says, "It's MY car!" in DEATH WISH 3.  Why is he so concerned?  If he owns the building, he already knows that he had a giant meat tenderizer hanging from the ceiling, ready to destroy his door if someone tried to escape.  Is it supposed to be funny?  Like, "wow, he is overly concerned about the property damage right now."  Or is it supposed to be harsh character-building, like "gee, these guys are tough customers– they just murdered somebody and only care about the holes in the door."  Or is it supposedly to be morbidly and cretinously 'funny' in a BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD vein, like "Hah ha!  That guy got skewered!"  It's difficult to assess.

Most of this film is difficult to assess.  It's packed with racist, imperialist attitudes (replicated from the original 1885 novel) but they're handled with the bizarro Cannon approach, the same one that brought us colorblind gang violence in DEATH WISH 3 and the "It's A Small World" of rap videos in RAPPIN'.  This movie is racially problematic to the point where you begin to wonder if it possesses a spoofy-self awareness, applying a post-modern lens to Nineteenth Century attitudes.  But in the end,  you can't approve of a movie where every person of color is either a buffoon, a cannibal, or someone who desires to feed you to crocodiles for sport.
This movie came out in 1985.

So let's pretend that KING SOLOMON'S MINES is a spoof of classic adventure novels, cultural appropriation, racist caricatures, etc., etc...  so then why is it trying so hard at times to be an Indiana Jones film?  In this regard, I mean that it drops the jokey façade and attempts to recreate, nearly shot for shot, several setpieces from the first two Indy movies.  [Of course this is all rather like an ouroboros (the snake eating its own tail), because the Indy movies are inspired by the Republic serials that were inspired by the original Quatermain novels, but no matter.]

There's the "Basket Game" scene from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, whereupon Indiana Jones tries to save Marion from the Nazis in Cairo after she's whisked away in a basket by Egyptian goons on the German payroll.  The same thing happens in KING SOLOMON'S MINES, except they throw Sharon Stone in a carpet roll instead of a basket.

 Indy shoves his way through the crowd in RAIDERS.

 Quatermain shoves his way through the crowd in MINES.

The basket's getting away in RAIDERS.

The carpet's getting away in MINES.

Then, take the famous "Ark Truck Chase" scene from RAIDERS.  Indy is flung through the windshield, over the hood, under the truck, and dragged from behind while clinging to his whip.

In MINES, the exact same thing happens– except it's on a train, not a truck, so it's totally different.

My final example (I could go on) is from INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM.  Indy and Short Round find themselves trapped in a chamber where spikes descend from the ceiling after a large stone lever is pressed.

The exact scenario arises in MINES, except the budget's lower, so we get papier-maché stalactites instead of the aforementioned fearsome iron spikes.

So that would seem to close the book on that– it's not parodying Indiana Jones– it wants to be Indiana Jones.  Though we cannot neglect the major point here:  this is a Cannon Film.  It can't be Indiana Jones, no matter how hard it tries.  It's not going to be competent enough to do so.  But in trying, you would assume that it could stumble upon some unintentional movie magic.  And, on a few occasions, it does:

SEE!  A giant, rabid spider eat a poor extra wearing a fez:

It comes with the Cannon guarantee that you've seen better special effects on your neighbor's lawn last Halloween.

BEHOLD!  An evil sorcerer thrown down a pit like the Emperor in RETURN OF THE JEDI and exploding in flower of matted-in flames!

GAZE UPON!  A Nessie-style dinosaur chomping on a man while Sharon Stone looks on in terrorized disbelief!

Sharon Stone, Oscar-nominated (...for CASINO).

In the end, as I said, I'm not sure what to do with this.  It comes nowhere near the heights of the Cannon classics (like BLOODSPORT or THE APPLE or REVENGE OF THE NINJA), and is probably most comparable to FIREWALKER, another J. Lee Thompson-directed Cannon rip-off of Indiana Jones.  But, being part freak show and part train wreck, I sorta can't believe this thing exists, and for that I must award it about two and a half (extremely awkward) stars.

–Sean Gill


J.D. Lafrance said...

Ah, back in the day when it seemed like EVERYONE was trying to rip-off/capitalize on the success of the INDIANA JONES movies. Let's not forget the two TV shows that tried - TALES OF THE GOLDEN MONKEY and BRING 'EM BACK ALIVE, which I actually have a soft spot for both and which may be better than the Cannon ALLAN QUARTERMAIN movies.

Phil Hubbs said...

Glad to see someone else review this movie :)

Francisco Gonzalez said...

To be honest, I have a blast with these cheap-o cannon movies, The Lost City of Gold is extremely laugh inducing and I love it for precisely that! I think the sequel is a bit more "original" but at the same time NOT. ha ha, these Cannon films always ripped off some other that sense, they feel like Italian rip offs.

Sean Gill said...


I've been told on a few occasions to check out TALES OF THE GOLD MONKEY. I do love Roddy McDowell. And let's not forget the Tom Selleck/Wilford Brimley vehicle HIGH ROAD TO CHINA!

Glad to oblige!

Yeah, this one, possibly more than any Cannon Film, felt like an Italian rip-off job. I appreciate that. I haven't seen AQ & THE LOST CITY OF GOLD in many years, but I remember it being somehow more ridiculous.

Francisco Gonzalez said...

You are correct, the sequel is even more ridiculous, but you have to see it to believe it. I reviewed it a few months ago, favorably I might add!

Here's the link in case your interested:

Other movies that ripped off Indiana Jones:

Treasure of the Four Crowns (1983)
Jake Speed (1986)
The Perils of Gwendolyn in the Land of the Yik Yak (1984)
Mother Lode (1982)
Firewalker (1986)
Yellow Hair and the Fortress of Gold (1984)
The Mines of Kilimanjaro (1986)
The Ark of the Sun God (1984)

Sean Gill said...


Loved the review! I had consigned watching AQ AND THE LOST CITY OF GOLD to the back burner, but I think Henry Silva with Gene Simmons hair and Elvira as the queen has vaulted it to the forefront. I suppose when I saw AQ as a kid, I wasn't yet a Silva fan and didn't recognize Elvira. Wow.