Hammer's 1965 release, She may not be ranked among the studio's finest efforts, but this romp through the pages of Henry Rider Haggard's famous 19th century novel remains a thoroughly enjoyable piece of Saturday afternoon fare. The story begins in Palestine in 1918, where two British officers Professor Holly (Peter Cushing) and Leo Vincey (John Richardson) along with Holly's valet Job (Bernard Cribbins) journey across the Desert of Lost Souls, through the Mountains of the Moon to the lost city of Kuma, ruled by immortal queen Ayesha (Ursula Andress). Ayesha belives that Vincy is the reincarnation of her former lover Kallikrates and intends to make him too an immortal and raise up a new Kingdom to rule once more...
Hammer's adaptation of Rider Haggard's novel was in fact the second pass at the story. Back in 1935 Merian C. Cooper had produced the film for RKO and crucially shifted the books African setting to the Arctic. Hammer bought the rights to the novel in 1962 but it would be some two years before it went into production. By the time the cast and crew had assembled in the desert in Southern Israel in August 1964, Hammer had ended it's relationship with Universal International (the film would be distributed by MGM in the US) and the screenplay had gone through a number of permutations, essentially diluting some of the grislier scenes in the novel. Still, the film is not without it's macabre moments, like a scene where some tribesmen are thrown into a pit of boiling lava, or a scene where High Priest Christopher Lee is praying to some mummified corpses.
One of the more remarkable aspects of the film is the mileage Hammer got out of the low-budget. Compared to other studios, this is an epic done on the cheap, and at times the film does look a little rough around the edges - literally so, the cheap anarmorphic lenses the film was shot with causing a fair degree of visual distortion at the edges of the frame, while the post-synced dialogue does tend to wander off at certain moments. But for the most part She looks very good. The desert locations lend the film a greater scope than a studio-bound film and the special effects are often surprisingly good - including some impressive matte shots (a Collossus of Rhoads type statue stands at the entrance of Kuma) and the final scene in the film where Ayesha bathes in the ice cold blue Flame of Eternal Youth is well executed with some elaborate camera trickery. Hammer composer James Bernard turns in one his most best scores, rousing, lush and romantic.
A large part of the film's success is down to the cast. Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee are marvelous of course. Cushing gets stuck into his role with admirable enthusiasm, whether he be dancing with belly-dancers or fending off some fearsome natives, while Christopher Lee brings a touch of melancholy to an otherwise sinister role as Billali, Ayesha's unsung adviser. There's excellent support too from Bernard Cribbins as the brave and world-weary Job, a role that doesn't lumber him him with the his usual comic-relief part. John Richardson is a little stiff playing the dashing man who would be king Leo Vincy, but Ursula Andress commands the film when she appears, truely an astonishing beauty. Incidentally, Andress is dubbed by the same voice over artist that dubbed her in her breakthrough film Dr. No.
Optimum's Ultimate Hammer Collection gets off to a bumpy start with She which suffers from a problematic transfer. The film was shot in 2.35 widescreen (or "Hammerscope" if you prefer) but as soon as the opening credits are done, the picture is cropped to 1.85. It might seem like a deal breaker but the compositions and the framing survive intact. The US Warners Archive DVD from 2009 preserves the OAR but the amount of distortion when the camera pans can be distracting. With the Optimim disc, the distortion is less obvious but can still be seen. Other than that, the picture exhibits a fair amount of noise, and the print is comparable to the one used for the Warners disc, with plenty of dirt, debris and scratches. It's entirely watchable, but this is a very average transfer at best. Thankfully, the audio fares better, the score sounding powerful and the dialogue clear. No extras are offered, not even a trailer.