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Now that this book is printed, and about to be given to the world, the sense of its shortcomings, both in style and in contents, weighs very heavily upon me.”

Allan Quatermain

Allan Quatermain

Those are the first words of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, and I thought they were meant to be the author’s own sentiments about his novel. But the rest of the apology that follows from this sentence is signed by none other than Mr. Quatermain, the novel’s fictitious hero himself.

It is the first surprise among several in store for me about Allan Quatermain. So far, the sum of my understanding of this character comes from his appearance in both the graphic novel and the movie adaptation of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen,a Hallmark-produced TV-movie of King Solomon’s Mines, and a vague knowledge that there are several old adventure movies featuring Allan Quatermain exploring torch-lit tombs and swinging on vines, eventually giving rise to Steven Spielberg’s and George Lucas’ Indiana Jones series.

Allan Quatermain

Quatermain, as drawn by Kevin O'Neill in the "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" graphic novels.

Sean Connery plays Allan Quatermain in the film of LoEG. He cuts a more muscular silhouette than the way Kevin O’Neill draws the same character in the original graphic novels, and one gets the impression that this Quatermain is a retired and possibly now-irrelevant shade of a once more dashing adventurer — in fact something more along the lines of Patrick Swayze in the aforementioned Hallmark television version: square-jawed, brawny, squinty eyes with that 100-yard stare. Essentially, I pictured Allan Quatermain in his prime (that is to say, as he would appear in his first adventure, King Solomon’s Mines) as Harrison Ford playing Indiana Jones in the 1980s.

But in actuality, Quatermain is a grizzled older man of smallish build and a distaste for taking foolish chances, even in his debut appearance. The novel is narrated in the first person by Quatermain, who tells us right away in Chatper 1 that he is “fifty-five last birthday” and “a timid man” who doesn’t like violence and is “pretty sick of adventure.” He leads elephant hunts for tourists in Africa and sends money back to England for his son Harry, who is studying to be a medical doctor. Quatermain is troubled by pain in his left leg, the result of an old lion-related injury. This placid, limping old family man is… our hero?

These days, the post-modern “anti-hero” is a well-known trope, and doesn’t really raise eyebrows. We’re used to “reluctant heroes,” or heroes who may have so much baseness in them we’re never quite sure if they’re meant to actually be the villain. These days, heroes like Casablanca‘s Richard Blaine, who sticks his neck out for no one; or the ne’er-do-well-turned-do-gooder Han Solo — are just so much background noise. But there was a day when heroes were properly “heroes,” near gods, sparkling and triumphant monuments of virtue, bravery and strength. King Solomon’s Mines was published near enough to that golden age of heroes that I expected Allan Quatermain to be Errol Flynn with a bullwhip and a necklace made out of crocodile teeth. I’m surprised to find in place of that image the slight, quiet, older man who is “sick of adventure.”

He makes Indiana Jones — who I had long believed to be a direct conceptual descendant of Quatermain — look like one of those spotless god-like heroes of yore. When in fact, Spielberg and Lucas invented their bullwhip-toting archeologist to embody the antithesis of that mode of heroism. They wanted something to give James Bond a run for his money, and they did it by dispensing with the luxury automobiles, the perfect hair, the white tuxedoes, the upper-class drinks and the ease with women which 007 had. The idea was to make Indiana Jones more of an “every man,” rougher around the edges. His iconic outfit places functionality over style. He sports a permanent five o’clock shadow. He drops things, miscalculates, and frequently finds himself in over his head. That desperate last-minute grab for his rumpled fedora is a very meaningful gesture. He’s a shop-worn hero, but not the first of his kind by a long shot. Humphrey Bogart had been treading those same mean streets long before Harrison Ford. As Rick Blaine in Casablanca, of course, he may have looked at times like Sean Connery as James Bond, but his selfish go-to-hell attitude was refreshing in its jadedness. But of course Rick had a heart of gold deep down, just as Sam Spade (The Maltese Falcon, 1941) and Philip Marlowe (The Big Sleep, 1946) had. In fact, his character Dobbs from Treasure of the Sierra Madre may be more responsible for Indiana Jones (at least in the costume department) than Allan Quatermain.

Humphrey Bogart vs. Harrison Ford

Bogart's "Dobbs" from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; the influence on Indiana Jones seems like more than mere coincidence.

But I want to be careful that I don’t divorce Indiana and Allan completely. I think there is still some genetic makeup handed down from Haggard’s hero to Lucas’. Both have larger-than-life adventures with decidedly paranormal elements, yet both balance those nutty adventures with very human traits: Quatermain’s frailty and cowardice, Jones’ exuberant oversights and handicapping phobias (“Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?”). Neither adventurer strikes one as highly composed, unflappable, smooth, or bloodthirsty. Jones may have a looser regard for human life than Quatermain does when push comes to shove (Spielberg looks back with regret at the famous scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indy cooly dispatches a showy swordsman with a single shot from his revolver), but in each case blood is shed only as a provision for self-defense, and never on a first-strike basis.

The curious common denominator through all of this is Sean Connery. Connery was the first (and some, such as myself, might argue the best) man to portray Ian Flemming’s secret agent James Bond on film. It was in Connery’s hands that 007 became known for his cool-under-pressure style, the perfect hair even after bone-jarring action sequences. “Bond” became synonymous for fashionable clothing, top-of-the-line accessories, luxury automobiles and women that were every bit as fast and sleek, and responded every bit as willingly to his prompting. Sean Connery, then, is the mode of hero that Indiana Jones deliberately set out to deconstruct. Yet who should be cast in The Last Crusade as Indy’s father? None other than the original James Bond, but this time in a far more docile and dottering mode. As Henry Jones, Sr., Connery aided in dismantling the same archetype he helped to establish in the early 1960s. Indy’s dad can’t handle a machine gun, and participates in action sequences by stirring up a flock of geese with his umbrella, and then quoting poetry. His rumpled hat and tweed three-piece suit are a far cry from Bond’s tuxedo.

Indiana Jones and father, Henry Jones Sr.

Adventuresome genes: Henry Jones Jr. (don't call him "Junior") and Henry Jones Sr.

By casting Connery as Quatermain in the 2003 film adaptation of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, director Stephen Norrington is drawing upon Connery’s persona as the original James Bond. But dressing him in a wide-brimmed outback hat guarantees that audiences will also appreciate the Indiana Jones reference. And in so doing, Norrington makes Allan Quatermain quite literally the father of Indiana Jones.

Sean Connery as Allan Quatermain

Allan Quatermain, or father of Indiana Jones? Or both? (And James Bond, too!)

In that sense, the casting seems appropriate. But that’s a post-modern, pop-culture sort of rationality which may suit the source graphic novel for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (which itself practices a sort of post-modern witchcraft by uniting different heroes from Victorian fiction and treating them as though they might have co-existed in some kind of alternate history), but it does little in service of Haggard’s novel.

Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in MGM's "King Solomon's Mines," 1950

Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in MGM's "King Solomon's Mines," 1950

Back in 1950, MGM did very little to honor Haggard’s original vision, either. They forced a female lead into the story where there never was one (most versions of King Solomon’s Mines are guilty of this, but I confess it does seem like a good move), and cast Stewart Granger as Allan Quatermain. (The role of Quatermain was originally offered to Errol Flynn, who turned it down to star in the movie adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim. King Solomon’s Mines was far more successful, and helped propel Stewart Granger to stardom. He reprised the role of Quatermain in a 1959 sequel called Watusi. Haggard actually wrote a sequel to King Solomon’s Mines called Allan Quatermain, but as far as I can tell Watusi is not based on that novel; in fact, Watusi claims to also be based on Haggard’s novel, King Solomon’s Mines.)

A loose comedy-adventure adaptation was made in 1985, starring Richard Chamberlain (who kind of looks like Chuck Norris to me) in the main role. The last live action version was the TV movie produced by Hallmark Entertainment in 2004, starring Patrick Swayze as Allan Quartermain (instead of Quatermain as it is in the novel). Finally, that ubiquitous action actor Sam Worthington is set to play him in some kind of sci-fi version of King Solomon’s Mines, in which Quatermain returns to planet Earth— well, enough said I guess. That sounds awful.

Sam Worthington — the Quatermain who fell to Earth.

I think you’ll agree with me, even if you haven’t read the book and have only read my scant introduction to the character, that none of these actors seems to quite capture Allan Quatermain. At best, they manage to capture other characters (James Bond, Indiana Jones, etc.) as a sort of place-holder for the man himself. Sean Connery may have been the most age-appropriate, but he didn’t exude the retiring nature of Haggard’s elephant-hunting accidental hero. What I would like to know is, who would you like to see play Allan Quatermain?

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TO: Whomever is making the next 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea film adaptation

RE: The action center-piece of your movie

I know that if I ask you what is the most memorable action sequence from 20,000 Leagues, you’ll instantly say, “The attack of the giant squid!” Yeah, if your cast includes Kirk Douglas and James Mason, maybe. That is so 1954, though.

Listen, forget about the squid. I’ve got something — that is, Jules Verne has something — that will make that giant squid look like a plate of so much calamari.

Before that famous battle with the squid the novel takes us into the frigid waters of the South Pole, where the Nautilus submerges to bask in the few hours of sun afforded by an arctic afternoon. Professor Aronnax and his fellow travelers sight a herd of baleen whales in the distance, and the harpooner, Ned Land, being a hunter, is struck with blood-lust. He begs Capt. Nemo for permission to direct the submarine closer to the baleen whales so he can throw a few harpoons at them.

This may strike modern ears as somewhat ruthless, and the interesting thing is that, through Captain Nemo’s response, Jules Verne here anticipates the green-conscious mentality that so defines our present age. Because the submarine doesn’t use whale oil, and because the pantry is stocked with food, Nemo answers Ned thusly: “Now it would be killing for the sake of killing. I know very well that’s a privilege reserved for humanity, but I don’t allow such murderous pastimes.” He goes on to admonish the harpooner and lecture the reader about the consequences of hunting for sport and fortune:

In killing decent, inoffensive creatures like the southern right whale or the bowhead whale, people like you, Mr. Land, commit a reprehensible crime. Thus, your colleagues have already depopulated all of Baffin Bay, and they’ll wipe out a whole class of useful animals. So just leave those poor cetaceans alone.”

Ah, Nemo! The unexpected voice of modern reason, of geologic awareness. Perhaps we could cast Al Gore as the famous submarine captain (don’t laugh, he wasn’t too bad in that one episode of 30 Rock!). We can co-market the film with World Wildlife Fund, or Green Peace.

Baleen Whale

The innocent baleen whale

But where, you might ask, is the dreaded Captain Nemo we love to fear? Where is that inscrutable personage of obscure intent, that radical freedom-fighter, that monomaniacal terrorist of the Seven Seas? Just wait! This episode is not so cut-and-dried as it seems:

A moment after Nemo has tendered his inflexible verdict on Ned Land’s hunting proposal, the submarine captain studies a second herd of whales approaching the baleen whales, and speaks again: “Those are sperm whales — terrible beasts. I’ve sometimes met them in herds of 200 or 300! As for them, they’re cruel, destructive animals, and people are right to kill them.” Further down the page he says, “We’ll take no pity on those ferocious cetaceans. They’re nothing but mouth and teeth!”

Making use of the ram on the prow of the Nautilus, Captain Nemo proceeds to mercilessly tear through the herd of sperm whales in a scene of carnage to rival those presented in the Odyssey and the Iliad. Verne even describes the scene as “this Homeric massacre”:

What carnage! What a noise over the waves! What sharp hisses and snorts, peculiar to their species, issued from these terrified sperm whales… The sea was covered with mutilated corpses. A powerful explosion could not have cut up, torn, or shredded those masses of flesh with greater violence… The waves were tinted red over an area of several miles—we were floating in a sea of blood.”

The reason I suggest this is the pièce de résistance in any ambitious film adaptation of Verne’s science-fiction masterwork is that not only would Industrial Light and Magic impressively render the battle between those giant whales and that marvel of the Victorian age, Nemo’s submarine (but is it a battle? or is it unabashed slaughter?); but the sequence has moral drama in addition to physical. Our modern interpretation of animal preservationism includes protecting the natural predators of certain animals as a population control, with overbreeding the result of over-sheltering. Certainly we wish to guard against trophy-hunters, but typically we try to maintain the natural perils to which a species has long been subjected, and in spite of which it has developed a way to survive and propagate in the natural world. Does Captain Nemo have any right to interfere with this delicate balance, even under the guise of altruism? Are certain species like the sperm whale naturally “mean-spirited,” or more “evil” than other species? And if so, is Man permitted to slay these creatures for that reason? Sharks, for example, have often been characterized as little more than eating machines, but the thought of systematically destroying them because of this — or even of characterizing them as hateful because of it — seems a bit overboard. Surely all animals just do what it’s in their nature to do to survive, and blackness of heart doesn’t enter into the equation.

Sperm Whale

The villainous sperm whale. (OK, I admit, it does look kind of scary.)

In the moral ambiguity of this sequence, Captain Nemo’s ambiguous character is brought into sharp relief. Almost in the same breath he has expressed a bleeding-heart liberal’s concern for the effects of senseless hunting, and simultaneously advocated vigilante justice being meted out to more “ill-tempered” beasts. This is, in fact, the same schizophrenic approach to justice that motivates everything Nemo does. On one hand, he’ll donate a fabulous pearl to an impoverished nation; on the same day, he may plunge the ram of the Nautilus into the hull of a ship, sinking it and drowning its entire crew. At times he is a compelling symbol of independence. Other times, he is a chilling terrorist.

Friend or foe? Hero or villain? Such is the puzzle of Captain Nemo. Verne has left us numerous classic works of speculative fiction, but he hasn’t left us a wealth of memorable characters. Captain Nemo is clearly an exception, and has endured as a fascinating character precisely because of his enigmatic take on right and wrong, exemplified in the titanic clash between his fearsome Nautilus and those wicked sperm whales.

That’s why my money is on the sperm whale sequence to replace the old “giant squid” routine as the most memorable thing to come out of a new adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea: audiences won’t know whether to cheer for the savage defeat of the baleen whales’ enemies, or whether to be appalled at such unflinching devastation wreaked upon innocent animals. Likely, they will feel a troubling mixture of gratification and horror. Caught in a moral dead-zone, one thing is certain: their jaws will be hanging open in amazement at the spectacle, as mine was reading this passage in the novel.

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Thought the age of swashbuckling died with the invention of the steam engine? This ingenious short film by Terry Gilliam, which played before Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life, proves that the spirit of Errol Flynn was alive and well, at least as recently as the mid Eighties.

(you’ll need about 15 minutes to spare)

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