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Hammer Films, best known as the House of Horror, enjoyed a long history reaching as far back as the 1930s when it began as a production unit of the distribution company Exclusive Films. Exclusive had been started by William Hinds and Enrique Carreras, and Hammer remained a family-run firm throughout its heyday as a producer of small-budget but stylish horror movies. James Carreras, son of Enrique, presided over Hammer's famous repertory group of horror directors, writers, actors, editors, production designers, and composers, bringing his son Michael into the fold as a producer in the 1960s alongside William Hinds's son, Tony.
Though a small company with a modest studio at Bray, Hammer proved to be successful enough by the 1960s to attract the interests of Hollywood, and studios such as 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., and MGM made deals with the House of Horror to coproduce films and distribute them in the U.S. Taking advantage of these deals, Hammer sought to maximize profits and diversify their output by increasing budgets and branching out into other genres. She, released in 1965, proved a successful foray into a new direction for Hammer, though Michael Carreras soon grew leery of the increased budgets that accompanied his studio's change in course.
She, H. Rider Haggard's story of a lost world in the jungles of Africa, was destined for cinema almost from the beginning. Haggard published his novel in 1887, and by 1908, a one-reeler of the story had been directed by Edwin S. Porter for Thomas Edison's company. In 1917, a longer interpretation was released by Fox Film starring forgotten actress Valeska Suratt, promoted in publicity materials as the Vampire Woman. Eight years later, an English version surfaced with Betty Blythe as the title character. Prior to Hammer's production, the most well-known interpretation of She was produced by Merian C. Cooper for RKO in 1935. Cooper changed the setting to the frozen north and cast Helen Gahagan as She in her only film role. The material was ripe for an update when Hammer took on the project in 1963.
Originally, Universal partnered with Hammer to produce She, and the project was assigned to Tony Hinds. He hired John Temple Smith to write the first draft of the script, which mirrored the original novel, but the content proved too dark and violent for Universal. Hinds had the script rewritten by Berkeley Mather, but Universal still did not warm up to the material. The project passed to Michael Carreras, who asked David T. Chantler to write another version and steer it toward an adventure tale. MGM stepped in to co-finance and coproduce, tripling the budget of the average Hammer film and making She its most expensive production to date. But MGM knew how to exploit the film, which starred Ursula Andress--famous for her turn as the bikini-clad Bond Girl walking out of the ocean in Dr. No. The posters for She featured Andress's impressive physique, and publicity took advantage of her jet-set lifestyle. She became a commercial hit on two continents.
The film opens in Palestine just after World War I. Three adventure-loving war buddies, Leo Vincey, Holly, and Holly's valet, Job, are enjoying themselves in a bar when a sultry local named Ustane approaches them. Hammer stalwart Peter Cushing plays Holly with his typical charisma and charm, while Bernard Cribbins complements him as his right-hand man Job--a fitting name for a character who is defined by his devotion to his employer. John Richardson costars as leading man Leo Vincey, though he lacks the magnetism of Cushing. Unknown to the men, Ustane secretly serves She, called Ayesha, and the young maiden recognizes Vincey as the reincarnation of her queen's long-dead lover, Kallikrates. Ayesha had murdered Kallikrates 2,000 years earlier for being unfaithful to her, but she pines for him regardless.
Based on Ustane's story, the trio is lured by the idea of a quest for a lost civilization and set out on a journey across the desert. They soon discover they are lost, though they are not without the creature comforts of the upper-crust adventurer. Job the valet, who never forgets his place, serves Holly and Leo their whiskey despite the dire circumstances. The trio reunites with Ustane in her desert village, where her father rules a lost tribe who guard the entrance to Kuma, Ayesha's kingdom. The three adventurers enter Kuma, which had been the scheming queen's long-term plan all along. Ustane has fallen in love with Leo, but Leo has become entranced by Ayesha, known variously as She Who Waits and She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ayesha wants Leo to step into her eternal flame so the two can be united for all eternity, but her priest, Billali, played by Hammer legend Christopher Lee, is jealous of the newcomer. A beautiful but selfish despot, Ayesha does not care about her subjects, including Ustane. She foolishly executes several of her subjects, causing an uprising and complicating the situation for the adventurers.
She was the first film from Hammer to be built around a female star. Tall and statuesque, Ursula Andress was a perfect choice to play Ayesha, though in retrospect she claims to have disliked the role. Andress has been criticized by reviewers for her icy demeanor and aloof detachment, but these characteristics proved beneficial for playing the steely-eyed Ayesha. Costumed in a selection of warm-colored, Grecian-styled gowns and gold jewelry, she glows onscreen, partly due to the flattering, high-key lighting of cinematographer Harry Waxman. Born in Switzerland to German parents, the exotic-looking beauty spoke with an accent, which Hammer's producers found too distracting. Andress's entire role was then re-voiced and dubbed over by an actress named Monica Van Der Syl, who mimicked a slight Swiss accent so audiences did not suspect the truth. John Richardson's lines were also dubbed in post-production by the actor himself, perhaps to give his line readings an added emphasis, since he tended to be overshadowed by Cushing and Lee.
The large budget for She is apparent on screen in the effective location shooting. Instead of the original jungle setting of the novel, writer David T. Chantler opted for a Middle Eastern background. The production shot for two weeks in Israel's Negev desert and then returned to England to shoot the interiors. Hammer's modest Bray Studio proved too small for the scale of the lavish Kuma sets, so the production set up at Elstree Studios. The authentic desert scenes gave She an epic quality not associated with Hammer's stylish but intimate horror films.
She did propel Hammer in a new direction, launching its so-called Hammer Glamour films of the 1960s, which starred or spotlighted female characters. A sequel, The Vengeance of She, was released in 1968, starring Olinka Berova in the starring role. It was yet another Hammer adventure tale with a sexy female lead that quickly outshone Andress and She at the box office. Released in 1966, One Million Years B.C. starred Raquel Welch in a role that propelled her to stardom and created one of the most memorable movie posters of the 1960s. Hammer would continue to place emphasis on women characters into the 1970s, but, just as Michael Carreras predicted, the big budgets that allowed for the location work in She and One Million Years B.C. quickly evaporated. Due to changes in tax laws and industry financing, American studios pulled out of British coproduction deals in the late 1960s, leaving Hammer with higher budgets and higher financial expectations from unions.
Producer: Michael Carreras
Director: Robert Day
Screenplay: David T. Chantler, based on H. Rider Haggard's novel
Cinematography: Harry Waxman
Editor: Eric Boyd-Perkins
Art Directors: Robert Jones and Don Mingaye
Music: James Bernard
Costume Designers: Carl Toms and Roy Ashton
Special Effects: George Blackwell and Bowie Films
Cast: Ayesha (Ursula Andress), Leo Vincey (John Richardson), Major Holly (Peter Cushing), Job (Bernard Cribbins), Ustane (Rosenda Monteros), Billali (Christopher Lee), Haumeid (Andre Morell), Captain of the Guard (John Maxim).
by Susan Doll