This film is held by the BFI (ID: 211541).


Adventure melodrama of the search for legendary diamond mines in the heart of Africa.




The 1937 British-Gaumont adaptation of King Solomon’s Mineswas the second film version of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 bestseller, following a South African production in 1918 (Cameron, 24-26). Subsequent productions included a box-office hit of 1950-51 featuring Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger, a 1985 flop starring a youthful Sharon Stone and Richard Chamberlain, and a 2004 television mini-series starring Patrick Swayze. Haggard’s enormously successful novels have been credited with inventing Africa for several generations of British readers. They seem especially to have stirred the fervour of young men for distant travels and exploration while simultaneously producing geographies of anxiety about what might lurk in those worlds beyond (see Stiebel, 1-36). An early Haggard biographer claimed that “[f]or many Englishmen, Africa became the Africa of King Solomon’s Mines” (Morton Cohen, cited Stiebel, 54). Haggard’s ‘Africa’ was crucial to cinematic representation of Africa, inspiring numerous films from the 1910s and marking most films of the colonial period even when Haggard’s novels were not the formal narrative foundation (see Cameron, 17-32).

The 1937 film directed by Robert Stevenson belongs to one of two ‘imperialist trilogies’ from the 1930s which set the stage for British perceptions of Africa in the run-up to the Second World War and, ultimately, positioned British interests in the continent as significant enough to fight for, not only during the War but in the subsequent three decades of decolonisation. The second, to which King Solomon’s Mines belonged, were produced by Michael Balcon for Gaumont-British and included Rhodes of Africa (1936) and Great Barrier (1936) (see Richards ([1986] and Dunn). The black-and-white production of King Solomon’s Mines resembles most British films of this era in that its ‘location shooting’ was limited to a second unit’s work (led by Geoffrey Barkas) which served as a backdrop for actors back home in the studio. Film historian Jeffrey Richards has argued of the cinema of this decade, which saw attendance at the cinema rise from 18 to 23 million weekly visits, that “[f]or ordinary people, the Empire was the mythic landscape of romance and adventure” ([1986] 141-43). Most importantly, for the urban working-class audiences of this era, the quarter of the globe that was ‘coloured red’ was ‘ours’ ([1986] 143). Richards noted that films of this period moved away from representing the Empire as “the White Man’s Burden” – emphasising ‘hard work, self-sacrifice, duty, and death –  in favour of a new jaunty version of an Empire of adventure and benefits, what he terms ‘produce imperialism’, demonstrating the positive benefits of Empire, such as the Gold Coast’s cocoa or Malaya’s rubber. Diamonds from South Africa are on Richards’ list of the products that British cinema-goers of the 1930s were encouraged to welcome ([1986] 147). Unlike the 1950 Hollywood production of King Solomon’s Mines with its nearly incidental treasure hunt and its rewards not reaped by the Europeans, the 1937 version centers on the quest for this imperial produce and makes much of the protagonists’ success in obtaining it.

The Gaumont-British film featured one of the era’s best-known American actors, bass-baritone concert singer Paul Robeson (1898-1976), who achieved stardom with Eugene O’Neill’s Emperor Jones on Broadway in 1924 and later reprised the role in a successful but censored Hollywood production (1933) before making the Universal hit Show Boat where his version of ‘Ol’ Man River’ became so imprinted on the American imagination as to become his trademark song. After graduating from Rutgers University and Columbia Law School, he had gone to London to study African languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He made most of his 1930s films in England, including Sanders of the River (1935) and King Solomon’s Mines. His political activism from this era well into the post-war period made him an object of fascination as well as a heroic figure for many leftists in the USA and abroad, but it also brought constant harassment: he was obliged to flee Europe in the late 1930s because of Nazi threats; the McCarthy era found him bullied repeatedly in interrogations and by the Press; in the 1950s the US government restricted his travel (see Boyle). Robeson’s interest in Africa in the 1930s, forged in part through his doctoral study and political activism, focused on destroying stereotypes about Africans. Having declared to the British press of 1934 that he had ‘seen all the African films...that have been made… and found them wanting’ (cited Musser, 414), Robeson and his wife Eslanda Goode Robeson engaged in several projects designed to undo the fantasies of ‘savage blacks’ propagated by fiction and documentary film alike. After the embarrassment of Sanderswhere he was cast as a disingenuous and sycophantic underling to a British district officer (see Duberman, 178-82), Robeson sought projects that would honour Africans. Claiming disgust with a film that he described as showing blacks “as Fascist States desire him – savage and childish” (cited Duberman, 180), Robeson turned to the documentary My Song Goes Forth(1937) and to the role of King Umbopa in the fictional King Solomon’s Mines. It is hard not to see these roles as complete opposites: in the former, Robeson plays himself, singing movingly and narrating an introduction about the important contributions of native blacks to South Africa (see Musser, 413ff); in the latter, he performs a role long embedded in the imaginations of British audiences as the king of a lost tribe who regains his birthright with the help of European friends he has befriended on his journey home. Yet both roles were part of Robeson’s revelation that American blacks should take the lead in ‘uplifting Africa’ by encouraging Africans to be true to their own culture and values (Duberman, 173ff). Playing Umbopa was about reclaiming his own birthright through that of the King with the snake on his belly.

Robeson reportedly was excited about how this film would let him rise beyond his usual image since there was a ‘definite part taken out of a book’ (Picture Show, 1936, cited Editors of Freedomways, 78), but almost as soon as the film was in production, its clichés about Africa were evident. The film boasted ‘twenty-seven thousand natives in ‘authentic’ animal skins! grass huts! erupting volcanoes’ (Duberman, 207). However, it did not deign to employ Americans for many of these roles and it sneakily cast a white actress in blackface, Sydney Fairbrother, as the witch Gagool while omitting her name from the credits. The film’s ethnographic sequences may have been marketable in 1937 as ‘authentic’ to a British audience who, in H.G. Wells’s words, knew about as much about Africa as about the Italian Renaissance (cited in Richards [1986] 143-44), but today they appear staged and even exploitative. The Africans are not individualised or identified by tribe or location. There are even bare-breasted womenplaced among crowds without any motivation for their presence. Only the Europeanised and quite obviously American Umbopa is treated with much respect – and barely that. Umbopa’s claim to the throne is depicted as comical by the aristocratic Captain Good who remarks, ‘You don’t get a snake on your stomach for nothing, you know’.

King Solomon’s Mines did not deliver the colonial message as successfully as Sanders and pleased crowds and critics proportionally less. It was initially required by the British censors to tone down its violence (Richards [1984] 149), lessening some of the excitement of the much-vaunted battle sequences. Robeson’s centrality diminished the surprise revelation of his identity: one guesses from the start that he is not really the servant he agrees to become. Further problematically, his singing derailed a plot audiences knew well from a novel which promised adventure – not serenades to the ‘Mighty Mountain’. British critics complained he was given ‘the silliest lyrics ever escaped from the limbo of postwar song scenes” (cited Boyle, 353). One periodical even suggested he was hypocritical in his putative interest in Africa since he had failed to set foot on the continent: Picture Show sniped that Robeson “has had Africa brought to the studio for his convenience” (cited Boyle, 354 n65). The American press was even less enthusiastic, with the black Pittsburgh Couriercomplaining that Robeson was made ‘to sing childish lyrics to dreary tunes in the most unlikely circumstances’ (cited Duberman, 207). Reviews on both continents were lukewarm (Editors of Freedomways, 78-79), though the film was reasonably successful’ in Britain even if it did not rise into the top ten for 1937 (Reid, 168).

No account of this film would be complete without following its star beyond the 1930s into the era when a new film version of Haggard’s novel in 1950-51 would draw millions at the box offices of North America, Britain, Australia, continental Europe, and even Japan. After playing Othelloin the early 1940s in the longest-running Broadway production in history, Robeson found himself under investigation by the House Un-American Committee and under surveillance by the FBI, CIA and British Intelligence agencies. In August 1950, just months before the premiere of the Hollywood remake of King Solomon’s Mines, Robeson was deprived of his passport and prohibited from travel until 1958 (Duberman, 388-90; Borstelmann, 67). Chillingly, while Americans were being invited to dream of something approximating a real Africa through one of the most ambitious location shoots in the history of cinema, one of the world’s most important voices on behalf of racial equality was being nearly silenced.

Whereas the film in which Robeson had starred in 1937 let him save the white Europeans whom he began by pretending to serve, it gave little sign of knowing that the country from which they started their journey was the Cape Colony. By 1950 when Robeson’s career as an international political activist had been shackled, the new film would likewise forget the name of the country where it was taking place: ‘Africa – 1897’ was the best it could do for a setting. In contrast, Robeson chose to remember – and loudly so – the country his wife had visited just before King Solomon’s Minesstarted filming. In 1948, during political appearances in London, Robeson made public attacks on South Africa’s institution of apartheid, and he continued to attack separatist policies at home and abroad throughout the next decades (Duberman, 340). While he had been willing in 1937 to play-act a munificent ruler who awards diamonds to the colonial invaders, in 1945 he was wiring President Truman to urge “support [for] the principle of full freedom with [a] specified time for all colonial peoples” (cited Duberman, 297). The diamonds he envisioned by the time the State Department took his passport away were no longer cinematic but political, social, and economic. And he argued that they belonged with those whose rights had been denied. 




From the evidence offered by the films, Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines was missing a central element: a white female character to accompany the European protagonists on their quest to uncharted Africa. Every version of the film after the South African production inserts a white woman into its plot and gives her a love interest. All carefully eschew the mixed-race romance of the novel (between Goode and Foulata). Most even sidestep the subplot around the black African witch Gagool, though the 30s production keeps her in the picture but played by in blackface by a white British actress.

The 1937 version invents an entire plot thread around characters who did not appear in the novel, Kathy O’Brien and her conman father, the latter of whom steals the map to Solomon’s mines and heads off in search of wealth with the tacit approval of ostensible hero ‘Allan Quartermain’. His name updated efficiently, the ‘white hunter’ who was at the center of fourteen novels quickly sinks into the background of the film, marginalised by the plucky Irish girl played by Anna Lee (who decades later rose to fame on American daytime soap General Hospital with a name recalling her early role here: “Lila Quatermaine”) and her romance with the dashing Henry Curtis. Sharing the limelight with the class-mixing couple is Paul Robeson’s Umbopa who belts out refrain after refrain of showtune-like melodies. The incognito king participates in the quest for nearly the entire 80-minute film (unlike the 1950 production where the African king only makes his first appearance three quarters of the way through the film). Kathy and Umbopa may be the outsiders to the little clan of gentlemanly British aristocrats, but the film associates them with gumption and guts  – and gives them most of the best lines. With no ado and even less fainting, Kathy sets out into the wilderness to find her father. She steals a wagon, cuts off her hair, re-tailors Quartermain’s old breeches to her own size, and organises her own expedition northward. Umbopa accompanies her with cheery songs, then once her friends arrive in pursuit, ultimately mobilises the hunting-party-turned-treasure-seekers across the desert. His skills prove invaluable: he shows them how to find an oasis beneath the sands and gets them up and down the treacherous mountains which he tells, ‘ I’m gonna climb you’. 

If the expedition at times looks like a Girl Scout hike and the absence of animals other than beasts of burden is so striking that at times one wonders what level of gullibility the producers were expecting in their audiences, the film’s last third nevertheless delivers on ethnographic thrills.  Almost as soon as the characters have declared, ‘This place is a paradise’, we discover the people whose ‘unseen eyes’ have been watching the Europeans. As if necessary to slow the heavy flirting of Kathy and Curtis, crowds of chanting, drum-beating, and spear-bearing Africans lurch into the frame, circling around and protecting a fat, bare-bellied, and droopy-eyed king sporting a remarkably unflattering batch of ostrich feathers around his shoulders. The film spares no excess in demonstrating that the evil usurper, King Twyla, needs to be defeated at all costs: he is cruel to his servants –  in contrast to Quartermain who has at least been kind, if patronising, to Umbopa during the journey in which the black man was cast as his servant. Defeating Twyla ultimately requires fake ‘magic’, repeatedly demonstrating the naivete and even stupidity of the Africans: since the latter have never seen guns, Quartermain shoots the tip off a spear and the entire crowd backs down; providentially, one of the Englishmen remembers that an eclipse is coming up and they are able to use its darkness to terrify the Africans just at the crucial moment when they might otherwise have been slaughtered. Cedric Robinson has remarked that most of the films about Africa following Trader Horn (1931) seemed premised on the notion that ‘the only sustaining African entertainment was chasing whites and the only certain occupations were carrying supplies for whites on safari or plunging into an abyss’ (328). Despite the willingness of King Solomon’s Mines to offer top billing to Robeson, it makes his character a riff on the ‘noble savage’, little more than a safari supply-bearer. And it has no qualms about turning the ‘primitive’ savages of its much-vaunted ethnographic section into a thousands-strong crowd of idiots who are dumbstruck by guns, eclipses, and belly-snakes.

The mine sequence might well be the most suspenseful version in the sound film adaptations. It is accompanied by an erupting volcano that spectators are obliged to take on faith since the production had no money to shoot volcanoes – active or dormant. Visually baroque to the point of confusion – leaving many gaps in exposition –  the sequence is nonetheless sufficiently developed to lend danger and malaise to a film that is otherwise too coy and gimmicky. This is a film that knows its goal lies deep in the bowels of African earth. But if it makes Kathy and Curtis the engineers of that exercise in ‘product imperialism’, it cannot escape the narrative logic according to which the domesticised emblem of African nobility is necessary for their survival. By the end of the film, when Curtis is chosen to fight Twyla, the film’s ultimate payoff seems a toss-up between getting the one-eyed monster off the throne and getting the girl. Getting anything else – and survival intact – will require Umbopa’s help. And his generosity ultimately brings the team a cache of diamonds – and the surprise of a live father for Kathy. Entering fully into the fantasy world required by a story of lost kingdoms and a quest to reclaim the jewels of a white Biblical ruler, the film proffers three happy endings: the hero gets the girl, gets the diamonds, and gets out intact.

What resonates throughout this film, despite the occasionally moving performance by Robeson who drives his own bargain with this script and repeatedly goes against the grain of its colonialist, imperialist, and racist ideology, is the obsessiveness with which the film joins the ambitions of the characters seeking diamonds. There is almost no sequence when the hunger for the jewels is not front and centre – and there is also not a moment when the film seems to question this goal cinematically or narratively. While it assigns the dynamic for the gem-seeking to the unscrupulous (if comical) Patrick O’Brien, its other characters line up like soldiers to find him (his daughter with the help of Umbopa), find her (Quartermain and Curtis), and find adventure (Goode). Even at the moment when they confront impending doom on a rock shelf above a fiery lava pit, the discussion turns to the irony of their losing the ‘fortune in diamonds’ because the mountain has chosen just this moment to ‘sit down on it’. And especially in this moment of dire danger, it is remarkable that the film ensures we see that Goode has grabbed a handful of diamonds. The treasure will accrue to both sides of the class divide: the rich are just as happy to risk life and limb on gemstones as the poor and just as headstrong about jeopardising their escape to line their pockets. While the journey is initially framed by a sharp condemnation by Umbopa of ‘white man’s’ interest in diamonds, the film seems to suggest to its audience that they tacitly ignore what the lost tribe guards in the wilds of uncharted Africa. One of the reasons Kukuanaland exists seems to be to keep watch over the lost treasure of Ophir, that mythical wealth that once belonged to the Queen of Sheba – and with which she seduced King Solomon. The Kukuanas may not be explicitly interested in what the treasure will buy in the Cape Colony or in London, but the evil witch Gagool, a stand-in for Sheba’s interests here, spares no treachery in ensuring that the white invaders will take nothing from her caves. The film concludes by saying (through the handwriting in Quartermain’s diary) that ‘the mighty walls of rock . . . bur[ied] for all eternity . . . the secrets of King Solomon’s Mines,’ but it also tells the British audiences back home that those gems are still there. With good equipment, able-bodied local labour, and better machines than we saw in the opening footage of diamond mines, the spectators could mount their own quest and find their own riches in those hills. Regardless of whether Umbopa thinks his tribe has parted forever with European colonial visitors, this film tells its audience what they should dream about in Africa. And it tells us even decades later that inland Africa has not seen the last of invaders. They’ll be back.

Jann Matlock


Works Cited

Borstelmann, Thomas. The Cold War and the Color Line: American Race Relations in the Global Arena. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 2001.

Boyle, Sheila Tully and Andrew Bunie. Paul Robeson: The Years of Praise and Achievement. Amherst: U. of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Cameron, Kenneth M. Africa on Film: Beyond Black and White. New York: Continuum, 1994.

Duberman, Martin Bauml. Paul Robeson. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1988.

Dunn, Kevin, “Lights...Camera...Africa: Images of Africa and Africans in Western Popular Films of the 1930s,” African Studies Review, 39: 1 (April 1996), 149-75.

Editors of Freedomways, Paul Robeson: The Great Forerunner. 1965; rpt. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company, 1978.

Haggard, H. Rider. King Solomon’s Mines. 1885; rpt. London: Penguin, 2007.

Musser, Charles. “Presenting a ‘True Idea of the African of To-day’: Two Documentary Forays by Paul and Eslanda Robeson,” Film History, 18: 4 (2006), 412-39.

Reid, John Howard. Success in the Cinema: Money-Making Movies and Critics’ Choices. Np:, 2006.

Richards, Jeffrey. The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939. London: Routledge, 1984.

Richards, Jeffrey. “Boys Own Empire: Feature Films and Imperialism in the 1930s” in Imperialism and Popular Culture, ed. John M. MacKenzie. Manchester: UP, 1986, 140-164.

Robinson, Cedric. Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: Blacks and the Regimes of Race in American Theater and Film before World War II. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 2007.

Stiebel, Lindy. Imagining Africa: Landscape in H. Rider Haggard’s African Romances. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.




Technical Data

Running Time:
80 minutes
Film Gauge (Format):
35mm Film
7283 ft

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain