Ancient Rockets

Ancient Rockets: L’Atlantide

If you must know, I’m thirty-nine.

Well, this was a surprise!

L’Atlantide (English title: The Queen of Atlantis) dates from 1921, and has been remade a surprising number of times for what seems on the surface like pretty unpromising material. G.W. Pabst had a go at it in 1932, producing not one but three different versions for different markets. An American version was produced in 1949 as a vehicle for Maria Montez.  A sword-and-sandals version was done in Italy, replacing the French colonial heroes with Hercules and Androcles. Still another version was shot at Cinecitta in 1992. 

Factor in a plot involving a deathless queen residing in a lost city in the desert (yup, just like in Rider Haggard’s She) and you’re liable to conclude that L’Atlantide is a prime candidate for Cheesy Movie Night. I did; I slipped it into the DVD player out of a sense of duty, and settled down grimly determined to endure watching it so you, gentle reader, wouldn’t have to. But any time a film is repeatedly remade, there’s a reason.

This is a surprisingly good movie.

Let’s get the plagiarism issue out of the way first. L’Atlantide is based on the 1919 novel of the same name by Pierre Benoit. Benoit was, in fact, accused by a literary critic of knocking off Haggard’s 1886 novel She. A closer examination of the facts shows that Benoit had never read Haggard’s novel, which had not at that time been translated into French, and drew for his own book on legends he had heard while serving in North Africa. And apart from that deathless queen business, the whole feel of L’Atlantide is different, at least in Jacques Feyder’s 1921 adaptation. Legionnaires with secret sorrows, lines of camels on the dunes, enigmatic tribesmen, shimmering heat, remote outposts… man, has this film got atmosphere.

You need a high tolerance for old-fashioned storytelling, though. I have, so I was able to enjoy the deliberate (not to say glacial) pace at which the story unfolded. A desert patrol finds a lost French officer, Saint-Avit, the only survivor of an exploratory party that set out months earlier. While raving in his illness, he says some things that suggest he might have murdered the other expedition member, Captain Morhange. His fellow officers are willing to chalk it up to delirium, but the rumor gets around, and we learn that Captain Morhange was a saintly fellow beloved by all, celibate since the death of his wife and in fact planning on entering the priesthood.

Now a pariah in the Officer’s Mess, Saint-Avit takes leave and goes home to France. But them burning sands are calling, apparently, because after a few weeks in Paris he turns right around and heads back to North Africa. He gets himself assigned to the most distant outpost imaginable. The only other white officer stationed there, Lt. Ferrières, is desperately curious to know what really happened. So one night, as the long shadows stretch across the dunes and a servant in a fez tops up their Pernod, Saint-Avit conjures up a massive flashback…

I was really getting into this, in case you hadn’t guessed. I loved the cinematography that captured the clear blazing desert light, and the wide-angle shots of mounted Legionnaires on the horizon, and all that bygone-era exoticism.  I loved the tinted title cards with their 1920s Moroccan style. Atlantis, hell; this is really a lost world.

Anyway. Saint-Avit explains that he and Captain Morhange rode out together and came to an oasis at which a patrol had been massacred by Tuareg tribesmen some time before. Saint-Avit’s guide Bou-Djema, in fact, was the only known survivor, though the young French officer leading the patrol was carried off alive by the Tuaregs. Our heroes rode on from the fateful spot and shortly thereafter rescued an elderly Tuareg who had been robbed and left to die. No good deed goes unpunished, however: the old man had participated in the massacre at the oasis, riding away with the bound and struggling young officer. Bou-Djema recognized him, but was poisoned by the old man before he could spill the couscous. The old actor portraying the Tuareg, Abd-el-Kader Ben Ali, does a marvelous job with his role, calmly malign and implacable as he lures the two officers into his trap…

Here the film takes a left turn into kinky sexual fantasy. The Tuareg is the procurer for Queen Antinéa, immortal ruler of the survivors of Atlantis. She has a chamber containing 120 niches, one for each of her successive lovers. She has gone through 53 of them, producing 53 macabre gold-plated corpses. When she finally fills niche No. 120, er, “Antinéa will sit atop a throne in the center of the cave and rest forever.” I should hope so. And, oh no! The insatiable queen has developed a taste for handsome European officers! Especially Frenchmen! And, to make matters worse, she is enthralled by Captain Morhange, who is determinedly chaste, whereas Saint-Avit falls under her spell willingly! You know how this has to end, right?

Unfortunately, though Queen Antinéa is supposed to be a deathless beauty no man can resist (except Morhange), the actress chosen for the part was a bit long in the tooth and sort of overweight and… well, it isn’t true, as one critic said, that “there is one great actor in this film, that is the sand.” The sand does put in a better performance than Queen Antinéa, however.

But there are some interesting subsidiary characters, including the old Archivist of Atlantis and Antinéa’s poor little secretary Tanit-Zerga, once a desert princess in her own right but now, alas, a mere slave. It’s the sort of tragicomic role that might have been handed to Gilda Radner once upon a time, with more backstory accorded her than anyone else in the film. I also enjoyed a scene in which the ladies of the court gleefully open crates brought to them by caravan, containing cosmetics from Paris and modern (circa 1921) fashion magazines.

Sadly, the ending is more than a bit improbable, since it takes a hell of a lot of suspension of disbelief to imagine Queen Antinéa’s creepy charms could haunt a man. Even so, this proto-Indiana Jones yarn was a staggering popular success in its day, running for a full year at its original cinema; I don’t believe any other film matched that record until Star Wars: A New Hope broke records at Grauman’s Chinese.

And, be advised, this is a long film. Prepare yourself with some well-iced mint tea or a glass of Pernod. Don’t start watching late at night if you have to go to work the next day, because, for all L’Atlantide’s faults, you won’t be able to take your eyes off that sand.


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