Genre: Adventure and Fantasy Running Time: 1 hr. 41 min.
Release Date: July 12th, 1935 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Lansing C. Holden, Irving Pichel Actors: Helen Gahagan, Randolph Scott, Helen Mack, Nigel Bruce, Julius Adler, Lumsden Hare
edridden John Vincey (Samuel S. Hinds) is dying of radium poisoning. His final wishes, as conveyed by longtime friend Horace Holly (Nigel Bruce), is to see his nephew, Leo (Randolph Scott), who arrives just in the nick of time. Although a man of science, John believes in fate – and a great secret, a family legend, passed down through the generations. Five centuries ago, Vincey’s widow wrote a letter about her husband’s death, chronicling an arduous trek across Russia, contending with vicious beasts and fanatical natives who harbor the perpetually burning flame of life – an unknown radioactive element that can grant eternal vitality. It’s the means of overcoming man’s ultimate enemy: time itself.
And so, athwart the world’s utmost northern rim travel Leo and Horace, hoping to discover the dangerous secrets of the all-powerful flame of life. When they stop at a meager trading post for some uncommon hospitality, they meet the rugged, conniving Dugmore (Lumsden Hare) and his conspicuously attractive and petite daughter Tanya (Helen Mack), who shed a bit of light on the legends, which involve a mysterious white woman who commands legions of followers. When Dugmore sees Vincey’s gold statuette, with inscriptions that should come in handy when locating the occult flame, he insists upon becoming a partner in the mission, believing that a wealth of valuable minerals awaits him.
Avalanches, fearful natives, sabertooth tigers, insatiable greed, and myriad other threats hinder their advance, though convenient new paths always seem to present themselves. As the group ventures through seemingly impassable cliffs of glaciers, working their way deeper underground as if journeying to the center of the earth, the conflicts increase, revealing an ancient civilization and its uncontested, ferocious leader – known plainly as She (Helen Gahagan). And She must be obeyed!
As with many of Merian C. Cooper’s productions, paired with H. Rider Haggard’s anthropological adventures, the beginning is fast-moving and devoid of unnecessary distractions; the characters are incomplex and the action consistent. This is, of course, joined by frightful tribulations that are eluded rather easily; potential horrors quickly give way to fascination and excitement. The simplistic storytelling lends to unintentional humor as well, firstly when Tanya attempts to communicate with a high priest using comically stilted English and meaningless hand gestures (though, as luck would have it, English isn’t a completely unknown language to the remarkably isolated peoples of the arctic). There’s also an unconvincing naïveté surrounding She’s rule by fear, along with Leo’s uncertain attraction to Tanya. Similarly, it takes a laughable amount of time for Vincey and his pals to realize their fateful connections and perilous situation.
Various special effects are primitive yet effective, as are palatial but sparse sets. The costuming is also amusing, save for Scott, whose casual clothing never matches the royal garb and armory of his exotic captors. But despite the appeal in themes of immortality, reincarnation, temptation, unrelenting cruelty, disastrous jealousy, and the folly of man’s selfish indulgences, there aren’t enough intricacies to make the premise consequential. The love triangle is engaging, but it’s far too straightforward. And by the overlong, repetitious conclusion, which focuses heavily (almost ludicrously so) on ceremonial dances and torch-lighting marches, it’s obvious that there just isn’t sufficient substance to this tale of destiny, destruction, and sacrifice.
– Mike Massie