Hammer's 1965 version of She can't match Merian C. Cooper's 1935 version for spectacle but it's still rather more handsomely mounted than you'd expect from the studio: location shooting, numerous sets and more extras than usual even if these descendants of Ancient Egyptians seem to have an army consisting of Roman legionaries. The most commercially successful adaptation of `the famous novel by H. Rider Haggard' (as the credits bill it), even inspiring a dreary sequel, The Vengeance of She, it's also surprisingly good, with rather more substance than you might expect.
Played partially as an old-fashioned adventure with far more action than any other version, the story is updated to post-WW1 Palestine, its explorers (Peter Cushing, John Richardson and mild comic relief Bernard Cribbins) now reimagined as demobbed soldiers uprooted by the war. "She who waits" is introduced into the picture surprisingly early and long before they reach her domain - here it is Ayesha herself who urges Leo to make the hazardous journey to prove that he is the reincarnation of her lost love. The second half makes more of the battle for Leo's soul, with more of an argument made against the temptations of eternal youth than in other versions, and the film goes to much darker places than its predecessors: this time Leo is lost long before the blue flame appears, and the end remarkably bleak. Being Hammer it also ups the sadism, not only in a mass execution of chained slaves but in the manner in which one character is `returned' to their family.
With Haggard's novel touching on the worship of beauty and youth above character or even basic humanity (She is so in thrall to her image of a lover that she blames herself for his infidelity) it's actually rather fitting that both leads are dubbed: Ursula Andress because of her thick accent - but then, no-one ever cast her for her voice - and John Richardson because, well, with his zombie-like vocal delivery that made him the Clive Owen of his day: acting never was his forte as long as he had the looks to get away with not having to. It's left to the bearded Peter Cushing's Holly to provide the weight of authority and make the case for growing old gracefully, which he does with effortless professionalism, while Christopher Lee's ambitious high priest Bilali is a far more interesting and less blindly devoted character here, adding another layer of moral decay to the crumbling kingdom. The production design makes a virtue of its relative economy, Kumar past its prime and on the edge of rebellion, the lost city itself long crumbled and the kingdom retreated into the very mountains, though the fact that the sets are smaller than they look and shot with long lenses to look larger is occasionally given away by distortion in some of the panning shots thanks to the still far from perfected Scope lenses. The special effects, though not always photo-realistic, are rather good in their old-fashioned way while James Bernard's score features a particularly memorable desert trek theme. All in all, one of Hammer's finer hours, and still highly enjoyable.