As Susan Doll writes on TCM.com, “She, H. Rider Haggard’s novel 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.
[Day's] 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 [Rosenda Monteros] 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.”
All of which is true, but one should also consider James Bernard’s stunningly beautiful score, as well as Harry Waxman’s superb cinematography. As is usual, Cushing and Lee deliver entirely convincing and authoritative performances, and though the film is a colonialist relic of the highest order, its vision of the risks and allure of potential immortality are sinuously effective. Though She has been remade several times since, the 1965 version remains the definitive rendition of Haggard’s novel.