Many hands formed the work. Pichel’s visionary style governs the opening scene, Vernon L. Walker’s special effects are flawless and marvelous throughout, Van Nest Polglase clinches his position as precursor and equal of Ken Adam, and Max Steiner shows his pre-eminence among film composers in the ability to write music that adheres to the screen.
The film is a further development and consideration of King Kong in its theme, that of primeval tyranny replaced by Emma Lazarus’s “New Colossus”, which in She is seen as Shaw described it, “a monstrous idol which you called ‘Liberty.’” The temptation is that of empire, symbolized by the human sacrifice in the Hall of Kings, and the immortality of Hash-A-Mo-Tep is the perduring admiration of past civilizations each reflected in a gigantic statue dominating the scene.
The Flame of Life is a two-edged sword, however, and dispossesses She Who Must Be Obeyed of her youth when she thinks to triumph down the ages, because beauty is as beauty does, or because, as the human and mortal wife observes, the Flame of Life is a thing of the hearth.
The failure of this film at the box office may be said to have set the art back for decades, but it had its admirers from the beginning, among them Ray Harryhausen, Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman (“She is one of the most unusual films that have been neglected,” Harryhausen says, “we used to chase it all over,” wherever it was playing), and it has been emulated in practically every science-fiction film worth mentioning to date.
Realism is the principle of its nature studies, where sublimity is not an afterthought. The palace is initially viewed by extraordinarily brilliant camera angles expressing visual relationships created by the high throne, and making compositions of geometric acuity that are of the utmost interest. The décor of the palace has features which tie it to Kurt Schwitters’ studio and Frank Lloyd Wright’s most advanced interiors (like everything else in the film, the impression is conveyed of something beyond art, taking advantage of the multiplicity of effects). The Hall of Kings (or Gods) prepares the joke in Citizen Kane of Thatcher’s giant statue, and is one of the grandest scenes in cinema. Hash-A-Mo-Tep’s temple, finally, completes the image of an answer to Metropolis and Die Nibelungen, with a simple perfection of set design and special effects, and a dénouement out of a Nō play.
One of the very greatest films ever made, and one which by its technical and artistic proficiency made RKO the logical choice for Orson Welles, whose films there are a little less surprising after a study of what came before.
Criticism has sought to excuse itself by calumniating the actors or an effect like the painted saber-toothed cat and its victim in the ice, out of Fuseli on their way to an abstract remembrance at Karna’s house in Ken Russell’s Billion Dollar Brain.