Saturday, September 18, 2010


The history of film is a funny old story, as one can tell from a viewing of the odd 1932 drama ‘The Mistress of Atlantis’.

It’s interesting to watch movies from the early days, when actors, directors and scriptwriters were still coming to terms with the mechanics of filmed entertainment. They were learning, slowly, that making a movie didn’t just involve filming a play. Concepts like the close-up, the panning shot or even editing were still new.

The Americans released the first talking movie in 1927, and from there began their ascent into global cinematic domination. Unfortunately in 1932 the fuzzy tennis ball of world cinema was still in the court of the Germans, and while German films tend to be visually arresting and filled with symbolism, they have a tendency to drop the ball, fuzzy or otherwise, in terms of plot, dialogue and character development.

‘The Mistress of Atlantis’ is no exception. It recounts the tale of two Frenchmen who embark on an expedition to discover Atlantis, working off a theory that it was not located underwater but rather in the middle of the Sahara. Like you do. As they get closer to where they think it is, they are captured by what turns out to be Atlantean soldiers.

In Atlantis itself, they discover certain incongruities. Despite being lost for millennia the Atlanteans have gramophones that play chipper Can Can music, and the royal salon is filled with 19th century furniture, a decent wine cellar and a tittering European butler. It turns out that the Mistress of Atlantis is actually a chorus girl who captured the heart of the late Atlantean king on one of his furtive trips to Europe years earlier, and who now rules in his place, albeit with so much ennui it could suffocate a camel at twenty paces.

One of the men falls in love with the icy queen, and a servant girl falls in love with him, and the queen falls in love with the other man... and basically there's this whole bizarre love quadrangle going on. Spurned by the man she wants, the queen orders the other one to kill him, even though he is his best friend. This being nihilistic German cinema he does so, only to instantly regret it. He escapes the clutches of the queen with the servant girl, and together they ride off into the desert... only to discover that they don't have enough water. She dies, and he nearly dies, only to be rescued at the last moment. Years later, after recounting his story to another legionnaire, he heads back out into the desert to find Atlantis again, only to be swallowed up by a sandstorm and, presumably, killed. As such, ‘The Mistress of Atlantis’ presages the 70s fad for killing off most of the cast in the final reel by nearly half a century.

With that in mind it occurred to me that if 'Mistress of Atlantis' had been made 20 years later, in 1952, it would have been a far different creature. Instead of droopy French legionnaires moping about the place, we'd have lantern-jawed American heroes who manfully punch their way out of any difficult situation. Instead of an aloof and almost expressionless ice maiden, the Mistress of Atlantis would be stalking femme fatale given to camp announcements like "Guards, seize them!" and "You dare defy me?" Instead of the gratingly "comic" butler, we'd have... well, actually, he'd still be there, but perhaps with a little more physical comedy thrown into the mix. Basically it would have been a lot less dour German Expressionism and a lot more bright American Actionism.

And of course if 'The Mistress of Atlantis' had been made 20 years later again, in 1972, it would have featured even more ass kicking, more incidental nudity and quite possibly Ursula Andress in a seashell bikini. And that could only be a good thing.


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