When classic film publisher Kino Lorber talked to director Avi Nesher about She, he was in New York attending a retrospective of his Israeli films. “She is not in the retrospective,” he said. “The movies people normally show are the serious movies.” Nesher recieved the lifetime achievement award in 2018 from the Israeli Ministry of Culture and Sports. He has many serious movies; movies that he makes in Israel, because, he says, it’s impossible to make them in Hollywood. “We rehearse for three months,” he told The Times of Israel, an impossibility in American studio film-making because the stars are frequently only available for a handful of very specific days.
She, shot in Rome when Nesher was fresh out of Columbia, is a different movie. In the Kino Lorber interview, he says they played heavy metal music so loudly that Fellini, working next door, had to ask them to turn it down. “What are you guys doing over there with the really loud music?” he asked. Nesher said, “It’s a post-apocalyptic, feminist, poetic adventure which is non-linear and might not make much sense.”
“Oh,” said Fellini. “I kind of make the same thing.”
Color in silent films
If you click through to watch The Pillar of Fire on YouTube — it’s only about a minute long — you might be dismayed to see that it’s “colorized.” In this case, the colorization is authentic. This was hand-painted by Élisabeth Thuillier, who — along with her daughter Berthe — colored magic lanterns and then silent films at their Paris workshop.
Whether She qualifies as feminist is debatable. The source material, a 1887 novel by H. Rider Haggard called She: a History of Adventure is most decidedly not. In that novel, a scholar named Horace and his adopted son Leo travel deep into the African jungle in search of a supposedly immortal white woman named Ayesha, worshiped as “She Who Must Be Obeyed” by the fictional Amahagger tribe. Haggard’s novel spawned three additional sequels and was adapted for film eleven times. The first time was by Georges Méliès in his trick film The Pillar of Fire. Filmmakers made at least five versions in the silent era alone. In 1965, Hammer made a version starring Ursula Andress, Peter Cushing, and Christopher Lee. Nesher’s “adaptation” is one of the last, and also one of the loosest.
Merchants Tom, Dick, and their sister Hari (really) are merely passing through when the evil Norks attack a market and kidnap Hari. Tom and Dick are themselves captured by the Urechs clan, a matriarchal society that enslaves men, apparently sacrificing them on the regular to their God-queen She (Sandahl Bergman). Tom and Dick escape and She pursues. Once discovering the Norks have designs on the land of the Urechs, however, She teams up with Tom and Dick to protect her clan.
Structured like the 1979 Walter Hill movie the Warriors, Tom, Dick, and She travel through several cultures seeking the Norks and Hari. There’s a communist clan run by a psychic overlord who attempts to claim She as his bride, a colony of hedonistic werewolves, a colony of mummy-people who either have leprosy or radiation sickness, and a foppish scientific dandy with a burly, bearded, tutu-wearing giant for a sidekick. The last set piece is gladiatorial combat amongst the fascist Norks — antagonists who bear a too much resemblance to the real racist weirdos we’ve all seen in the news the last few years.
She is a colorful, weird, goofy post-apocalyptic film that frequently veers into cartoonish exaggeration. The standout performance is She herself. Sandahl Bergman danced for Bob Fosse before John Milius cast her as Conan’s love interest in Conan the Barbarian, and she brought both the dancing and the fighting skills to this set. Nesher says the Italian stuntmen — who liked to play it extra safe — were unprepared for Bergman’s insistence on actual weapons and ferocious swordplay. “Those blows are as close to real blows as one can get,” Nesher says of her fight scenes. Re-watching them, I can see what he means.
I originally streamed this movie from Amazon Prime, but it’s such an interesting take on Barbarian films I had to order my own copy from Kino Lorber. I can’t call this a classic, but I can say if you like this kind of film you will like this film. It deserves space on your shelf.
Special thanks to my friend Ellis Low who encouraged me to seek this one out. If you live in the right part of the country, you can see Ellis with his band Flannel Jukebox this summer as more and more of us come out of pandemic hiding.