A pair of French soldiers are kidnapped and taken to the lost city of Atlantis, which in the middle of the Sahara, as it turns out. The queen, Antinea, has a taste for Frenchmen and enjoys draining them emotionally, driving them to their deaths and then bronzing them. It’s a living.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The silent era would not be complete without its femme fatales, from vamps to sophisticated seductresses, and hell hath no fury. That is the central subject of The Queen of Atlantis (L’Atlantide), Jacques Feyder’s 1921 lost civilization fantasy. Because we all know that no lost civilization is worth its salt without either a bloodthirsty queen or prehistoric monsters.
One question is going to come up immediately and understandably so. Given that the original novel by Pierre Benoit was published in 1920, how much of this “deadly, ancient queen” storyline borrows from H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She? The answer is that it’s complicated, there was a lawsuit and we will go into greater depth later but let’s dive into the film first. (You can read Benoit’s book here.)
A French military reconnaissance party discovers a wounded soldier crawling across the Sahara desert alone. He is the missing Lieutenant André de Saint-Avit (Georges Melchior), who disappeared along with the popular Captain Jean Morhange. Saint-Avit is delirious and hallucinates visions of a beautiful woman. He also confesses to murdering Morhange. However, since there is no evidence and the ravings of a wounded man are not considered sufficient, Morhange’s death is officially recorded as being the result of sun exposure.
The scandal-plagued Saint-Avit tries to leave the desert and the army but his visions follow him back to France and he soon returns to fulfill a mysterious mission. He finally opens up to Lieutenant Olivier Ferrières (René Lorsay), his former classmate. Saint-Avit openly admits that he killed Morhange and shares his adventures in flashback.
Morhange had been dealing with his mourning by joining a monastery but before finally embracing his religious calling, he returns to the desert for one last mission to test his determination. Morhange and Saint-Avit quickly become close friends during the journey.
However, sinister things are afoot. The officers are informed by their guide that a man named Cegheir-ben-Cheik (Abd-el-Kader Ben Ali) kidnapped a soldier named Lieutenant Massart two years before and his body was never found. The officers later discover a wounded tribesman and save his life. Their mysterious guest tells Morhange that he knows where some rare cave inscriptions can be found. Oh, and their guide accidentally poisons himself. It’s the darndest thing.
As you have probably guessed, the mysterious guest is really Cegheir-ben-Cheik and before you can say “Don’t go looking at cave inscriptions with strangers” the two French officers are drugged, kidnapped and delivered as gifts to the mysterious ruler of an equally mysterious stronghold not found on any map.
It turns out that it is the last surviving portion of Atlantis and it is ruled by Antinea (Stacia Napierkowska). Saint-Avit doesn’t seem terribly perturbed by his predicament but Morhange is quite distressed and he becomes even more worried when he spots the missing Lieutenant Massart wandering the palace catacombs. Massart is in a stupor and babbles about Antinea. Later, he throws himself out a window to his death.
(By the way, you may know Napierkowska as the doomed ballerina bat in Les Vampires.)
It seems that Antinea has been slowly harvesting Europeans, kidnapping them, seducing them and then discarding them, which leads to depression and death through various means. After they are dead, she has their bodies bronzed like baby shoes and displayed in numbered crypts. Well, at least she’s orderly.
Antinea calls for Saint-Avit first and he is immediately smitten but she is rather meh. Morhange, on the other hand, is the first man she has ever truly fallen for and she sends Cegheir-ben-Cheik a generous tip in gratitude. Antinea’s secretary, Tanit-Zerga (Marie-Louise Iribe) falls for Saint-Avit but he is obsessed with her mistress and being eaten by jealousy.
Morhange is frustratingly devout and refuses to abandon his vow of celibacy, which enrages Antinea. Such an insult can only be avenged through murder and she has just the man to do it…
Okay, so let’s cut to the chase here. This movie is slow. It’s almost three hours long and it takes its sweet time, even by European silent film standards. If that’s a dealbreaker for you, I understand. However, I enjoy a good slow simmer and there are plenty of pretty things to look at, as well as a moody atmosphere, so the pace was not a major issue for me.
The acting in this picture, particularly that of Stacia Napierkowska, has been criticized but let’s face facts: this is an elevated vamp picture. Going over the top is almost a requirement and Napierkowska’s performance can be compared to American vamps like Theda Bara and Louise Glaum. She truly commits to the madness, shrieking and raging and writhing across Morhange’s corpse. Is it good? Not really but it’s certainly appropriate for the material.
Marie-Louise Iribe (future director in her own right) comes across the best as the sympathetic Tanit-Zerga. However, her performance is somewhat hampered by the Georges Melchior’s bland turn as the mutton-headed Saint-Avit. Tanit-Zerga is a likable character with a personal motivation to escape but I have no idea why out of all the French officers delivered to Antinea, it is Saint-Avit who captures her fancy. He ignores her and even falls asleep when she is telling him the story of her life. Red flags, honey, red flags.
Abd-el-Kader Ben Ali is quite good as Cegheir-ben-Cheik, Antinea’s Door Dash for Frenchmen. He has a natural presence and does a wonderful job at portraying menace for the early part of the film.
The film was shot on location and I have seen some declarations of firstiness but remember, international shooting was fairly common before the First World War and pictures like Ivanhoe and From the Manger to the Cross boasted rather elaborate location work.
Director Jacques Feyder is not a household name these days and it’s a pity that he’s so obscure because he had a talent for capturing the beauty of his locations and for telling women’s stories sympathetically. (His Carmen is one of the best I’ve seen.) It’s possible that he may have been a little too tasteful for this material as a bit more sleaze could have gone a long way.
The costumes, credited to Jeanne Bernouard, are what can be expected in films of this genre: real costuming appropriate to the location combined with some decadent Orientalism. Antinea’s outfits become more and more elaborate as the plot continues until she is in the full headdress and matching outfit regalia expected of a vamp.
The whole picture is quite lovely and is enhanced by a scrumptious tinting and toning palette. Oranges, blues, greens, pinks and purples bathe the scenery and, of course, bright golden yellow enhances the desert scenery. I shouldn’t like to see this picture in cold black and white.
By the way, this film was released in America through Metro as Missing Husbands, which makes it sound like a DeMille bedroom comedy. In fact, the Evening World complained about just this issue in its glowing review: “The feature isn’t the kind of film you think it is, at all. We were surprised when we saw it as we had anticipated a comedy all about husbands.” The Film Daily also gave the picture a generally positive review, though it described Napierkowska as “a most ungraceful and fleshy person, who continually terrifies you with fear that her scanty attire won’t hold together until the scene is over.” Meow! On a related note, I would like to see a full body photo of that reviewer for judgement.
The film’s American tagline is the most confusing word salad imaginable: “Husbands who are missing and husbands who wish they were. Wives who wish so, too. Girls who’d rather have a missing husband than none at all. Men who might be missing if they were husbands. In a word, a picture the exhibitor can’t afford missing.”
Got that? If so, can you explain it to me? In all fairness, the film itself may have been just as incomprehensible as the Americans chopped the picture’s original 14,000 feet down to 6,000. Also, Antinea knows exactly where her husbands are. They aren’t missing, they’re safely electroplated and cataloged, I thought we covered this.
Now, let’s dive into the question of the She connection. As you probably already know, H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel tells the story of the immortal Queen Ayesha who is looking for the rebirth of the lover she killed thousands of years before. She believes she has found him when an airheaded Englishman wanders into her clutches.
Writer Henry Magden wrote that Pierre Benoit’s L’Atlantide had many parallels to the earlier book and Benoit promptly sued him for libel, his defense being that She had not been translated into French and he could not read English. Anyway, one can’t really claim copyright over a Circe-meets-Salome plot, can one? Most online resources leave it at that and it seems like a real mic drop but Benoit actually lost his case, so something else must be afoot.
Matthew A. Fike wrote a piece about the controversy published in the International Journal of Jungian Studies entitled C.G. Jung on plagiarism in Pierre Benoit’s L’Atlantide and he brings out a very important point. While She had not been translated into French in its entirety, a condensed version called Queen Ayesha had been translated and serialized in La Vie Moderne magazine in 1898. Further, Magden showed multiple examples of similar language between the two books and many distinct plot details (corpses sheathed in metal) were shared between the two books.
Whether this was a coincidence, an unconscious copying or outright plagiarism is, of course, unprovable now. However, I should point out that I found The Queen of Atlantis to be far more interesting and appealing than She.
(Spoiler: The Queen of Atlantis ends with Saint-Avit returning to Antinea and bringing a friend for her to feast upon. The vamp is triumphant. She ends with Ayesha accidentally disintegrating herself because she didn’t bother to read the instructions for her immortality thingamabob. Most movie versions of She fall apart before the end but who can be surprised with such a weak finale in the source material?)
It goes without saying that The Queen of Atlantis has a rather colonialist tone, with the citizens of Algeria being treated as the exotic other. The novel even has a short interlude designed to assure the readers that Antinea is 100% European. (Similar dodging of interracial romance was used in both The Sheik and Son of the Sheik.) I would be interested in seeing a revisionist version of the story with Antinea’s man-eating presented as active resistance to empire-building.
While not as popular as She, there have been quite a few adaptations of the novel over the years but none seemed to have the same staying power of the Feyder and 1932 G.W. Pabst adaptations. I’ll be digging into Pabst in a bit.
I think I may be the only modern person who actually likes The Queen of Atlantis 1921 but I am also the very lonely sole member of the Sodom and Gomorrah fan club, so I am used to solitude. The pace is glacial and it’s an inconsistent picture but I liked the mood and I have a weakness for femme fatales having fun with corpses, what can I say?
I would classify this very much as a Your-Mileage-May-Vary picture. If you find my description appealing, check it out for yourself but I can see how it may not be for everyone.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Image as part of their Jacques Feyder set, which is now out-of-print.
Silents vs. Talkies
The Queen of Atlantis (1921) vs. The Mistress of Atlantis (1932)
I am going to be fairly brief here because the 1932 film has a lot of story to it. Like many early talkies, it had multiple versions for various language markets. In this case, there were French, German and English versions with Brigitte Helm and a few supporting players playing their roles in each production but the rest of the parts recast with appropriately fluent performers. I would really like to dive into the different films and deconstruct the performers’ takes on their characters but I feel that requires a standalone piece.
G.W. Pabst took the reins for the 1932 remake of The Queen of Atlantis and he knew a thing or two about femmes fatales. He also brought along a decade of advancement in cinematography, an unchained camera and a location shoot.
The opening is far less dynamic than the silent and there is no particular mystery about the murder or Atlantis. We literally have a radio program about Atlantis and then Saint-Avit being like “Yeah, I killed Morhange” and then into flashback territory we go.
The rushed pace continues throughout the picture as the remake is half the length of the original. It becomes a real problem with the characters of Morhange and Tanit-Zerga. In the silent film, we are granted a deep dive into their personalities, hopes, dreams and motivations. Here, they basically act a certain way because the film requires them to do so.
However, the 1932 film’s ace in the hole is Brigitte Helm. Stacia Napierkowska went for bonkers vampishness while Helm exudes icy imperiousness. When she meets Saint-Avit, she invites him to play chess with her and them proceeds to calmly mop up the floor with him, her amusement growing as he becomes more flustered and frustrated by her constant checks and final checkmate. Her power is not entirely physical beauty, it is also intellectual domination and Saint-Avit finds that he likes being put in his place.
Unfortunately, the rest of the film does not live up to the chess scene and we waste time with a flashback to Paris entirely intended to remind the audience that Antinea is indeed 100% white. This is all the more irritating because so much of Morhange and Tanit-Zerga’s material was cut.
And the winner is…
While Helm’s Antinea is obviously superior, the rest of the film is not. The French version’s Pierre Blanchar almost succeeds in humanizing the dingbat Saint-Avit but there are limits.
Neither version is perfect but the atmosphere and better character development of the 1921 picture win the day in my book.
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