The Curmudgeon


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Abominable Snowman

Val Guest 1957

An English anthropologist, Dr John Rollason (Peter Cushing) is carrying out some research as a guest of the lama in a remote Himalayan monastery. Rollason believes that the yeti is a separate human species which has been driven to isolation and near-extinction by its more aggressive cousins, and when an American expedition led by Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker) breezes in, Rollason joins it over the objections of his wife and the warnings of the lama (Arnold Marlé). Rollason soon discovers that Friend's interest in the creature is neither scientific nor benign; and as tensions within the expedition rise, it emerges that the creature itself is rather different, and much less helpless, than any of them had imagined.

The screenplay was written by Nigel Kneale, based on his television play The Creature. The Abominable Snowman was Kneale's last collaboration with Guest and Hammer Studios, after the less than happy experience of adapting his serials, The Quatermass Experiment and Quatermass 2. Kneale had disagreed violently with the casting of Brian Donlevy as the eponymous boffin - "once an excellent comic heavy but gone quite to pieces ... turned my troubled professor into a bawling bully", he lamented in the introductions to the published scripts.

However, The Abominable Snowman used many of the original cast from the television version, including Cushing and Marlé (intriguingly, the role of Friend in the television version was played by a pre-Zulu Stanley Baker); and despite its sensational title is a superb production, thanks to Guest's workmanlike direction and Arthur Grant's excellent black-and-white Scope cinematography. The French Pyrenées do sterling duty as the Himalayas, and the snowbound mountain scenes are always convincing and frequently awe-inspiring. Cushing's performance is up to his characteristic high standard, the other actors play their roles creditably, and the script is relatively free of the racism and misogyny which were later to become some of Hammer's less fortunate trademarks.

Rollason's wife Helen (Maureen Connell) is both anxious at his joining the expedition and angry with him for concealing his intentions from her, but she is never presented as neurotic or misguided; her worries are extremely well-founded and, unlike Judith Carroon in Hammer's version of The Quatermass Experiment, when she tries to help her husband she achieves rather more than simply causing the situation to worsen. Similarly, the superstitious fears of the natives and the apparent hostility of the monks towards the expedition are shown to have very good reasons behind them; while a certain amount of fun is had at the expense of Rollason's assistant, Peter Fox (Richard Wattis), a cricket-jerseyed Englishman Abroad who complains volubly about the weather and the Easterners' chronic inability to supply him with a proper cup of tea.

The real monster is Tom Friend, an affable but ruthless huckster who takes irresponsible risks with the lives of his men and whose previous contributions to anthropology include an exploitative and fraudulent venture involving children supposedly reared by wolves. With fine irony, his eventual fate points up his status as the story's true "abominable snowman". Meanwhile, the audience - a dominant species in the shadow of the hydrogen bomb - is left with the parable in which the lama had earlier warned Rollason against the pursuit of knowledge for the wrong reasons. When a great king approaches the end of his reign, the lama said, he had better stop looking to expand his realm and start thinking about a worthy successor.


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