LOS ANGELES -- Allan Quatermain captured the public imagination in 1885. The Hallmark Channel believes he still can.
Patrick Swayze plays the adventurer in a new screen adaptation of "King Solomon's Mines," H. Rider Haggard's novel set in 19th-century Africa. The romantic action movie premieres Saturday, June 12 (5 p.m. and 8 p.m. EDT).
Famous for his romantic roles as the dance instructor in "Dirty Dancing" and the dead lover in "Ghost," Swayze follows in the footsteps of other cinematic Quatermains:
- Sir Cedric Hardwicke headlined a 1937 black-and-white version.
- Stewart Granger strode through the successful 1950 adaptation with its extensive Technicolor footage of African wildlife and the Watusi tribe.
- Richard Chamberlain starred in a 1985 dud.
- Sean Connery played the character in the 2003 superhero fantasy "The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."
Swayze has seen each one.
"I was always a great fan of Granger, but I couldn't understand how he kept his hair so perfect without a blow dryer," he chuckled, speaking from the New Mexico ranch he shares with his wife, actress and director Lisa Niemi.
Swayze, meanwhile, wasn't as interested in looking so confidently glamorous.
"If you are going to play a hero character, you can't play the hero. Nobody believes they are a hero when they are trying to survive," he said. "I love to look for that fatal flaw, where if they don't sort out this internal demon ravaging their insides they won't pull it off. I didn't want this guy to be the perfect Great White Hunter."
The Texas-born actor last starred in a TV production in the mid-'80s as Orry Main in the Civil War epic miniseries "North and South." In recent years, shucking his romantic image, he's chosen quirky movie roles, including the drag queen in "To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar" and the creepy inspirational huckster in "Donnie Darko," which is now being re-released.
But it was a return to romance for Swayze in the Quatermain role, with he and director Steve Boyum creating a love interest and fleshing out his relationships with other characters.
"We wanted to try to do a dramatic true-telling about this man and this journey, but still keep a sense of fun in it. Rather than go the tongue-in-cheek route, we wanted it to be a very possibly true concept," says Swayze.
They shaped the story to respect the belief of the African tribes in the power of the hidden treasure, and added power-hungry Russian villains to the plot.
Swayze, an avid conservationist, also insisted on finding a subtle way to reflect his passionate concern about "man's greed and absolute unwillingness to operate according to Mother Nature's laws."
Inspired by his time in Africa, Swayze and his brother, Don, are developing an action adventure reality series they hope will promote the cause of conservation.
Although Swayze insists he could have done a perfectly good British accent, his Quatermain is an American who has "seen the slaughter of the buffalo and the beginning of the decimation of the American Indians."
In Africa he witnesses the beginning of similar abuse. He's also a widower, separated from his young son and thus available to fall for Elizabeth Maitland, the very proper English woman who hires him to find her missing archaeologist father.
Irish-born Alison Doody, who costarred as Dr. Elsa Schneider in "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," is Maitland.
Kenyan actor Sidede Onyulo, previously seen in "Nowhere in Africa," plays the mystical nomad who turns out to be a tribal king, a role played in 1937 by Paul Robeson.
The movie was filmed South Africa, with the company undertaking its own safari to capture the wildlife footage and spectacular backdrops. Few special effects were needed, though an elephant had to be enticed with food to get it to charge.
And Swayze, 52, did his own stunts: "It adds a great deal more power - if you have the skills - to do as much as you can. I have been a horseman all my life and, of course, my fight stuff is the result of a lot of years of the passion of my peaceful warrior mentality. I'm highly trained but don't believe in violence."
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