"The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" is a high art underground film made on a super-low budget, silent, and in black and white. Filmmaker Ron Rice announced it as a three-hour epic, but the longest cut of the footage works out to 108 minutes and that was not achieved until 20 years after the film was made. It was shown at least once during Ron Rice's lifetime, in a rough cut made for fund raising purposes. According to star (and part backer) Taylor Mead, Rice subsequently ran off with the money to Mexico. Indeed, on a brief return to New York, Rice shot, edited and synchronized the short film "Chumlum" and did not return to "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" before he died in Mexico later in 1964. Shortly after his death, a 70-minute version was assembled and this was the cut distributed through 1981. In 1982, Taylor Mead completed the film as much as it could be, resulting in a considerably longer, 108-minute version, but the earlier cut is still around and to some extent is easier to see.
Ironically, "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" is somewhat in the same boat as "The Magnificent Ambersons" as it is a very good film with some great things in it, and perhaps it would be a great film if its maker hadn't abandoned it. The Atom Man (Taylor Mead) is less than an atom; a nothing -- a pitiful, neurotic male who lives in a series of fantasies, none of which pan out for him. The Queen of Sheba (Winifred Bryan) is a beautiful, regal African-American woman with a taste for young white guys; she is confident and wholly capable of interacting with the outside world. The Atom Man is her servant, and despite the title, there is relatively little interaction between them -- their exploits are shown separately and such encounters as they have are relatively brief and awkward. In her dreams, The Queen of Sheba seems to wish that the Atom Man would get his act together enough so that he could accompany her on her daily rounds of the museums and other cultural attractions she likes, but he is clearly hopeless. Taylor Mead gives his usual 110 percent and this early role may have been his personal best -- with Rice, Mead had the freedom to make up his own part, and the Atom Man was exceptionally suitable to his gifts. Winifred Bryan is so charming, enchanting and sexy that one regrets that she appeared so seldom in films. Rice clearly had a strong eye and was quick on the uptake even within his improvisational style of filmmaking; there are shots in "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" that French cinema verité filmmakers would die for. What edits Rice himself made that remain in the film demonstrate a symbolic flow that connect disparate things together and plays with time. That much of the movie stands as it does, hinging on principal photography and basic action, is kind of a pity, as the little bit of montage remaining from Rice's hand really picks it up. The film would be easier to follow if Rice had managed to devise a more convincing setting for the Queen of Sheba's boudoir -- little more than a bed in front of a "wall" which is simply a sheet thrown over a board with a magazine pinned to it as a "picture." At one point, this comes tumbling down, though the extreme cheapness of this feature is part of its charm. However, in terms of demolishing conventional storytelling and providing a viable, freewheeling alternative to it, "The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man" must be regarded as Rice's signature achievement, despite its unfinished state. Jack Smith appears briefly as one of the Queen's suitors and Rice also appears in a scene that has the flavor of an outtake; perhaps it was kept in his memory, but one wonders if the film might not be a little stronger without it. Both Mead and Bryan are convincing as a kind of mythic super-people, and this is the one scene that seems to break that spell somewhat.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful.
Was this review helpful to you?