Released by 20th Century Fox in November 1942, screenwriter Philip Dunne crafted an exciting adventure story that inspired Toby Gard to create Tomb Raider, which has since become the world's best-selling video game franchise.
In the beginning of the film, a noted archaeologist is being pursued by thugs in a small waterfront outpost in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. He runs into a general store/post office and hastily puts a 4" terra cotta figurine into a cardboard box and addresses the box to his friend and colleague, English archaeologist and aristocrat Lady Lara Croft ( Leigh ). Shortly after he hands the parcel to the clerk and runs out of the general store, the thugs chase him into a dark alley whereupon he is beaten up and thrown into the sea.
After the credits have appeared on screen, Lady Croft is seen riding bareback on her fair steed over the rolling hills of her family's sprawling estate. At unexpected moments, a shooting target pops up from around tree limbs and in odd corners that allow Lara to whip out her trusty pistols and take aim. While Lady Croft is a proper young lady indeed, she knows a thing or two about the fine art of marksmanship and her daily practice sessions have trained her to become an expert shot.
When her practice has ended, her butler hands her a parcel and recognizing the importance of the artifact inside of it, she contacts her historian friend Dr. Henry Carlton ( Ian Hunter ) and requests his help. The pair discuss the possible origin of the intricately designed figurine and conclude that it is an ornament that may provide a link to the legendary lost Mayan empire of the Snake kingdom, who not only possessed a magnificent treasure of gold and jewels, but the power to control time as well, by means of a "golden cobra" statue.
Henry and Lara take a transatlantic plane trip and meet danger when both of the pilots parachute out of the plane, leaving Henry and Lara to save the plane themselves from imminent disaster. Once they make it safely to Mexico, they hire Enrique Lopez ( Cesar Romero ) and his companion Jose ( J. Edward Bromberg ) to act as their guides into the remote jungle.
Lara is visited by an attractive fortune teller named Carlita ( Maria Montez ) who seems to know a lot about the desires of the human heart, including Lara's determination to solve the mystery of her mother's disappearance. Carlita shows Lara another terra cotta figurine but, moments after Carlita leaves Lara's hotel room, she is attacked and Lara comes to her rescue. She fights the thugs and learns from one of them that they were sent by their "King" to stop Lara and Henry's jungle expedition.
As the team begins their journey in the deep jungle, David McMasters, a young explorer ( Richard Greene ) begs to join them in hopes that the discovery will provide him with a healthy paycheck to send his lady love Eloise ( Nan Grey ) back to England.
They encounter monkeys, spiders, leopards, snakes, sickness, hidden passions and danger. Several members of their team run away, Henry nearly dies from a poisonous snake bite, and a fire almost consumes their entire camp! It becomes apparent that someone is going to great lengths to bring their expedition to an end. Eloise turns up unexpectedly and David, in a drunken fit, tells Eloise he is madly in love with Lara, which causes both women to get into a "cat fight", in which Lara wins.
The team finds a moss covered temple and the entrance to a dark tomb filled with gold, jade, and emeralds. A beautifully crafted frieze in the tomb provides definite evidence to the existence of the Snake kingdom, which was later taken over by the Mayan warriors. Lara solves a puzzle hidden in the frieze that says she must use a jade-encrusted mask as a guide to locate the underwater tomb which houses the glimmering golden cobra statue.
Lara and the team face numerous obstacles in their quest to reach the golden cobra, including several lethal traps and a near cave-in! Lara hopes that the golden statue will allow her to go back in time just enough so that she can "see" what happened to her mother before she disappeared when Lara was a child. This natural desire does not come to pass, for it is when Henry takes hold of the ruby-eyed cobra, that his true nature comes to light. He is, in fact, the evil "King" behind the attacks and sabotage that have plagued the expedition from the start. He wants to possess the cobra's power to control time, so that he could go back in time and be like one of the kings when the Snakes were in power. This surprise turn of events shocks Lara and the others, but Lara knows she must stop Henry and his henchmen ( who are disguised as native guides ) at all costs.
The overwhelming power of the golden cobra engulfs Henry and the earth beneath his feet gives way sucking him and his henchmen into a time warp never to be seen by modern man again. The intense eruption causes the submerged tomb to quake violently. Lara and David are badly hurt, but they and Eloise just manage to escape the underwater tomb before it collapses beneath the sea.
We learn that Henry's plan was to use Lara's superior knowledge of ancient history to help him find the location of the tomb of the golden cobra for his own wicked ambitions. He sabotaged the expedition merely to make the team believe that an outside force was against their mission, and not him.
As the film concludes, Lara lets David take full credit for finding the artifacts the team found in the temple and they agree to give them to the museum in Merida with Enrique as the museum's new curator. David and Eloise make plans to return to England and Enrique and Carlita have formed a romantic attachment during the expedition.
Vivien Leigh gave a wonderful performance of Lara Croft. She is smart, sassy, and courageous ( like Scarlett O'Hara ), but a bit of a tomboy. Richard Greene's David is brave and handsome and eager for adventure. Since the film appealed mostly to teenage boys and girls, Greene proved to be a role model for the boys in the audience while teenage girls found themselves swooning over this attractive Englishman. Considering the film's marquee names, Cesar Romero steals the show as Enrique with his trademark smile and carefree bravado. Ole!
Tomb Raider: The Treasure of the Snake King could have benefitted from better set design, instead settling for old stock footage and mediocre jungle sets created on the studio lot. It received moderate reviews from credits when it was released in theaters. The film was not a commercial success, but it allowed director Norman Foster ( who went on to make Journey into Fear and Rachel and the Stranger ), screenwriter Philip Dunne, and its cast to dabble in a project that was a bit ahead of its time.
The character of Lara Croft and her incredible escapades would not gain popularity until young game designer Gard and his talented team debuted their highly-anticipated video game in 1996. New games were developed annually until 1999 along with several reincarnations with the release of Rise of the Tomb Raider in 2015. American actress Angelina Jolie brought Lara Croft to the screen in two thrilling films, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider ( 2001 ) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life ( 2003 ), which featured location scenes shot in exotic foreign countries and the usage of modern computer special effects.
Lara Croft remains a much-loved heroine in the gaming world and her next motion picture appearance is slated for March 2018 with actress Alicia Vikander in the coveted role of the one of the world's most talented and gutsy archaeologists, Lady Lara Croft. A role originally introduced by the lovely Vivien Leigh almost 75 years ago...
This fictional review is my ( Diana ) contribution to The Great Imaginary Film Blogathon, being hosted by yours truly, Silver Scenes. To read more articles about "imaginary" films, be sure to check out the Master List here!