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Made towards the end of his career and then dismissed by director Howard Hawks as a failure,
Land Of The Pharaohs is an interesting film for a number of reasons. First off, it is
something of an anomaly in the work of a master director also responsible for such out-and-out
classics as Red River (1948), The Big Sleep (1946), Bringing Up Baby (1938),
and the like. An outstanding contributor to several genres, this was Hawks' only epic, requiring
some 10,000 extras, 50 days shooting in Egypt, and the massive, simulated construction of the
base of the Great Pyramid. Without the benefit of a Wayne or a Grant to sustain it, Land
Of The Pharaohs stars the considerably less interesting, and rather dour Jack Hawkins as
the Pharaoh Khufu, with variable support from British actors including James Robinson Justice
in the role of Vashtar, the master builder, as well as a young Joan Collins as the Pharaoh's
scheming second wife, Princess Nellifer. Together with some lumbering dialogue (amazingly which
involved contribution by one William Faulkner), it was Hawks' first commercial disaster. Indeed
such was its disappointment that it lead the director to take a career break before he returned
to work, albeit in marvellous form, with Rio Bravo (1959).
His Egyptian film can be seen both as a part of the run of 1950s epics which reached its zenith a few years later in Ben Hur, then Spartacus (1960), and yet also apart from it. Unlike many of the same genre, Pharaohs is not a film that wallows in self-importance or campy religiosity, even if the plight of the slaves who are obliged to work on Khufu's funerary pyramid before their freedom is given recalls the well known one of the Israelites and Moses. As others have noted, Pharaoh's grandiose building scheme is not instigated through any religious impulse, or for the glorification of his gods, rather a selfish desire to take his riches to the grave.
Instead of the usual Judeo-Christian matter in characteristic Hawksian fashion the film gives us a group of professionals, a bond of men focussed around the chief builder-architect Vashtar, those few who get on and typically do the best job possible in the face of adversity. It is the viewer's contemplation of such purely secular activity and achievement, realised on a grand scale, which creates the awe essential to any epic, probably provoked an enthusiastic judgement by French film archivist Henri Langois ("the only epic which has style, rigour and plastic beauty"), and makes the film eminently watchable today. Much more so than the other, somewhat melodramatic plot linking the interests of Khufu, Nellifer and the loyal advisor/ Lord High Priest Hamar (Alex Minotis). That's a sometimes awkwardly expressed triangle of power which never rises about the richly melodramatic, and which entirely misses the emotional intimacy and sophistication between equals which Hawks explored in so many of his other films.
It's such peculiarities that have helped to make Land Of The Pharaohs an old favourite with some, a minor popularity that continues today. For instance, it topped Martin Scorsese's cinematic 'guilty pleasures' when he compiled such an extended, personal list for Film Comment back in the 1970s. Hawks' work was widely available in the early 1960s and was a part of his and many others' cinematic childhood. As Scorsese recognises, it's a film which hardly shows Hawks the auteur to best effect but which still has its unique appeal. Many have ridiculed the stilted dialogue, but the cinema-scoped location work detailing the pyramid construction process (the cinematography of which still looks impressive), the excellent score, or the memorable closing scenes of final entombment - a poetic fate for the bad, which haunted this writer as a younger viewer - still have impact today.
Land Of The Pharaohs is full of people who want something badly: the Pharaoh to take his riches and prestige into the afterlife; his queen plotting on more immediate, earthly treasure; the slaves working for their promised release, the loyal advisor wishing to die, assured that his Pharaoh's legacy is intact. The construction of the pyramid that so dominates the film, overshadowing the lives of those who work and scheme around it, is like a giant timer marking the progress of the various aspirants towards their respective ambitions. (Indeed its main process is marked somewhat aptly through the measured pouring of sand.) And as it grows ever nearer to completion, so are the main crises of the narrative precipitated; and when it closes forever so are all earthly tensions brought to conclusion. Almost like a character in its own right it plays a defining role in the last act, conditioning the film far more than some of the human players do as its mass grows up around them.
Indeed James Robertson Justice's Vashtar speaks and acts more like a Scottish doctor obliged to do his rounds than a slave subject to the will of the Pharaoh, while Collins, required to be alternately proud, coquettish, sluttish and devious, does her best but lacks much of the exotic allure or presence her part demands. More damaging is the central role of Khufu, far less the man of action than one would expect from a Hawksian hero. Significantly we first see him returning from the wars; with no battles to come and liven up proceedings, he spends too much time thereafter contemplating the merely dull. Apparently the writer Faulkner saw the story as, potentially, another Red River with Khufu constructing his tomb in the same single-minded way as Wayne built up his herd and then drove it to market. But Land Of The Pharaohs, even though it substitutes slave drive for a cattle drive, lacks almost entirely the dynamism (and quality cast), which make up that earlier masterpiece.
Having said all that, we have watched Pharaohs before and will probably watch it again. With its alligator pit, the troupe of bald headed, tongue-less priests, smooth sand hydraulics, fake tinkly treasure, sliding stone blocks, sweat backed construction teams, weird transplantation of English accents into circa 3000 BC Egypt, and all the panoply of 1950s' Hollywood near-camp, it remains obstinately enjoyable.
Hawks' film is available either as part of the 'Cult Camp Classics 4' epics boxset, along with Leone's equally recommendable Colossus Of Rhodes and the much more tedious The Prodigal, in region 1, or as individual purchase. Besides the trailer, the only extra is still a worthwhile one, a commentary by director-critic Peter Bogdanovich (region 1 edition only).