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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Warner Bros. LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (1955) was one of those big
widescreen spectacular epics that emerged in the fifties as Hollywood
struggled against the onslaught of Television to maintain the cinema
going population. It came in the middle of the cycle that began with
"Quo Vadis" in 1951 and came to an end with the release of the
multi-oscared "Ben Hur" in 1959. Beautifully photographed in
Cinemascope and colour by Lee Garmes and Richard Harlan it was directed
by the great Howard Hawks, who up to that time had never undertaken
such a major project or one of such epic proportions and certainly not
one concerning the building of a great Pyramid for an ancient Pharaoh.
To moviegoers Hawks was known as the director of such staple Hollywood
fare like the westerns "Red River" and "The Big Sky" and the Bogart
Noir thrillers "To Have & To Have Not" and "The Big Sleep". "Land Of
The Pharaohs" was such a departure for him I'm not sure if the giant
production would perhaps be more suited and better handled by someone
else like John Huston or William Wyler? Hawks himself - in a 1982
interview - said he was never happy with the movie "I messed it up! I
thought it was great as far as masses of people and things like that,
but I made a mistake. I should have had someone in there that you could
root for. Everybody was a son of a b....". Watching this issue of the
movie on DVD I have to say I am in accord with him. With the exception
of Alexis Minotis who plays Hamer - the Pharoah Khufu's first minister
and boyhood friend - there is nobody in the film you can have any
empathy for and certainly no one you would be bothered rooting for.
Nor is the film particularly well written despite the fact that William Faulkner was one of three writers assigned to the project. Also there is a major fault in its casting! Having British import Jack Hawkins in the leading role was a mistake on Hawks' part! Hawkins, a stiff unwieldy sort of performer was fine when playing British army officer types or a Chief Inspector of Scotland Yard or even a Roman Consul but here he appears decidedly out of his depth as a Pharoah in ancient Egypt. In some scenes he can even look fearful. Olivier would have been a better choice or perhaps Richard Burton who by this time was gaining star status.
Then there's a remarkably poor performance from another British import - Joan Collins who plays Nelifer the woman who wangles her way to become Khufu's wife and conspires to relieve him of his vast treasure trove. Miss Collins, no doubt, is a feast for the eyes especially in some of the revealing outfits she wears but the lady simply cannot act! She delivers lines like a schoolgirl reading them in class without poise or conviction. Her performance is matched only by the ever bland Sidney Chaplin as her co-conspirator and the equally bland Dewey Martin. Coincidently, once Joan Collins comes into the picture it suddenly takes a left turn and begins its slide into mediocrity. What we get from here on is palace intrigue, conspiracy and histrionics on a grand scale. Another movie altogether really! Pity, because the first half wasn't too bad!
All is not lost however, as the most tangible aspect of the film is the outstanding score by Dimitri Tiomkin! The very opening of the movie has a brilliant martial variation of the main theme played by massed brass choirs complete with guttural trumpets and baying horns as Khufu returns home leading a procession of his vast armies (yes there really is a cast of thousands just like the publicity says - none of your modern CGI here). Tiomkin's powerful music propels the movie forward and later in the picture's only outstanding set piece - the dressing of the stones in the quarry and moving the great stones into place - male and female voices intone joyously and triumphantly. It is one of the great moments in film music! And in the final reel it is Tiomkin's music that moves the great stones into position and seals the Pharaoh's tomb forever. Alongside John Wayne's "The Alamo"(1960) "Land Of The Pharaohs" is Dimitri Tiomkin's masterpiece!
I give the movie a three star rating for the reasonably good first half, the fine early Cinemascope / colour cinematography and of course for Tiomkin's exciting score. The disc comes with a good trailer and a not so good commentary by Peter Bogdanovitch.
Here's a film hotly criticized by not only many who saw the film, but
by director Hawks himself. It's true, there's a bit of the Hollywood
glam element to the production, but I'd say no more so than a half
dozen other Hawks films, including the much more often praised "Rio
Bravo" and "Hatari!"! (which both followed directly after "Pharaohs").
And the plot of "Pharaohs" makes a lot more sense than that of Hawks'
earlier film, "The Big Sleep," which I believe is over praised because
of its cast.
As a grand epic from the era where they made them big and were not afraid to spend money where it would show up on screen, "Land of the Pharaohs" surpasses many other epics of its period and even many recent films dealing with a similar subject (1999's "The Mummy" comes to mind). "Pharaohs" has an impressive and very satisfying climax that makes perfect sense historically and dramatically.
Also, no one seems to have mentioned the marvelous handling of crowds, particularly in the lengthy building of the pyramid sequence. I'll even go so far as to say the way Hawks composes his crowds for the cinemascope screen - arranging his Egyptian workers and pharaoh worshipers in intricate patterns with complex movements - rivals even Fritz Lang's similar work in "Metropolis" (1926), famous for its handling of crowds.
I think one of the reasons the film keeps getting bashed is because people haven't seen it in its original widescreen format in many years. Until recently, no Region 1 DVD has been available, so in its cropped, pan and scan VHS incarnation, the film comes across as wimpy and ridiculous. As can be seen in the widescreen DVD release, the grandeur is stunning, its art direction, costumes, sets and locations all holding up marvelously.
It must be said that composer Dimitri Tiomkin probably never wrote a score as majestically spirited as this one, a vast canvas of antiquity and drama. The cast is very much of its time, and some of the dialog is stilted and dated, but with the passing of time, most films suffer from this. Time passes and acting styles change. But a good plot holds up, and "Pharaohs" has plenty of the devious vs altruistic characters that drove many of Hawks plots effectively.
The powers that be in Hollywood finally released the film on DVD, promoting it as a camp classic, adorning the cover with a cheesy shot of Joan Collins, the one thing they apparently consider notable and sell-able about the film. Too bad. Yes, "Land of the Pharaohs" does have an element of campiness, but there is true grandeur in the vastness of the production and the fact that its cast of thousands was indeed a cast of thousands, not CGI. Perhaps one day the wonders of this film will be given the appreciation it deserves. As time passes these epics seem to be acquiring as much antiquity as the genuine historical period itself.
Land of the Pharaohs is a fascinating, sometimes morbid glimpse into the
Hollywoodized past. Unlike many epics, the film forsakes the usual
Judeo-Christian perspective in favor of a completely pagan outlook. That,
combined with some striking scenes involving the building of Khufu's
pyramid, makes this worthwhile entertainment.
Over the years, many have criticized the film, including Howard Hawks, Hawkins and Collins. On close examination, their criticism of the dialogue is only partially justified. While there is some verbosity, and the discourse between Khufu and his first wife over his desire for a son seems unnecessary if not ridiculous(in this instance actions would speak louder than words)the dialogue is more than serviceable. During the funeral ritual for the heroic dead, the grand, evocative speech is even inspired.
Hawks also lamented that the film contained "no one to root for." Indeed, Hawkins' Pharaoh is decisive, infrequently warm and unquenchably greedy. As Princess Nellifer, Joan Collins is even more unsavory. There exists however, a necessary counterpoint in the character of Vashtar, who designs the pyramid in order to free his people. James Robertson Justice gives a sympathetic performance as the designer who is alternately good natured, thoughtful, and indignant at the pharaoh's cruelty. As the pharaohs advisor, Alexis Minotis manages a remarkable acting feat by enforcing Khufu's will and simultaneously evoking audience sympathy. As Vashtar's son, Dewey Martin's All-American boy persona is the only off key note.
Despite the generally capable acting, the film's chief attraction is the abundant spectacle. The thousands of workers toiling to build the pyramid, and the colorful court pageantry, are what linger most in the viewer's mind. The much-discussed ending may or may not be historically accurate, but is nevertheless filmed with a chilling sense of realism. In short, Land of the Pharaohs is an interesting thematic departure from the epics of the 1950s.
Because it belongs to a genre that has grown unhip ,Howard Hawks's
magnificent epic ,his only movie in cinemascope ,gets incredibly low
ratings."Rio Bravo" 's screenplay is not much better than "pharaohs"
,but it's fashionable to put a western on your best movies list.A sword
and sandal cannot be serious (with the exceptions of "Ben Hur" and "Ten
commandments" )and that's why "the Egyptian" and "land of the pharaohs
" are despised and dismissed as cheesy.
Hawks's movie has one of the best ,most impressive and terrifying ending I know.These last pictures are a riveting tour de force with an editing to rival the best of Lang or Welles.The story spreads over fifteen years ,which is long for a relatively short work.Hawks was obviously more interested in his villains (Hawkins and Collins) than the heroes(the architect slave (Justice),his son and his people:both are fascinating.The pharaoh's dream of eternity is selfishness itself disguised as religion.To be buried with his riches to be able to enjoy them in his second life paradoxically seems a pagan attitude;the architect ,in direct contrast to him,is a slave who 's got nothing and he did not believe in life after life:it might make think of a Jew but neither him nor his people seem to have a religion,which is a very original move for a peplum (in Curtiz's "the Egyptian" ,the precedent year,the same went for the hero Sinouhe:these are the only examples in an epic).Hawks might have been influenced by Lang's wife's screenplay "das Indische Grabmal" ,which Lang finally took to the screen in the late fifties but which was filmed by others before him.Do not let the Faulkner reference fool you.He reportedly wrote half a page of script which can be summed up as follows:"Pharaoh pays a visit to the pyramid while the workers are sweating blood to get it done and he asks "how 's the work coming on?".
Nellifer is Joan Collins at her bitchiest: a greedy woman,who had already problems with dynasties.Unlike pharaoh,she wants to have her cake and eat it.Her acting is pure camp ,which fits the character like a glove.Her fate will make your hair stand on end.
Hawks makes a wonderful use of the cinemascope , when he displays a cast of thousands and when he directs his characters in the confined atmosphere of the pyramid.He succeeds in creating a sublime contrast between the dark subterranean of the grave and the luminous blue sky of the desert,particularly in the last sequences ,I say it again,among the very best of the fifties cinema.
My rating is about the number of times I saw this movie as a kid.
All the other reviews aside, I wanted to reinforce one aspect of the film that is only mentioned in one other review: the score. Few scores gave me goose pimples as a kid, but this one did. The grandeur of the score exactly matched the vastness of the screen images. The scores of that era were influenced by the fact that Hollywood was still making really fine musicals, so the themes in the scores were memorable. I can still hum the theme today. I know today that these films are regarded as camp and corny, but for a kid growing up in that era, these films transported you to amazing places and times. The music in this film truly enhanced that experience.
Although I know better, I confess I'd rather watch this movie than any
number of masterpieces. Jack Hawkins (pharaoh) forces magisterial James
Justice (slave Vashtar)to construct an impenetrable pyramid for his
cache of loot. Pharaoh runs short of money, forcing subject provinces
to cough up the funds to keep the public works project going...the
excuse for a breathtaking and youthful Joan Collins to enter the cast,
and in short order, to subjugate pharaoh himself. Eternal riches seem
rather dull compared to her considerable mortal charms.
All of this takes a back seat to the superb coup de main of the last five minutes when all the characters get their wish--for treasure, for power, and the security of eternity.
The excellent musical score helps.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The pharaoh (Jack Hawkins) returns home after months in the desert,
having fought his fifth war in six years...
During his victorious escapades he has zealously and aggressively accumulated a large quantity of gold... He tells his loyal friend Hamar (Alexis Minotis), the high priest, that he desires two things: a son by his queen, Nailla (Kerima), and a secure tomb where he, and his marvelous treasures will be buried for eternity...
Because he wants the royal tomb to be impregnable, he assigns the slave Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), an arquitect far superior to any Egyptian, to design it... Vashtar agrees to help the pharaoh on the condition that once the pyramid-tomb is constructed, his people will be freed... Only Vashtar, who will know the secret to entering the tomb, will have to die...
With "one heart" the people of Ancient Egypt responded to the call of their "living god", and came from every town and village to raise for him the immense impressive structure for his second life... They marched to a "holy labor" with great faith and great joy... They came singing from every corner of Egypt for the great task...
But the condensed work on the pyramid goes for years... During this time the queen bears the pharaoh a son, and Vashtar's son Senta (Dewey Martin) grows into manhood...
The pharaoh asks every nation to send him a tribute in gold... But Cyprus sends him an attractive young woman named Nellifer (Joan Collins) instead... Although her refusal to obey his commands angers him, she excites him like no one ever has, and becomes his second wife...
While the pharaoh is distracted by the progress on his pyramid, Nellifer carefully set a malicious plan to become heir to his throne and to his enormous treasures... She wins the heart of Treneh (Syney Chaplin), a palace guard, and together they plot to kill the queen...
With a selected group of bald, tongueless priests who allowed themselves to be buried alive, some cowards who get thrown into an alligator pit, and a sultry, dark-haired beauty with the highest ambition, "Land of the Pharaohs" is an interesting excursion into Ancient Egypt, basically a macabre melodrama with a final spectacular twist... The engineering details would make a fascinating documentary...
This may not be the greatest movie ever made, but it is one of the most accurate in terms of its staging, costumes, and set design - especially for the era in which it was made. Despite Cecil B. DeMille's propaganda this movie accurately portrays the pyramid builders as Egyptian free men. The premise for the construction of Khufu's pyramid is exceedingly creative - and has been suggested by some scholars. Many of the outside construction scenes have been used in other movies and documentaries to provide a fairly realistic view of what the construction would have been like. And, Jack Hawkins made a terrific pharaoh - if you had to use a Caucasian. I first saw this movie as a child and was enthralled. I'm sure it helped fuel the interest I still have in scholarly excavations throughout the Mid East. Worth seeing for the sheer enjoyment and scenery.
It's hard to know how to rate movies like this because the genre is so inherently cheesy. In the grand scheme of all cinema, it probably should only get a 6 out of 10, but within the "swords and sandals" genre, it surely rates a 10! There are many classic themes here: an aging man's wish to be remembered through a great monument, a slave's desire to win freedom for his people, an ambitious woman's lust for power at any cost. Of course, everything is overacted and obvious as hell, but the plot stays focused, unrolling inexorably to it's horror-movie ending. This is Saturday afternoon escapism at its best.
While this may be a somewhat Readers Digest-level glimpse of 'pharaonic' Egypt - at the height of pyramid building, it has both high production values (-for the 50s-) as well as making an earnest attempt at accurately depicting what we then knew of ancient Egyptian life. Jack Hawkins - as Pharaoh, gives a better than journeyman's portrayal of a kindly autocratic leader, his beliefs, strivings and motivations - all conveyed believably. A youthful (very) Joan Collins - and maybe a bit on the chubby side, does rather well with a weakly written and somewhat soap-opera'ish part as the conniving #2 queen. James Robertson Justice is superb as the captured and enslaved architect-engineer; the one whom designs and then oversees for Pharaoh the building of his funerary pyramid; a structure replete with multiple self-sealing stone doors ingeniously powered by the "hydraulics" of sand. The cinematography, pacing and continuity are at the very least good. Director Howard Hawks does masterfully as a story teller with something worth saying. For its genre and vintage this is both a story and movie worthy of a view - especially by those inclined to also be somewhat interested in the 'how' of those ancient times as well as the 'who' and 'why.' It would be nice if this was soon available on DVD.
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