Directed by Howard Hawks
Watching Howard Hawk’s Land of the Pharaohs (1955) is extraordinary but for all the wrong reasons. How is it Howard Hawks, director of Rio Bravo, His Girl Friday, Scarface and other great movies, got involved with this turgid turkey of an epic? How did William Faulkner, author of Light in August, As I Lay Dying, The Sound and the Fury, get his name listed in the writing credits?
Yes, mystery surrounds the making of this massive exercise in dullness.
The movie is essentially the story (not that there’s much of one) of a Pharaoh (Jack Hawkins) who has a pyramid constructed so that when he dies he can take his wealth with him, and he’s quite a wealthy guy.
As an element of conflict, and so there might be something resembling a story attached to the movie, he has a wicked second wife (Joan Collins) who doesn’t think this is such a great idea: Surely the wealth can stay behind with her when the Pharaoh dies? So she plots and schemes and does bad things in an effort to make the universe unfold in a way more to her liking.
So how does this movie go off the rails? Meager as the story is, for these mid-1950s epics it isn’t without some elements that could help it work.
Essentially, the problem is that neither the writers nor the director are engaged. Peter Bogdanovich and Hawks himself give some hints in a commentary on the DVD. (The commentary was actually more interesting to me than movie.)
To begin with, it really isn’t a Hawks kind of film. It’s big, thousands of extras and huge sets and so on, and Hawks was at his best with more intimate films. His best movies had very strong characters and relationships. In Land of the Pharaohs, with the possible exception of Joan Collins’ wicked wife (Princess Nellifer), none of the characters is very interesting. There’s really no hero to cheer for, either. The most sympathetic character is Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), prisoner of the Pharaoh and architect of the pyramid. But he has very little screen time. (And there isn’t a great deal to his character, for that matter.)
The only interesting character for Hawks, I think, is the pyramid itself. He was intrigued by the engineering required in building it, so that might have drawn him to the project. But nothing else related to it seems to have generated his interest. (Or, as the commentary speaks to, passion.)
Perhaps the director’s lack of interest rubbed off on the screenwriters. The script they came up with is pretty lifeless. (Or maybe it was the other way around: Because the script had nothing in it to latch onto, Hawks could not drum up any interest.)
On the whole, then, we have a big 1955 “historical” epic that is pretty dull. It does, however, have spectacle to recommend it. And as Bogdanovich mentions, Hawks managed to get a sense of grit into his sweeping scenes. There is a quality of realism to it, as opposed to the Hollywood gloss you might expect. (But make no mistake, there is gloss. This is a Hollywood spectacle film.) Hawks also gets some interesting shots in and, while it’s expected, though a very long time coming, the ending is very nicely done by Hawks as the pyramid closes up.
Howard Hawks is one of my favourite directors. He has made some of my favourite movies. But this is easily his weakest, at least of those I’ve seen. And it seems pretty clear from clips of Hawks used in the commentary and from what Bogdanovich says that Howard Hawks didn’t like this movie any more than I did. In fact, it would be a few years before he made his next film, Rio Bravo, one that’s almost the complete opposite of Land of the Pharaohs.
(Hard to believe, but while the movie runs about 104 minutes there are, according to Wikipedia, suggestions of a 144 minute version kicking around somewhere. Surely those suggestions are from people who simply felt that what they had seen had to be much longer than 104 minutes because it felt that way.)
1½ stars out of 4.