1950s, 2/4, History, Howard Hawks, Review

Land of the Pharaohs

Amazon.com: Land of the Pharaohs Movie Poster (11 x 14 Inches - 28cm x  36cm) (1955) Style H -(Jack Hawkins)(Joan Collins)(James Robertson  Justice)(Dewey Martin)(Alexis Minotis)(Sydney Chaplin): Prints: Posters &  Prints

#32 in my ranking of Howard Hawks’ filmography.

I would be very unsurprised if I discovered that the first workprint of Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs was well over three hours long. The way this film was marketed, it was held up as a huge historical epic with a trailer that boasted of the thousands of extras. It feels like it should be on par in terms of scale and scope as the later films Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments, but it’s a grand hour and forty-four minutes long. It’s short, is what I’m saying. It has all of the pieces you would expect, but there comes a certain point where it begins to feel like we’re just jumping from bullet point to bullet point in a story, rather than experiencing a huge narrative on display.

It’s the story of Pharaoh Khufu and his effort to build the Great Pyramid of Giza, his tomb. Played by Jack Hawkins, Khufu is a domineering ruler with a single focus, to go into the next world with the entirety of the wealth that he has collected in his time waging war upon his neighbors. Why he would want to depart from a wonderfully realized world, though, is another matter. This production is really something to behold. Martin Scorsese holds this film up as one of his favorites, and to hear him talk about it he largely refers to the production and the sense of the world building around the story (he doesn’t talk about the actual story all that much, it seems). The sets are huge and beautifully lit, often with torches, and there are wonderful touches like the large statues of the gods speaking at a funeral like they would have spoken at the time (no fake moving mouths for modern audiences, that is). This really is a triumph of production.

However, there’s not only physical details at hand. There’s also the story, and it’s an overstuffed mess for such a short film. Khufu, returning from a foreign victory with slaves in tow, forces the architect of the conquered city’s defenses to design Khufu’s tomb with the promise of freeing his people. This man, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), develops an idea where once the actual sarcophagus is closed, the labyrinth leading to the tomb will close. Sand will pour out of supports to the central chamber, closing the entire passageway. Khufu loves the idea, and he agrees to Vashtar’s terms, freeing his people at the end of the construction. However, Vashtar must be buried with Khufu to protect the secret.

Now, this movie isn’t terribly concerned with actual history. I’m fine with that, but there’s a moment where Khufu is inspecting the proposed designs from his own royal architects, rejecting them all, and one of them is a model of the real Khufu’s tomb. This movie is a fantasy, knowingly so, and I bring this up because of the palace intrigue.

Khufu demands tribute from the different provinces of Egypt in order to fund his tomb. The poor province of Cyprus sends their Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins) as tribute instead of grain or currency, Khufu eventually accepting her as his second wife. The palace intrigue around Nellifer trying to murder Nailla, Khufu’s first wife, and their son Xenon in order to acquire as much of Khufu’s treasure before it gets sealed off in the tomb after his death is far too intricate and takes up far too little screen time to really work. This is where I really got the sense that there was a vastly longer cut somewhere in Warner Brothers’ vaults, never to see the light of day. There could also be a defense (that I wouldn’t buy, by the way) that this was how history happened, but the history around Khufu is so little known that none of what’s described in this film probably happened. It’s all completely made up for the film, and the film doesn’t give it the kind of narrative space it needs to breathe and feel real. This would have worked if the movie had given it something like an hour to pan out.

Anyway, the tomb side of things progresses at the expected pace. Vashtar grows old and begins to lose his sight, so he brings his son (Dewey Martin’s Senta) into the plans, hoping that no one finds out that Senta knows. If pharaoh finds out that Senta knows the secrets of the tomb, unlike the blindfolded workers who are led to their place of work by Khufu’s priests who will be buried with him. An accident during an inspection by pharaoh leads to Senta needing to reveal his knowledge to pharaoh to save the leader’s life. Pharaoh is appreciative, but the rules must be obeyed, his treasure for the afterlife must be secured, and Senta must be sealed inside at pharaoh’s death to preserve the secret. In exchange, though, pharaoh gives Senta a servant girl that Nellifer was about to beat.

Kyra, the servant, is another piece of evidence that this movie was cut down heavily. She’s introduced at about the hour and twenty-minute mark, and she becomes Senta’s love interest. She has absolutely no time to really establish herself other than a nice little scene where she slowly learns the freedom she has under Senta, going from unwilling to cook for the household to happily taking the task on. It’s a seemingly large role relegated to the final third of the film, and then she largely disappears after her one main scene, relegated to the background.

All that being said, there’s one really great thing about this movie, and it’s the ending. I don’t think the movie really truly earns it, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it’s a wonderfully ironic point on which to end. Nellifer’s scheming has become obvious to the point that she sends her own slave to murder pharaoh. Pharaoh’s right hand man, Hamar, figures it all out and when pharaoh dies of his wounds after a fight with Nellifer’s lover, there’s nothing he can do to counter pharaoh’s wife. She wants the treasure destined for pharaoh’s tomb, but while Hamar can’t touch Nellifer, Nellifer isn’t actually in power until Khufu’s sarcophagus is sealed. He leads her down into the crypt and has her sealed inside with himself and the priests, Hamar having let Vashtar and Senta go because the sealing of the crypt on Vashtar’s design eliminates the need to keep him inside (something Khufu most likely would not have agreed to).

So, the world building and the ending are both kind of great, but everything in between feels rushed, shallow, and truncated. That this movie was both a financial and commercial dud does not surprise me based on the final product. Sure it lacks real star power, but it also has a lot to be desired in terms of the pieces that come together. This doesn’t feel natural to me, like all of these problems were at the script from the beginning. The way everything plays out, especially around the palace intrigue with Nellifer and the late introduction of Kyra, it feels to me like there was a significantly longer version that got cut down for commercial reasons. It’s more profitable to book 6 screenings a day with a 104 minute movie than 5 or even 4 showings a day of a 180 minute movie. It helps if people have a reason to show up, though.

Rating: 2/4

5 thoughts on “Land of the Pharaohs”

  1. A sword and sandal production that has nothing to do with the Bible…I’m actually intrigued.

    I doubt the full cut of this will ever resurface after all this time, but it’s nice to imagine what was possible.

    Thanks for the review.

    I also enjoyed your movie thread about Howard Hawks, though I didn’t read it until Monday morning. Ah well, still good stuff.


    1. It would have made sense if I had waited until all the reviews published, but I was on a timetable and I didn’t really have any movie thoughts in my head other than Hawks.


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