Land of the Pharaohs, the one and only attempt by Howard Hawks to make a large-scale Cinemascope costume epic, is one of those movies that has the odds stacked against it when it comes to the way most people are going to judge it. It was not a major commercial success, Hawks himself disliked it, and it’s generally been dismissed as both very inferior Howard Hawks movie and an inferior example of the epic genre. To compound the problem, Warner Home Video have released it as a Cult Camp Classic, and with a commentary track by Peter Bogdanovich. Not that there’s anything wrong with the way Bogdanovich does commentary tracks, and he’s certainly knowledgeable about Hawks, but he clearly has a low opinion of the movie. So I imagine most people will approach this picture expecting it to be at best an amusing bad film, at worst a major turkey.
While few people (apart from eccentric weirdos like myself) are likely to argue that it’s actually a good movie, I think at the very least it’s worth looking at his one with an open mind. It is after all a Howard Hawks movie, with a script by William Faulkner, so it’s not exactly the product of some talentless hack. And in France it’s apparently widely regarded as the best of all the 1950s Hollywood epics.
This is the story of a man and his obsession. The man is the Pharaoh Khufu, and his obsession is with the afterlife. He has amassed enormous power and wealth, and he very firmly believes that you can take it with you. He employs an architect of genius, captured in war and now the Pharaoh’s slave, to build the biggest pyramid of them all, with the most secure tomb human ingenuity can design. A tomb that will thwart even the most determined tomb robber. Pharaoh has everything worked out, or at least he would have if it wasn’t for the Lady Nellifer. Nellifer is his secondary wife, and she has her own plans.
Hawks himself is also featured on the commentary track, in excerpts from interviews he did with Bogdanovich many years ago. Hawks wasn’t happy with the movie, but creative people aren’t always the best judges of their own work. In this case he’s right about the movie’s weaknesses, but I think his awareness of those weaknesses has blinded him to the things he got right and to the movie’s very real strengths, and most critics have followed him. He’s correct that the lead characters aren’t sufficiently well defined and that their motivations (particularly those of Khufu) aren’t sufficiently comprehensible, and that the characters are not easy for a modern audience to connect with. I don’t think that’s necessarily a fatal weakness though. It gives the movie a certain ambiguity which you don’t expect in a classical Hollywood film, and especially not in a costume epic.
You expect to be given a clear indication as to where your sympathies are supposed to lie, but in fact the movie is unsettlingly neutral about its protagonists. The Pharaoh is certainly not a hero, but he’s not really a villain either. His obsession has to some extent made him a monster, and although his obsession is difficult to comprehend that does have the effect of making us feel that this really is a film about ancient Egyptians, people whose values are alien to us, rather than just modern characters in costume drag. Jack Hawkins resists any temptation to give a hammy performance. He plays it straight, he takes the role seriously, and he gives Khufu a certain lonely dignity that allows us to feel at least some sympathy for him.
Joan Collins is quite effective as Nellifer. She’s the femme fatale, the arch-villainess, but she does have clear and understandable motivations for her actions. She has been given to Pharaoh by her country in place of the tribute owed to Egypt. Given as a slave, in effect sold as a whore, and Pharaoh’s first action was to have her flogged to teach her obedience. Although she establishes an erotic hold over Khufu, she is only a secondary wife, little more than an official concubine, and she is a foreigner, an outsider. When Khufu dies (and he’s obviously at least 30 years older than her) she will face an uncertain future, if she has any future ay all. Given those factors, I for one find her actions to secure her position and to become queen perfectly understandable and logical. She’s vicious, but it’s the viciousness of a cornered animal determined to survive.
So what about those very real strengths I claimed for this movie? Well firstly, there’s the production design. The sets and costumes are magnificent without being tacky, and they’re genuinely exotic. Hawks handles the spectacle side of things extremely well. The film is packed with impressive visual set-pieces. The pyramid interior scenes are superb. The final scenes in the pyramid are memorable and supremely well executed. This is an epic without any battle scenes, in fact the only fight scene is a brief sword fight, but it’s still very epic indeed. It lacks the cloying sentimentality and annoying moralising of the typical Hollywood epic. And far from being camp, it’s a rather cool and detached and even intellectual kind of epic. Bogdanovich makes the point that Cecil B. DeMille did this kind of thing better because he truly believed in movies like this. That’s probably true, and DeMille at his peak would have given it more of an erotic charge and more of a perverse edge, which would most likely have made it a bigger box office success, but in a way it’s the fact that it’s a movie made by someone who didn’t really believe in this type of picture that makes it more interesting than most movies of its genre. It’s unusual enough and offbeat enough that I think it’s worth giving it a chance to stand on its merits, rather than merely being treated as a so-bad-it’s-good kind of movie.
Not a masterpiece, but interesting and visually stunning. It’s a movie I’ve always been fond of, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. And it has Joan Collins as a sexy bad girl, which is always a bonus.