Cast & Crew
James Robertson Justice
In 2900 B.C., Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, who is considered a living god by his people, returns from war with his soldiers, laden with stolen treasure and slaves. After reuniting with his wife, Queen Nailla, and his loyal and wise priest, Hamar, Khufu turns his attention to planning a burial vault, which will safely house his treasures and the needs of his afterlife. Aware how easily he has raided the tombs of others, Khufu orders his architects to draw plans for an impenetrable tomb, but none can devise a structure that will keep his wealth safe throughout the ages. With admiration, Khufu remembers how a defeated Kushite city was so skillfully laid out that his army nearly perished trying to overtake it, and sends for the enslaved architect and leader of the Kushites, Vashtar. After negotiating for the release of his people when the tomb is completed, Vashtar presents an ingenious design: An elaborate labyrinth of passage, in which the only access point to the inner sanctum will be completely filled with huge stones after Khufu is laid to rest. Vashtar explains that walls of heavy stone will be stacked on sand-filled jugs and when the jugs are broken, the sand will pour out and the stones fall down into place, setting off a chain reaction until the whole structure, except for the inner chamber, is solid stone. Because only Hamar and Vashtar are familiar with the design of the labyrinth, Vashtar knows that, upon Khufu's death, he will be executed to keep the maze's secret intact. Hamar will be entombed with his ruler and childhood friend to assist him in his next life. Thousands of willing laborers, recruited by Khufu with promises of an afterlife, joyfully begin the building of the tomb, singing as they work, despite the difficulties of quarrying and cutting the stone, dragging it to the site and then securing it on the rising pyramid. After fifteen years, the quarries are depleted and the men, now exhausted, are beaten if they stumble under the heat of the sun. Meanwhile, Khufu has grown less tolerant and more obsessed with the tomb. Needing funds to feed the laborers, Khufu claims tributes from his conquered countries. Only Princess Nellifer from Cypress refuses his demands, telling Khufu that he must choose between possessing her or his tribute. She is whipped because of her insolence, but her pride impresses Khufu and before long, he makes her his second wife, unaware that she has seduced Treneh, the captain of the guards, into aiding her in seizing Khufu's power and wealth for herself. Nellifer gives Nailla's son, Prince Zanin, a flute and while he plays it, secretly releases into his room a cobra trained to respond to music. Seeing the cobra poised to strike her son, Nailla throws herself upon it and dies from its venom. Over the years, Vashtar's sight has diminished, so his son Senta learns the way through the labyrinth to help his father. Although he tries to keep his knowledge secret, one day Senta and Khufu are alone in the sepulchre when a stone falls and injures the pharaoh. To prevent the pharaoh's death, and therefore, his father's, Senta carries Khufu through the maze to seek medical help, knowing that he will later be put to death because of his familiarity with the labyrinth. In gratitude, Khufu offers Senta a reward of anything but long life, and Senta asks for the slave Kyra, who has been mistreated by Nellifer, and soon the two slaves fall in love. When Khufu survives an assassination attempt that she planned, Nellifer frames Treneh for the attack and tricks Khufu into fighting him. Although he kills Treneh, Khufu is mortally wounded and before dying, realizes that Nellifer, who wears a necklace stolen from his burial treasure, has betrayed him. Hamar realizes that when the tomb is sealed, the knowledge of the labyrinth will no longer present a threat and orders that Vashtar and Senta be released with their people after the burial. During the burial ritual, Hamar tricks Nellifer into entering the sepulchre to pay the pharaoh last respects. He seals the tomb, and after the new queen realizes that she is trapped inside with him, Hamar tells her that this is the kingdom for which she schemed and murdered. Outside, Vashtar, Senta and Kyra watch the tomb's stones fall into place and then begin their journey home.
James Robertson Justice
Harold Jack Bloom
Oliver S. Garretson
Land of the Pharaohs
In a 1956 interview originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma, Hawks stated: "I made this film for one simple reason: CinemaScope." When Warner Brothers initially approached Hawks with a lucrative contract to make a film in CinemaScope, he first thought of a story depicting the wartime construction of an airfield in China. However, according to Hawks, this project proved impossible due to the political situation in post-revolutionary China. Other initial ideas included Song of Ruth and Solomon with John Wayne slated to star as the Hebrew king. Ultimately, Warner decided to go with a story about the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu building his great pyramid. Hawks chose his longtime friend William Faulkner as the main scriptwriter, but brought in the playwrights Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom for good measure. Bloom later maintained that it was he who came up with the idea of the enslaved architect who devises a way to seal the pyramid from looters. Originally Hawks considered Sydney Chaplin as the Pharaoh before deciding on Jack Hawkins, who had recently drawn acclaim for his performance in The Cruel Sea (1953). Hawks wanted Ursula Andress to play the role of Princess Nellifer, but Paramount signed her before Warner was able to secure her. They also tested the British model Ivy Nicholson, but she bit Jack Hawkins' hand while playing one of her scenes a little too enthusiastically. He finally settled on the young British actress Joan Collins, who appeared here in her first Hollywood production.
Shooting locations included the actual pyramid at Giza, a limestone quarry outside of Cairo, and a granite quarry near Aswan. In addition to digging a giant pit for the film and recreating the base of the pyramid under construction, they hired hundreds of Egyptian workers to scrub the western face of the actual pyramid and temporarily fill in the missing blocks to make it look newly finished. The massive granite building blocks depicted in the film were hollow and constructed with fiberglass. The production designer Alexandre Trauner, who had created some memorably atmospheric sets for the French director Marcel Carné during the Thirties, worked closely with Egypt's Department of Antiquities and a French Egyptologist. In the same Cahiers interview Hawks stated: "It is possible to reconstruct the furniture and dress, even some of the ritual, of the Pharaohs from the hieroglyphics and drawings on the tombs. We know what the soldiers' uniforms looked like, what musical instruments were played, and what utensils were used."
As one might imagine, the location shooting in Egypt presented a number of logistical challenges. The Los Angeles Times journalist Scoop Conlon noted that the film's international crew "agreed that it was by all odds the toughest location they had ever experienced." The temperature reached as high as 128 degrees, and on one day some sixty extras fell victim to heatstroke. This was compounded in part by filming during Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast during the day, avoiding both water and food until sunset. Hawks then took most of the crew to Rome to shoot studio interiors; the director of photography Lee Garmes accompanied them while Russell Harlan stayed behind with the second unit to photograph additional pyramid scenes. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, Harlan was depressed by the extreme poverty he encountered in Egypt.
Ultimately the film went far over budget, costing roughly $3.15 million compared to approved budget of $1.75 million. Due to lukewarm reviews and audience response, it failed to recoup its cost. The New York Times critic A. H. Weiler called Land of the Pharaohs "impressively sweeping in its eye-filling pageantry" and praised the production design, including the replicas of the pharaoh's recently discovered solar boats. At the same time, Weiler noted "little distinction in the performances of the principals." In particular, he characterized Joan Collins as "a torrid baggage in filmy costumes who is obviously equipped to turn a potentate's head. Her acting never does." In retrospect, Hawks admitted: "I don't know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn't know. None of us knew. We thought it'd be an interesting story, the building of a pyramid, but then we had to have a plot, and we didn't really feel close to any of it." He also complained that while CinemaScope was good for "showing great masses of movement," the format made it "hard to focus attention" and was "very difficult to cut." Still, thanks to its meticulous production design and formidable pyramid-building sequences Land of the Pharaohs remains worth a look today.
Producer and Director: Howard Hawks
Script: William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom
Directors of Photography: Lee Garmes and Russell Harlan
Art Director: Alexandre Trauner
Film Editor: V. Sagovsky
Costume Design: Mayo
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Jack Hawkins (Khufu, the Pharaoh), Joan Collins (Princess Nellifer), Dewey Martin (Senta), Alexis Minotis (Hamar), James Robertson Justice (Vashtar), Luisa Boni (Kyra), Sydney Chaplin (Treneh), James Hayter (Vashtar's servant), Kerima (Queen Nailla), Piero Giagnoni (Prince Zanin).
by James Steffen
Berg, Louis. "How to Build a Pyramid." Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1954, p.18.
Breivold, Scott, et al. Howard Hawks: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
Conlon, Scoop. "Hot time in the shadow of Cheops' pyramid." New York Times, September 5, 1954.
McBride, Joseph. Hawks on Hawks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
Weiler, A. H. "Screen: Ancient Story" (Review of Land of the Pharaohs) New York Times, July 27, 1955, p.15.
Land of the Pharaohs
LAND OF THE PHAROAHS Highlights the DVD Release "Cult Classics 4: Historical Epics"
This 50s heyday is well where Warners drew for Cult Camp Classics Vol. 4: Historical Epics, part of a wonderful new series greeted with much excitement by film buffs. Each volume collects three films of somewhat tarnished reputation at a more-than-reasonable price (or a tad more if purchased separately), gives them a sharp new transfer and adds a bonus or two in the form of commentaries or trailers. That series name probably clues you that these aren't necessarily films you absolutely need to see-they're cult classics after all not classic classics-but they're often entertaining in spite of themselves. At least for stretches anyway since pacing has been a perennial problem with historical epics, the real point being the enormous sets, luxurious costumes and earth-shattering events instead of the kind of snap and pop that drove, say, screwball comedies. But then that's the nature of the game and you wouldn't expect that type of dialogue any more than you'd expect Bringing Up Baby to stop and admire the museum architecture.
Speaking of Howrd Hawks, the highlight of this set is definitely his 1955 Land of the Pharaohs, with a script by William Faulkner and starring Joan Collins. Such a pedigree on a film of this type means nobody would expect it to be good exactly but it's certainly not dull. Filmed partly in Egypt with what appears to be the legendary Cast Of Thousands, Land of the Pharaohs is basically about the construction of the Great Pyramid. Pharaoh Khufu has amassed quite a haul of gold, jewels and other treasure that he wants to take with him to the next life. To do that he needs a tomb that can't be robbed but nobody can design such a thing. Enter an architect from a recently enslaved race who will design such a clever, unbreakable tomb in return for the freedom of his people. It's all a bit stately and slow until the entry of Collins as the pharaoh's second wife. She would just as soon enjoy the jewels in the here and now and her greed sets in motion a twisting array of betrayal, skullduggery and murder.
Land of the Pharaohs doesn't skimp on the requisite scenes of big events such as a nearly endless army returning from war and an admittedly very impressive sequence of the enormous pyramid construction. You can just imagine the squads of assistant directors with megaphones and swarming support staff required to organize such scenes. But while Hawks doesn't pace the film as he might have two decades earlier he does lean towards forward momentum and giving the actors room for more naturalist delivery, even if it's occasionally a little discordantly colloquial. But better that where these sound reasonably close to real people than actors intoning leaden speeches.
That "script by Faulkner" statement is a bit misleading since the bulk was reportedly written by Harry Kurnitz (later Witness for the Prosecution) with Hawks collaborating without credit as usual. Harold Jack Bloom, who had just been nominated for co-writing The Naked Spur, was brought into the project later. With Faulkner in something of a slump due to money and alcohol troubles-despite having just completed A Fable which would win a Pulitzer though it's considered a minor work today-his contributions were often spotty. Working as they did in Italy provided its own distractions. A famous anecdote has the team discussing how to write dialogue for the pharaoh which Faulkner said he would do as a Kentucky colonel, Kurnitz thinking King Lear a better model and Hawks deciding they should do whatever they want since he would rewrite it anyway.
The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) is notable as the first feature of future spaghetti Western mastermind Sergio Leone. Or at least the first he received full credit for helming since typically for Italian productions of the time Leone's earlier filmography is a melange of assistant director positions, second-unit filming and completely uncredited work. In any case, he acquits himself well on Colossus though if you're hoping for hints of his future abilities you'll be looking in vain. The story concerns an Athenian who visits the "peaceful" island of Rhodes for the dedication of, yep, the Colossus only to find treachery, betrayal, rebellion and even true love. There's a lot of grand spectacle displaying classical wonders but then Italy pioneered this sort of thing back in the early silent era; 1912's Quo Vadis is often considered the first feature-length historical epic.
Colossus isn't terribly accurate in historical terms: there was no rebellion at this time (280 B.C.) and though historians argue about exactly where the Colossus stood or what it looked like they all are in complete agreement that it could never have straddled the harbor as depicted in the film or countless other images. The statue would simply have collapsed. Nevertheless, Leone gets good use out of the Colossus, showing it frequently in the background and setting a lot of action around its base. At one point there's even a sword fight with combatants balanced precariously on top of its arms. More impressive is the feel of a lived-in city that Leone creates. Though still intended to impress viwers there's not the usual sense that if you went through one of the doors you'd see nothing but scaffolding behind a façade.
This being a Leone film it's of course in widescreen, this time something call SuperTotalScope, a variation on TotalScope which was itself a version of CinemaScope. It's an odd tension for the images to run sideways when the thrust of the title's statue is upwards but then most of the action-whether fights or courtly entertainment-is spread horizontally. Leone does get mileage from filling the screen with people and objects as well as his Rhodes with numerous hidden passages (including an underground zoo!), caves, docks and museum-like living quarters for the characters to romp and scheme. There's not much of the complexity of his later films and Colossus does run a good 15-20 minutes too long but at least it delivers what it promises.
To see more of the camp promised in this set's title you don't have to go any further than The Prodigal (1955). It's a peculiar vehicle for top-billed star Lana Turner since she is allotted a fairly small amount of screen time, mostly spent looking regally statue-like (but not really statuesque) during pagan rituals. Bosley Crowther called it "pompous, ostentatious, vulgar, and ridiculous" so how could you not want to see it? The project certainly must have been a test for Hollywood screenwriters when confronted with the skimpy statement that the prodigal son of Jesus' parable "took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living" (according to the Gospel of Luke, the only place the story appears). Out of such a sparse beginning we get-deep breath now-the film's Micah who hightails off to Damascus over his father's objections after one glimpse at the High Priestess of Astarte (La Lana in her first CinemaScope film) has knocked him head-over-heels into gotta-have-her lust, just as the High Priest of Baal intended after Micah saved a slave that the High Priest had other plans for.
And if any of that makes sense, well, there's even more. Some dastardly rulers intend to make a fortune by starving the populace and Micah's girl back home pines a bit but mostly that's padding. In fact if nearly all the film feels like padding, even the main romance, that might be because it is. The Biblical parable isn't about the wasting substance and riotous living but clearly the studio figured if the original moral is stuck into the closing few minutes then that gives them nearly two hours to do whatever else might draw in audiences. That of course would be Lana Turner and the genre's by now familiar massive set design and outlandish costuming. Turner wanders through gigantic temples of flames and peculiar idols while wearing masses of light-colored fabric now that is the point of The Prodigal. After all, we're expected to believe that merely one glimpse of Turner (her blondeness explained several times during the movie) will drive men just mad. Oddly enough the filmmakers went out of their way to portray her as something of a temple prostitute with frequent references to her, ah, dalliances and even lines like "I belong to...all men." This camp aspect lives up to the collection's title and might be one reason the film was such an influence on future Warhol genderbending superstars Candy Darling and Jackie Curtis.
If this wasn't enough director Richard Thorpe and his writers decided to add more, maybe to convince themselves they were doing a work of substance. Micah refuses to renounce his faith so they set up an entire spirit vs. flesh dichotomy and then Micah as a wealthy person gets involved with the oppressed masses so there's the class aspect as well. But really we're supposed to expect that of our movie heroes even if none of it amounts to much. Once again Hollywood portrays Jews as basically honorary Christians and viewers are supposed to take the badness of the pagan religion on just the filmmakers say since apart from a human sacrifice its adherants seem perfectly as happy as anybody else. (In an interesting side note, one of the production's pagan statues appeared in a Tarzan movie or two before eventually being transported to Delaware where years later city officials made the owner hide it from view.) In the end, though, The Prodigal is a weak effort, not really campy enough to justify much more than the tiniest of cult interest and too leaden to be even an efficient way to waste time.
Each disc in this volume of Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4 includes a trailer and a commentary. For Land of the Pharaohs Peter Bogdanovich does the duty, assisted by selections from interviews he recorded with Hawks. Leone biographer Christopher Frayling does The Colossus of Rhodes and though he spends a smidgen too much time telling us what we're seeing on screen he's otherwise such a fount of information on the production and other Italian popular films of the time that you shouldn't skip his commentary. The Prodigal has a commentary by USC professor Drew Casper who really has a challenge in filling the time.
For more information about Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4: Historical Epics, visit Warner Video. To order Cult Camp Classics, Vol. 4: Historical Epics, go to TCM Shopping.
by Lang Thompson
LAND OF THE PHAROAHS Highlights the DVD Release "Cult Classics 4: Historical Epics"
The movie was Howard Hawks's first commercial failure. It caused Hawks to take a break from directing and travel through Europe for a number of years. He made his next movie, Rio Bravo (1959), four years later - the longest break between two movies in his career.
The opening title credit reads "Warner Bros. Pictures Presents Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs." Voice-over narration by Alexis Minotis as "Hamar" is heard intermittently thoughout the film.
As depicted in the film, Khufu, who was known by the Greeks as Cheops, was the second ruler of Egypt's fourth dynasty and the builder of the Great Pyramid of Ghiza, in the necropolis of ancient Memphis, not far from Cairo. The pyramid, which took over twenty years to build, originally reached a height of 481 feet and, until the 19th century, was the tallest manmade structure on earth. Named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is the only one of those wonders still in existence. Although some modern sources suggest that the pyramid was built by slave labor, others theorize that workers were paid to build it during the flood season when flood water could be used to move the stones over great distances. Because the pyramid's contents had been looted before archaeologists discovered it, the genesis and purpose of the structure has been open to speculation. However, the generally accepted belief, based on hieroglyphics found on its walls, is that it was built to be Khufu's tomb. Solar boats, which were discovered in 1954, May have been used to carry Khufu's body to the burial site or, as the film suggests, placed there for Khufu's use in the afterlife.
In a September 1954 New York Times article, producer-director Howard Hawks said that he vacationed in Europe after completing the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and was trying to develop a story idea "about manpower" that would "prove an ideal subject for CinemaScope." While yachting near the south of France, he met an Egyptian archeologist who told him stories about Cheops. After hearing how the pharaoh demanded the work of 100,000 men for twenty years to build his tomb, Hawks interested Jack L. Warner, whom he encountered on the Riviera, with his idea for a film about the building of the Ghiza pyramid. Although Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom are credited onscreen with the screenplay, a June 1955 Sat Rev article reported that Faulkner, Kurnitz and Hawks worked together on the script. Faulkner claimed that he had "merely sketched scenes in his dialogue, expecting Hawks and the actors to work it around to their liking on the set." A January 1954 Daily Variety news item noted that "in a reversal of the pix-to-tv trend," Hawks hired the entire television camera crew from Meridian Pictures, headed by co-director of photography Russell Harlan, all of whom were granted a leave of absence for several months so they could shoot Land of the Pharaohs overseas.
A June 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item stated that portions of the film were shot in Rome. According to various articles and Hollywood Reporter production charts, the majority of the film was shot in Egypt, in the area around the real Pyramid of Ghiza, which appears at the end of the film as itself, in the scenes showing the completed tomb. A June 1955 Hollywood Citizen-News article describes how special effects man Ronald Chiniqui supervised a crew of ninety-seven Egyptian laborers, who scrubbed the western face of the pyramid to make it appear new. The crew also plastered and painted framework to hide broken and missing stones that were lost to looters over the past centuries. For scenes showing the pyramid under construction, the film crew dug a ninety-foot deep pit at the site of an unfinished excavation. Elsewhere they built a ramp and foundation the size of the original pyramid, where thousands of extras were filmed pulling huge stone blocks, according to a New York Times article.
Other scenes were shot at a limestone quarry at Tourah, near Cairo, and at Aswan, a granite quarry located 500 miles away. At these sites, according to the New York Times and Variety reviews, 9,787 actors were filmed in one scene. The New York Times article stated that Hawks had between 3,000 and 10,000 extras working each day during the fifty-plus day shooting schedule. The government supplied the extras, half of whom were soldiers in the Egyptian Army, according to a December 1954 Los Angeles Times article.
Several reviews noted that the cast was mostly unknown to the American public. Of the leads, only Dewey Martin and Sidney Chaplin were from the United States. Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, James Robertson Justice and James Hayter were British. Luisa Boni was Italian, Kerima was French Arabian, according to the New York Times article, and Alexis Minotis was a star of the Greek National Theatre. Hollywood Reporter news items add David Muss, Paul Steffan, Valerie Camille and Bud Thompson to the cast, although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed.
The Hollywood Reporter review praised Dimitri Tiomkin's score by stating, "...it is doubtful if this Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. CinemaScope epic would be nearly as exciting without the tremendous symphonic background...it is almost impossible to separate the story from the music." According to a December 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item, Tiomkin included reproductions of musical instruments used in the era of the Pharaohs, but in an article in Film Music, he stated that he did not try to recreate the music of that time. The orchestra was augmented with a chorus of eighty singers, who were individually handpicked by Jester Hairston, the noted Los Angeles choir director.
Released in United States March 1980
Released in United States on Video May 6, 1992
Released in United States Summer July 1955
Released in United States March 1980 (Shown at FILMEX: Los Angeles International Film Exposition (The Epic: A Monumental Movie Marathon) March 4-21, 1980.)
Released in United States on Video May 6, 1992
Released in United States Summer July 1955