Monday, August 27, 2007

Land of the Pharaohs

From a physical standpoint, “Land of the Pharaohs” (1955) stands as one of the most spectacular movies ever made. In its dramatization of the building of a giant pyramid, we see hundreds, if not thousands, of extras as they toil under the hot Egyptian sun to build an eternal monument to the Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins).

This was all before CGI, and it’s a staggering achievement to watch. Dramatically it’s more inert, with the rest of the story showing sultry Joan Collins as Queen Nellifer, slinking around the Egyptian court causing all sorts of mayhem as she attempts to wrest control of Egypt for herself.

Director Howard Hawks was always dismissive of the film, saying there was nobody to root for, but I think there is. James Robertson Justice plays a captive who is a master architect in his own land who designs Khufu’s pyramid with a special system of sealing it forever from the attentions of grave robbers. He bargains with Khufu to free a certain number of his people each year while the pyramid is built over a period of many years.

One of the film’s screenwriters was William Faulkner, and there’s an amusing story where Faulkner went to Hawks and said he had no idea how a pharaoh should talk. Hawks told him to make him talk like a Kentucky colonel.

No mention of the film can be made without the contributions of composer Dimitri Tiomkin. The Russian-born master turns in one of his greatest compositions, a veritable symphony of Ancient Egypt. In the first half of the movie, there are long sequences where the music carries the action. And what music, especially the big choral pieces accompanying the construction of the pyramid.

Armchair Egyptologists must have had a wonderful time going to the movies in the mid-1950s. In 1954, there was 20th Century Fox’s mammoth production of “The Egyptian” with its dramatization of the Pharaoh Akhnaton’s (Michael Wilding) attempts to introduce the concept of monotheism to his country. There’s a lot wrong with it (mainly the miscasting of such non- cinematic stalwarts as Edmund Purdom and Bella Darvi) and a lumbering script. But there are tremendous compensations, including one of Victor Mature’s best performances as General Horemheb (no monotheism for him), a gorgeous, evocative and landmark score by no less than Alfred Newman AND Bernard Herrmann, and a moody visit to an Egyptian mortuary where mummification takes place. (We are fortunately spared any clinical details of the process).

1956 saw the most famous film of the three, Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments.” Highly sanitized of course, but the film does convey the breadth and opulence of the Egyptian civilization.

Probably my favorite evocation of ancient Egypt is the flashback sequence of “The Mummy” (1932) showing how Boris Karloff stole into a tomb, defied the gods, and was buried alive with the curse of eternal life upon him. It’s only about two minutes long, but in that sequence all the mysticism and imagination captures Ancient Egypt in a way that few other films have.

Rating for “Land of the Pharaohs”: Three stars.

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