BluRay/DVD Reviews

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS

By • Jun 29th, 2007 •

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Camp, along with other cultural terms like jazz or funk, first entered the English language as a euphemism for sex. Specifically, Camp meant being outrageously sexual to the point of self-parody. That tongue-in-cheek sensibility was retained by Susan Sontag when she appropriated the word in the early 60’s to describe the subversive misreading and reevaluation of classic Hollywood movies by avant-garde painters and performers. There was a strong element of humor in these artists’ knowing reinterpretations, and that smirk of parody, along with a contemporary marketing savvy, has been maintained by Warners in their current Cult Camp Classic collections. (Glenn Andreiev has reviewed the first volume of sci-fi thrillers elsewhere on this site.)

Although included in volume 4 with such inspired potboilers as THE PRODIGAL and THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES–the titles are also available individually–there is little Camp value in Howard Hawk’s LAND OF THE PHARAOHS, except perhaps for Joan Collins’ too-red lipstick and pouty diffidence as the femme fatale and later Queen of Egypt Nellifer. Whatever the category, Warners is to be commended for releasing LAND OF THE PHARAOHS to DVD.

Long reviled and little seen, this film can finally be appreciated as the best American epic of the 1950’s. Sublimely detached while remarkably personal in tone, Hawks’ direction forms a parallel visual language to a partially fictionalized Egyptian chronicle of roughly 1270 BC. This makes the building of a pyramid not only intelligible as an engineering concept but also creates within the viewer a leap of consciousness that encompasses centuries.

Hawks is aided in this goal by the elegantly resonant performances of Jack Hawkins as the Pharaoh Khufu (apparently modeled on Ramses II) and Alexis Minotis as High Priest Hamar, Khufu’s lifelong friend and confidant. The story is narrated by Hamar (as it turns out, from the grave.)

The film was originally written by William Faulkner, fresh from finishing what he considered his best novel, A Parable, where he linked that narrative to the biblical story of Christ. This script also has the effect of other possible narratives lingering just under the surface of the film’s cooly mesmerizing tracking shots and horizontal compositions.

Hawks and Faulkner’s idea was to tell the story of the construction of a pyramid by focusing on the effect this has on a ruler (Jack Hawkins’ Khufu) and his changing relations with his subjects. At first, the citizens gladly volunteer to help in the building, but as the months pass into years, they grow impatient and rebellious. Soon, the entire populace is turned into slaves, and the nation is transformed from a benevolent theocracy into an imperial, totalitarian state.

This was Hawks’ only film in Cinemascope, which recreates the look of Egyptian 19th Dynasty art in its minimalist contours and colors. (The production design is by the great Alexandre Trauner, who worked on everything from CHILDREN OF PARADISE to IRMA LA DOUCE.) Hawks approximates in his compositions and pacing the godlike viewpoint of an absolute ruler whose culture is based on death, contrasting this against the lives of ordinary people, especially an architect slave played by James Robertson-Justice.

I don’t know any works outside the political plays of Shakespeare that have detailed with such dispassion the numbing isolation of total power and the effect this can have on a single individual. As Khufu is sympathetically presented and attractively performed, one doesn’t realize the extent of what one is watching until the film is over.

In the third act, Joan Collins’ Nellifer appears, provoking Khufu’s baser instincts and throwing his plans into turmoil. Ms. Collins (in her motion picture debut) is always fun to watch, but she gloats a bit too much for my comfort. Her pronunciations, especially of the word enmity, are a real hoot. (Based on her performance here, Ms. Collins was cast in 20th Century-Fox’s CLEOPATRA, to be later replaced more famously by Elizabeth Taylor.)

When originally released in 1955, the film was a colossal box office failure, to the extent that Hawks, in retrospect, claimed “we didn’t know how a Pharaoh talked.” (This comment, invariably quoted whenever the film has been mentioned, is included in an excerpted interview as part of Peter Bogdanovitch’s commentary.) Hawks also speaks a great deal about Cecil B. DeMille, as does Mr. Bogdanovitch, so much that one wonders if it’s possible the film’s failure was less an inability on Hawks’ and Faulkner’s part to realize their subject as a misunderstanding of both the public and critics as to what the subject entailed. Just because people’s expectations are different doesn’t mean the work itself is at fault. In fact, LAND OF THE PHARAOHS has all kind of connections with Hawks’ other films, especially RED RIVER, whose theme and basic structure it shares, and can therefore be seen as a further development of Hawks’ body of work.

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS reminds me of certain Japanese films, such as Mizoguchi’s UGETSU or Naruse’s FLOATING CLOUDS, where there is an extraordinary passion hidden underneath a placid surface. Much more so than in Hawks’ other work, one is never allowed to identify with an actor’s perspective, as in the opening of RIO BRAVO, for instance, where the camera tilts to approximate John Wayne’s feelings of contempt.

Instead, one contemplates the characters’ behavior against the evolving movement of history, made present through the interaction of Hawks’ eye-level compositions, and seemingly objective viewpoint. This may explain Mr. Bogdanovitch’s complaint about the film’s lack of “intimacy”, and also his other negative opinions during the commentary. Faulkner’s dialogue for this film has been laughed at for decades, which I find mysterious, to say the least. Rather, I think the film’s verbal and visual style are very consistent, not to mention beautifully spare.

There is a strong element of documentary, on both the monumental and microscopic level. Many of the exteriors were shot in Egypt. The sweeping placidness of the Nile River as well as the almost translucent skies of the surrounding desert intensify the perception of time. In particular, there is an extended 360 degree pan across a reddish, pockmarked valley filled by thousands of workers chipping away at rock or pulling gigantic blocks on a network of ropes as far as the eye can see. In its grudging objectivity, this shot appears to bridge decades and actually documents the process of aging and dying while speculating on what the building of a pyramid must have entailed.

The transfer is exquisitely rendered, faithfully reproducing the original Warner color tints, the hallucinatory reds and blues seemingly out of a painting by Maxfield Parrish. Dimitri Tiomkin’s mostly vocal score is based on minor Egyptian scales (to these ears it sounds like Burch’s Kol Nidrei) and has been taken from the original soundtrack in four-track stereo.

LAND OF THE PHARAOHS is completely different, in both style and feeling, from any other Hollywood production of its period. By evoking the funeral serenity of ancient Egyptian art, and by so doing making explicit the political and personal hubris of a living deity, this film has more in common with Jean-Luc Godard’s “neo-realist musical” A WOMAN IS A WOMAN or Roberto Rossellini’s THE RISE OF LOUIS XIV than something like BEN HUR. Hawks’ film demonstrates, through an amazing rigorousness of cinematic technique and intellectual clarity, the inability of either an individual or a fictional construct such as a motion picture to transcend the ravages of history and time.

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