Land of the Pharaohs was director Howard Hawks’ first financial failure. Its critical and popular rejection demoralized him so much he stopped making films for four years.
Yet Martin Scorsese counts it as one of his favorite films.
So there has to be something of value to this film, right?
The man knows his classic films.
I’ve been a fan of peplum (sword & sandal) films since I was a child. I also loved it then and was very glad to have an excuse to revisit it for this blogathon.
Watching the film as an adult, it’s not that hard to see why audiences didn’t warm up to it during its initial release. For one thing, it had no big names. While Joan Collins was busy working in films at the time she and the other actors in the main roles were not considered stars.
Another issue is that Cinemascope films of the 1950s tended to go all out with the vast epic scenes possible with the new technology. Hawks used between 3,000 to 10,000 extras per DAY while filming.
So the film goes a little overboard. O.K., a lot overboard. The first half hour is mostly vast crowds of Egyptians saluting. Vast crowds of Egyptians blowing horns. Vast crowds of Egyptians marching.
And marching. And marching.
You may start to wonder where Joan Collins is, it takes so long for the marching to stop and for her to show up.
Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) returns victorious from a war with copious amounts of gold and slaves. He decides he needs to build a magnificent tomb for his journey to his second life. Since he will be buried with his most valuable treasures, he instructs architects to come up with a plan to make the pyramid theft proof. He complains to his Lord High Priest and best friend Hamar (Alex Minotis) that the plans have all been done before and have been known to fail.
They find an architect among the captives of the latest war named Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) who submits a fool proof plan to seal the tomb permanently. While knowing he will have to die when the Pharaoh dies so the secret will never be revealed, he agrees as long as his people are freed when the pyramid is complete. The Pharaoh agrees.
Khufu commands that Egyptians all drop their plows and come to work on the pyramid. Many gladly answer the call. But the great work is so expensive he has to demand tributes from around the kingdom.
Princess Nellifer of Cyprus (Collins) arrives and offers herself in place of the tribute. Khufu wants both but eventually agrees and makes Nellifer his second wife. When Khufu shows off the treasure that will be buried with him, Nellifer begins to plot against him, first getting his captain Treneh (Sydney Chaplin) to steal some jewels, then eventually persuading him to help her kill his first wife and the Pharoah himself.
Hawks was keen to make a film about the building of the Great Pyramid. But he and the screenwriters (which includes William Faulkner) needed a spicier plot to hang their premise on. The Princess Nellifer plot is pure fiction. (The Egyptian government was so incensed by the film’s lack of historical accuracy they banned the film.)
So we have a film with an odd split personality. The parts about building the pyramid are quite interesting. The parts about Khufu and Nellifer are interesting in a completely different way. Khufu is an absolute crumb—power mad, money mad, ready to kill people over any sign of disloyalty. Vashtar and his son Senta (Dewey Martin) are the moral center of the story. Both are good men who are willing to sacrifice everything to free their people.
Nellifer is very like Khufu (they both seem to get excited while caressing things made of gold, don’t ask). You have a villainous character plotting to bring down another villainous character. Which is, well, different. Though she is also a threat to good characters, specifically Khufu’s first wife Nailla (Kerima).
This was made in the 1950s, so of course the film has its problematic aspects. There was a very unfortunate decision to put Collins in brown face, which looks even more odd because the make up people gave her neon orange lipstick—it’s so distracting it’s one of the few things I remembered from my childhood viewing.
In spite of that her performance makes the film. She seems to be having a grand time being bad. Perhaps a foreshadowing of her tour de force as Alexis Carrington on Dynasty. Certainly, watching it this time I found myself saying, “No, she did not just do that. She. Did. Not.” Which I probably said more than once while watching Dynasty.
Spectacle, sex, swordplay, fractured history, a villain who meets a deliciously ironic end—this film has everything you want and more in a peplum film. Plus Joan Collins as a gloriously unrepentant baddie.
Add to that Scorsese’s seal of approval and prepare for a grand time. Once you get past all the marching scenes.