Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955) is an impressive anomaly in the director’s career. Under the creative aegis of making a ‘Cecile B. DeMille-type picture,’ Hawks aligned an impressive script by Harold Jack Bloom, William Faulkner and Harry Kurnitz with stellar leads and a cast of literally thousands. The film boasts one impressive spectacle after the next, not the least of which is Pharaoh Cheops Khu-Fu (Jack Hawkins) triumphant processional into Egypt.
Joan Collins, whose '50s film career often resonated with variations of the devious sex kitten, is in full blossom herein as Princess Nellifer; a slinky seductress whose outer lusciousness masks the pure vinegar racing through her veins. If Land of the Pharaohs does have lasting appeal, it is largely due to Collins sinfully manipulative performance and she sells self-destructive sex as no other actress of her vintage could.
The story begins with Pharaoh’s triumphant return from battle – trailed by an entourage of captured peoples fronted by architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice). Cheops orders Vashtar to build him an impregnable tomb where he will rest in luxury and want for nothing in his ‘second life.’ As construction begins, the spirit and hope of the people is high.
Soon, however, Pharaoh becomes consumed by the thought of death and the tone of his orders turns darker and more brooding. After discovering that Vashtar’s sight is failing – and that he has shared the secrets of Pharaoh’s tomb with his only son, Senta (then heartthrob, Dewey Martin), Pharaoh condemns both father and son to be buried alive in the tomb after his death.
If this first act seems inauspicious to Pharaoh's desires and ultimate plans for his own mortality then the next act in the William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom screenplay is even more bizarre. Always loyal to his adoring wife Nailla (Kerima), Pharaoh becomes inexplicably drawn to hell cat Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins), who first denies Pharaoh’s workers the grain and monetary aid to build his resting temple, spits at him and bites his wrist, then plots his murder with her hulking man servant. This plan however goes awry when Pharaoh’s loyal advisor, Hamar (Alex Minotis) discovers Nellifer’s treachery and devises a fitting end for her after Pharaoh’s death.
The Land of the Pharaohs is meticulously lavish, well crafted and mostly well acted, and yet it tends to lack that elusive quality to make either its spectacle or narrative memorable. It was not a success at the box office and really represents an inconsequential blip on Howard Hawks film career.
The tale moves along effortlessly enough with much to admire from both its’ actors and the enormous and detailed sets that dwarf all human condition set before them. Director Hawks never cared much for the finished product, believing it to be a minor work among his favorites. Even so, Hawks cannot help himself in bringing something fresh and vital to an otherwise mostly pedestrian tale merely fleshed out with gargantuan production values.
There is something genuinely engrossing about this sort of spectacle – more robust in its plotting and action than even DeMille’s own Ten Commandments, and far more character driven with subliminal underpinnings of sadism and revenge. Land of the Pharaohs may not represent the penultimate antiquity on film, but at times it is thrilling entertainment of the sword and sandal variety.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is a tad disappointing. The anamorphic Cinemascope widescreen transfer was shot on Eastman Warner-Color film stock – a flawed format. The image, while occasionally sharp and detailed, is moreover marred by a distinct fading throughout, overly orange flesh tones and, at times, a considerable amount of obvious film grain and age related artifacts. There is also a hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details sporadically throughout this presentation. Occasionally, the image wobbles from left to right during dissolves and fades. Colors are flat and pasty for the most part.
The audio is Dolby Stereo Surround and recaptures much of the vintage ‘scope’ stereo sound – though occasionally the tracks are more strident than pure, with dialogue utterly manufactured. Extras are limited to the film’s theatrical trailer and a rather sparse audio commentary by Peter Bogdanovich with inserts of Hawks from an interview conducted in the early 1970s.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)