Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Land of the Pharaohs brings out the nine-year old child in me who once had an overflowing obsession with all things Egyptian: pharaohs, slaves, tombs, treasures, mummies, gods, goddesses, rivers, deserts, the Sphinx, and the Great Pyramids. I had never been to Egypt before (and have never been since, to my dismay), but I was amazed that an exotic culture such as ancient Egypt could ever have once thrived on the face of this old, weary planet. The Great Pyramids, with their impossible height and stupefying structure, are indeed one of the seven wonders of the world, yet there has never been a definitive explanation as to how exactly they were built. Howard Hawks was one of the many who were in awe of this strange historical mystery. We watch Land of the Pharaohs today, and it is hard not to share his fascination.
The film is not a favorite among Hawks devotees, who dismiss it as an uneven anomaly in his career. It lacks the sympathetic characters that normally highlight his films, while the overlapping dialogue that fans had come to expect from him is replaced by a dry, hard form of dialogue that has been celebrated in modern times as camp. Hawks, who regarded Land of the Pharaohs as a failure in the years to come, explained about some of the film's sillier dialogue: "I haven't any idea of how a pharaoh talks, or behaves, or acts, eats, or makes love, or anything. I was just completely lost."
Hawks started out by bringing in one of the greatest novelists of the 20th century, William Faulkner, to write the screenplay. Faulkner, who was just as dumbfounded about Egyptian dialogue, requested permission to do what he did best and simply get the pharaoh to talk like a Southern plantation owner. Hawks said what the hell and thought that was a great idea. Then Harry Kurnitz stepped in, suggested that it would be more appropriate if the pharaoh talked like King Lear, and reformed Faulkner's dialogue. Further contributions by another writer, Harold Jack Bloom, changed the pharaoh's manner of speaking even more- until a point was reached when Hawks was left with a screenplay that went in so many directions, it was almost more confusing than the labyrinth of the pharaoh's tomb.
All the same, I look at Land of the Pharaohs and I listen to the dialogue, and I see and hear very little worth griping about. There is no reason why this film should have failed as miserably as it did, at the box office or during future receptions. At 106 minutes, Land of the Pharaohs is also just the right length. No doubt Hawks realized that the story was hardly worthy of the sort of lumbering three-hour treatment that had so equipped Cecil B. DeMille's epics at the time and, thus, the film was cut down just short of two hours. The ravishing musical score by Dimitri Tiomkin is used fairly often, speeding up scenes that otherwise might have felt as if they were stuck in the mud.
What we were left with is a film that is surprisingly fast-paced. Not once does Land of the Pharaohs fail to engage our attention. Peter Bogdonavich, on the DVD commentary, clearly leaves the impression that he is not a fan of the film, and remarks at one point that he and Hawks were in agreement on the opinion that, despite many outstanding sequences, the film cannot be defended as a whole. I beg to differ: I would consider Land of the Pharaohs one of my favorite Hawks films precisely because it provided him with the chance to step out of his less adventurous, more conservative outer shell.
The film is mainly circulated around the development of the first Great Pyramid (we never find out how the second one came to be). We are introduced to the pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who enters the picture returning from yet another victorious battle- this one having gone on for three months total. Coming home, he is greeted first by his priest Hamar (Alex Minotis), who is in the process of writing down a chronicle on the pharaoh that is almost surely never to be read; and then his wife, the Queen Nailla (Kerima), of whom he loves ever so deeply despite the fact that she has yet to conceive an heir for him. "Well, have I changed?" he asks, upon emerging from a bath to cleanse the gore and grime of the last three months. "Not very much", replies Hamar, who adds, "you're one war older, that's all". The frugal, thrifty Khufu is optimistic: "I hope to age by many more before my time is come. More wars, more treasure." The same day, Khufu finally makes the grand announcement to all of Egypt that an indestructible pyramid will be erected in his honor, to store his treasures and, eventually, his body, once his reign has ended. He is only in middle age, and already he is planning for his journey to the afterlife.
Khufu, you have to understand, doesn't want just any ordinary pyramid. His pyramid needs to be one that cannot be entered once closed off, so that to hold off all grave robbers and, especially, treacherous employees of the empire. To his knowledge, every architect in the country is unfamiliar with such engineering, all except for the bearded slave Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), a captured enemy who had once orchestrated the construction of strong defenses to hold off Khufu's forces in an earlier battle. But Vashtar proves difficult to cooperate with: not only does he bargain hard for the freedom of his people in return, but he is also an atheist, and he makes life difficult for all who are above his low working class. Faulkner's characterization of Vashtar is a reminder of another Faulkner character- the bitter cynic Jason Compson in The Sound and the Fury, who ruthlessly condescended to his family members in the aftermath of a sibling's death. The acid-tongued Vashtar is, similarly, not afraid to offend even Khufu himself, and suggests that it would be wiser to have his treasures dumped into the ocean instead of spending years building a pyramid to store them in. "I could make you wish those words had not been spoken", rages Khufu. A cool, emotionless Vashtar shrugs, "unfortunately, you have need of my talent."
Construction will take years. Once finished, Vashtar's plan is to have all passageways sealed off with giant stones, each with a gap in the middle. Then, rocks connected to the stones will be broken off to emit sand, causing the gaps to close automatically. The concept is so simple, and yet so brilliant- one that Faulkner, Kurnitz and Bloom invented themselves. The project excites all of Egypt, and millions of workers (in the film's case, 10,000 extras) leave their homes to come and help. When little progress is made, whipping men are brought in, and the process becomes an agonizing chore. In the film's most extraordinary shot, Hawks pans the camera so that it spins around the landscape for an entire minute and a half, as we get a good look at each and every one of the extras hard at work. There is a question of whether or not the shot could actually be described as a long take (a boulder that appears halfway through the shot and takes up the whole frame was probably an itching spot used to allow Hawks to cut and proceed later), but no matter: it is an unforgettable shot.
Khufu gets a few more wishes granted with each passing year- including the son he always wanted, the young Xenon (Piero Giagnoni)- but this is not enough to hold back his impatience. Then in comes Princess Nellifer, played by Joan Collins with just the right dose of icy villainy to make drive-in audiences giggle, and just enough drop-dead sexiness to give a Catholic schoolboy an erection to last a lifetime. She has come to the pharaoh in place of her country's offering, which would otherwise submit her people to starvation, and she feels that her flesh would be enough for the pharaoh. Khufu would rather have both her and the offering. She declares that he must choose. As consequence for insubordination, he rips off her cloak and has her sent down to the chambers so that the guards can punish her with a good whipping in her bikini, Princess Leia style. I suppose that this was Hawks's idea of a whipping fantasy. Or maybe it was the fantasy of Faulkner: it evokes one of his novels, the mainstream thriller Sanctuary, in which the sweet and innocent Temple Drake is kidnapped by the rapist Popeye and later horrifyingly submitted to his sadomasochist demands. Nellifer only goes through about 2% of what Temple Drake had to go through.
Nellifer gets it easy, perhaps, during a later scene when, after getting slapped across the face by Khufu, she responds by ravenously biting at his wrist. Suddenly convinced (or perhaps aroused) by her absolute committal, he waives the offering of her country, keeps her instead, and then makes her his second wife- a position she enjoys exceedingly. He opens up the main room of treasures to her but draws the line when she asks to take a set of jewels from his private domain. It is in this scene when Hawks, who has up until then kept the camera at a distance, gives us a close-up of a disturbed Khufu, and Hawks wisely reduces the rest of the film's close-ups only to similarly pivotal moments. It is also during this scene when Nellifer puts her smooth sexuality to good use, daring the timid guard Treneh (Sydney Chaplin) to remove the forbidden jewels from her shoulders.
Elsewhere in the kingdom, another sort of hanky panky is taking place when Vashtar's agile son, Senta (Dewey Martin), rescues an injured Khufu in the aftermath of a hazardous collapse of boulders inside the pyramid; and Senta- despite confessing his illegal knowledge of the pyramid's layout- is offered a reward, and selects one of Nellifer's female slaves, the rebellious Kyra (Luisella Boni). She refuses to cook for him or Vashtar's friend, Mikka (James Hayter), until they both insist that she is not to be kept as their slave; suddenly, she is springing into action, spicing up their soup with black pepper, garlic and bay leaves. It is only predictable that she and Senta will soon fall in love, and their romance isn't really developed- but then again, why the hell should it be? Obviously their youth and all that bare skin is bound to generate some sexual chemistry sooner or later. Mikka nudges Senta: "Maybe you didn't do so bad after all!"
Later scenes swallow the characters up in a perilous series of fiascos. Hawks smuggles in a scene of unbearable suspense when a charmed cobra snakes its way towards young Xenon, forcing the courageous Queen Nailla to commit an act of sacrifice. After this- an assassination attempt by none other than a jealous Nellifer- proves successful, Nellifer takes once step further when she sends her muscular servant Mabuna (played by an actor who, strangely, was uncredited by Warner Bros) to assassinate Khufu so that Nellifer may take his place, and rule as Queen. During this portion of the film, we realize just how cunningly Nullifer has all of the men in her life wrapped around her finger. Earlier we saw her telling Khufu to "choose" between her and her country's offering. Then she presents the ill-fated Treneh with the same dilemma: "Look at me, and choose. Either I am yours and you help me, or I go on without you. Which is it to be?" The choice that Treneh makes results in the film's only swordfight, between him and an ailing Khufu, while a pleased Nellifer watches from the shadows as the two men foolishly fight for her love.
Bogdonavich, in the DVD commentary, is admittedly correct when he adds that it is hard to care about who wins this fight. Both men are antiheroes, but unlike Paul Muni's murderous Tony Camonte in Scarface (1932) or Bogart's vigilante detective Phillip Marlowe in The Big Sleep (1946), Hawks is unable to get us to care about what happens to either Khufu or Treneh not just in this scene, but at any time in the film. Although Hawkins's performance as Khufu is a commanding one, there is not enough madness in the character to allow us to sit back and marvel as with, say, Muni's portrayal of Camonte; and Chaplin plays Treneh as little more than a stupid sidekick who salivates over a set of T & A, and pays dearly for it.
Really, the most interesting characters in all of Land of the Pharaohs are Vashtar and Senta, the enslaved father and son who find themselves working to build a structure for one man, and find out for themselves how to survive in the midst of its centennial chaos. James Robertson Justice, as Vashtar, gives perhaps the best performance in the entire film as the radical thinker and architect, who daringly teaches Senta the layout of the pyramid and lobbies for the liberation of his people, even when he must face the possibility that he may or may not have to be locked up inside the pyramid once it is finished. Dewey Martin is effective, too, as Senta, who has witnessed the pyramid's construction ever since his childhood and grows up to be not an idiotic teenager, but an intelligent rebel on the verge of sexual awakening; the casting of Martin was wise because he had previously worked with Hawks on The Thing From Another World (1951) and The Big Sky (1952). Of the film's main characters, Nellifer is the only one who truly captures our interest, perhaps because of the real-life infamy of Joan Collins herself, or perhaps because Nellifer is one of the rare villainesses of Hawks's films who does a handy job of getting what she wants. Only at the last minute does Nellifer get her just desserts- in one of cinema's most famous climaxes of trickery and despair.
Despite Hawks and his own fans looking down on Land of the Pharaohs in the decades to come, we can at least somewhat be thankful that the Hollywood filmmakers who idolized Hawks would go on to cite the film as a reference for their own works. Scorsese recycled the love triangle of Khufu, Treneh and Nellifer- albeit much more successfully- for the love triangle of Sam Rothstein, Nicky Santoro and Ginger McKenna in his overlooked masterpiece Casino (1995); and Spielberg recycled the sand-in-stone technique for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), one of the many tongue-in-cheek moments in that film (and references to cinematic history) that was easily missed by oblivious young moviegoers. And even when Land of the Pharaohs may indeed be an anomaly in Hawks's career, I still wouldn't hesitate to champion it as one of my favorites of all his works. Like many a great Hawks film, it's expertly directed, beautiful to look at and, most importantly, it gets to the point. Asked once by Bogdonavich if Vashtar's final line ("We have a long way to go") was meant to foreshadow the fate of humanity, a droll Hawks- not one for subtlety- concluded, "Well... that particular phase of humanity".