LAND OF THE PHARAOHS - DVD review

No wars; no battles; one dinky sword fight. But much pageantry.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

The folks at Warner Bros. are fond of boasting that they have the biggest back catalogue of films of any studio in Hollywood. I don't doubt it, and it affords them the luxury of producing box sets like nobody else. This time out they have a little fun at their own expense because they recognize that when you produce thousands of films over the years, not all of them are going to be winners. Their four box sets of "Cult Camp Classics" pretty much illustrate the point, featuring as they do some of their, uh, shall we say lesser efforts.

Volume 1 in the series, "Sci-Fi Thrillers," contains "The Giant Behemoth" (1958), "Queen of Outer Space" (1958), and "Attack of the 50-Foot Woman" (1958). The names alone give you a pretty good idea of the order of quality you're dealing with. Volume 2, "Women in Peril," actually contains one pretty good film, "Caged" (1949), but the other two are worthy of their "camp" designation: "The Big Cube" (1968) and "Trog" (1969). Then, in Volume 3, "Terrorized Travelers," the tone turns more to dramatic camp with "Zero Hour" (1957), "Hot Rods to Hell" (1966), and "Skyjacked" (1972). Warner Bros. also make each of these titles available separately.

However, choosing to take the high road, I decided to watch Volume 4, "Historical Epics." I figured if I was going to watch anything campy, it might just as well be expensive and campy. The first two movies in Vol. 4 are "The Prodigal" (1955), with Lana Turner and Edmund Purdom, directed by Richard Thorpe, and "The Colossus of Rhodes" (1961), with Rory Calhoun and Lea Massari, directed by Sergio Leone (yes, that Sergio Leone, later of Spaghetti-Western fame).

Then we get to what may be one of the most-expensive cheesy films ever made, "Land of the Pharaohs" (1955), starring Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, Dewey Martin, and Alexis Minotis, directed by Howard Hawks. Now, I know if you've seen George Lucas's "American Graffiti," you'll think the movie is set in a small, Central California valley town. But, nope, this is the one in Egypt.

Seeing Howard Hawks's name attached to the picture must be more surprising than seeing Sergio Leone's on "The Colossus of Rhodes." Hawks was, after all, the producer and director who gave us such seriously memorable films as "Scarface" (1932), "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "His Girl Friday" (1940), "Sergeant York" (1941), "To Have and Have Not" (1944), "The Big Sleep" (1946), "Red River" (1948), "The Thing From Another World" (1951), "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" (1953), "Rio Bravo" (1959), "El Dorado" (1966), and "Rio Lobo" (1970).

So, how did Hawks get roped into producing and directing a corny historical epic, a costume drama of monumental proportions? It may have been because he majored in mechanical engineering at Cornell some forty years earlier and thought the challenge of making a movie about the building of the Great Pyramid might be fun. It was, however, the only genuine failure of his movie career, and it weighed so heavily on him that he didn't make another film ("Rio Bravo") for the next four years.

I seemed to remember this film having a longer running time than the 104 minutes we have here, but I guess that's what happens to memory after so long a time. As I kid, I probably thought it was longer because it's so very talky; either that or I am still confusing it with "The Egyptian" (1954). In fact, Hawks's script, co-written by Harry Kurnitz, Harold Jack Bloom, and William Faulkner (still slumming in Hollywood), spends most of its time showing us about a gazillion soldiers and pyramid workers trudging along and a few people chattering away for its entire plot.

Not that there is much of a plot. Pharaoh Cheops, also known as Khufu (Jack Hawkins)--enormously powerful, a living god to his people, and enormously wealthy--is determined to take it with him when he dies. He orders his engineers to build a huge pyramid to house him and his gold for the after life. But he's paranoid about grave robbers, so he persuades a captured architect, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), to build him a pyramid that people cannot enter at all once it's sealed up.

The only complication is that Pharaoh's second wife, the scheming and treacherous Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins), wants everything for herself. Because she's not keen on his taking all that wealth with him, plus she also wants the kingdom, she conspires to get rid the old fellow any way she can. Well, at least we've got a good villainess in Collins, and she gets to wear skimpy outfits, too.

And that's about it. No wars; no battles; one dinky sword fight. But much pageantry. About every other scene contains a thousand or more extras marching in unison or lugging giant building blocks behind them, all to the sounds of a blaring and quite unremarkable Dimitri Tiomkin musical track. Oh, and Dewey Martin plays the architect's son, Senta, as a kind of James Dean look-alike heartthrob.

The film's basic problem is that there are no central characters we can relate to. The Pharaoh is quite distant; his devious second wife is purely evil; and the architect and his son get little screen time. We have nobody to care about. The movie has a nifty ending, to be sure, but we can see it coming a mile away, and it lasts only a couple of minutes. What Hawks leaves us with is a lot of spectacle but little of the intimacy or camaraderie we usually find in his films. The movie is simply methodical, mechanical, like the building of the pyramid itself.

In his audio commentary, Peter Bogdanovich includes some snippets of old conversations he had with Hawks, during one of which the director admits he really wasn't much into this film. He didn't love it with the passion of, say, a Cecil B. DeMille. Hawks seemed more interested in showing us how the Egyptians might have built a pyramid rather than in developing any kind of story line or characters.

So, is "Land of the Pharaohs" bad enough for WB to classify it as a "Cult Camp Classic"? Surely not. But is it good enough for one to mention in the same breath as "The Ten Commandments," "Ben-Hur," or "Spartacus"? 'Fraid not. It's just sort of out there, big and imposing, like the Great Pyramid itself and maybe just as enigmatic.

Trivia note: According to the film, it took hundreds of thousands of workers to build the Egyptian pyramids, workers who sang as they worked. However, today's Egyptologists are more inclined to think that relatively small groups of two or three thousand highly skilled craftsmen built the pyramids. They may or may not have sung.

Video:
Warner Bros. originally shot the film in CinemaScope in dimensions of 2.55:1. On disc, the picture shows up more modestly on my television screen, given its small degree of overscan, measuring a ratio of about 2.25:1. Actual dimensions will vary from set to set. Warner Bros. decided not to transfer the film to disc at anything more than an ordinary bit rate. They did enhance the picture for widescreen TVs, which helps a lot, but the slightly compressed video doesn't show off the depth of colors very well, and there are from time a few moiré effects, wavy lines, one notices in horizontal stripes. Definition, too, suffers somewhat, coming off as average at best. Still, the movie has enough color and pageantry to satisfy most lovers of cinema epics, and the screen is plenty wide enough to accommodate it all.

Audio:
The DVD engineers reproduce the movie's soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo, so one's audio processor has to fill in what it can in the surrounds, and that isn't much. OK, it's practically nothing. The worst part is that the tonal balance is rather forward in the brass and upper midrange, making the music sound somewhat shrill. The front-channel stereo effects come off pretty well, though, especially in scenes involving big crowds or where the "gods" speak at the temple. Otherwise, the frequency response and dynamic range, like the video quality, are ordinary at best.

Extras:
Although there is a theatrical trailer involved, the disc's primary extra is an audio commentary by filmmaker/historian Peter Bogdanovich, which, as usual with Bogdanovich's commentaries is the better part of the show. As I mentioned earlier, he also includes some interview excerpts from director Howard Hawks, taken from conversations he had with the director in the 1960s and 70s, which are of value, if a bit hard to hear sometimes. Together, Bogdanovich and Hawks provide some interesting insights into the making the picture, and unlike so many other film commentators, Bogdanovich has the honesty to suggest in any number of ways that this really isn't a very good film.

The extras conclude with twenty-seven scene selections, but no chapter insert; English as the only spoken language; and English and French subtitles, with English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Shots:
If it's big you want and spectacular and colorful, then "Land of the Pharaohs" is just your ticket. Too bad it leaves out characterizations and plot and any kind of serious interest in anything that's going on. Or maybe there just isn't very much actually going on.

Ratings

Video
7
Audio
6
Extras
5
Film Value
5