In The Overlook, A.V. Club film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky examines the misfits, underappreciated gems, and underseen classics of film history.
Between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the inexhaustible Rio Bravo, Howard Hawks, one of the defining greats of American film, made Land Of The Pharaohs, an atypical epic about the building of the Great Pyramid, pitched between camp and nihilism. The 1955 film was a colossal undertaking, made partly on location in Egypt by a creative team that included some of the best cinematographers and production designers of the time. William Faulkner, who had by then won the Nobel Prize In Literature, worked on the script, and the Egyptian government provided thousands of extras for construction scenes. Land Of The Pharaohs went way over budget, and ended up becoming the biggest and most important flop of Hawks’ career. Later, the director would blame the movie’s failure on the audience having no character to root for. “Everybody was a son of a bitch,” he would say.
Hawks originally wanted to make a film about the construction of an airfield in China during World War II; as a young man, he had studied engineering at Cornell before breaking into the film industry in a literal accident. (His car ran Victor Fleming, who also would go on to become a director, off the road.) But politics made the Chinese project impossible. CinemaScope, the first commercially successful widescreen format, had just been introduced, and Biblical and ancient-times epics were all the rage. Hawks still had construction on his mind, so he settled on the Great Pyramid, a marvel of technical know-how that, in Land Of The Pharaohs, is framed as a monument of death. The film had set models before it had a finished script. The story goes that Hawks couldn’t decide on a third act until Alexandre Trauner—production designer for many of the masterworks of ’30s French cinema, who would go on to design movies for Luc Besson and Alejandro Jodorowsky—showed him a mechanism for sealing the pharaoh’s tomb.
In fact, Land Of The Pharaohs ranks as one of the director’s darkest movies, second only to his 1932 gangster masterpiece Scarface. As Hawks and Faulkner saw it, ancient Egypt was a culture of death, and at the center of Land Of The Pharaohs are two obsessive and ultimately self-destructive figures: Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who devotes his life to building an impregnable tomb to protect the treasure he believes will accompany him into the afterlife; and his second wife, Nellifer (Joan Collins, wearing some of the most unflattering make-up in the history of film), who is willing to kill anyone who stands in her way to the throne. The closest thing the film has to a moral hero is Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), the enslaved architect who doesn’t believe in an afterlife. Yet one can’t help but pick up on the hints of identification in the Khufu character.
Though Hawks cultivated a man’s man image to match the male characters of his most famous films, he had in fact been born into the extremely wealthy elite, and had more in common with the pharaoh than with the ragtag heroes of his Westerns. Isn’t Khufu just like a director, and doesn’t his team of builders and advisors correspond perfectly to the crew of a film set? Doesn’t his precious hoard suggest an artistic legacy? Like Werner Herzog’s notorious Fitzcarraldo, for which the director dragged an actual steamboat over a mountain, Land Of The Pharaohs ended up doubling its own plot; in order to stage the building of the pyramid, Hawks had to employ as many as 10,000 extras to get a single shot. There is an awe-inspiring technical beauty that runs from the movie’s breathtaking pans of multitudes at work to its penultimate shot of the completed pyramid, rising like an alien monument out of the desert.
Land Of The Pharaohs, often regarded as an oddity in Hawks’ career, is a perfect example of a movie organized in images, some so overwhelming that they manage to absorb its flaws. Collins spends the whole movie in ashen-brown make-up so shiny that it resembles a clear plastic mask, and the dialogue is sometimes howlingly bad. (The story goes that Faulkner, who worked mostly on the plot, contributed exactly one line: “So… how is the job getting along?”) And yet the fakeness—exaggerated by the technical limitations of early CinemaScope lenses, which tended to invite stilted movement—ends up amplifying the plot, which is basically a revenge tragedy, and the vein of horror that runs through the film. Every now and then, the corniness of the dialogue produces something as rich in internal metaphor as, “The penalty for knowing the way to the inner chamber is death.”
It all seems designed to give impressionable young minds nightmares: loyal servants who have their tongues cut out willingly; a nerve-wracking suspense sequence in which Nellifer attempts to kill Khufu’s young son; the bleak, cruel ending. (Notably, this was Martin Scorsese’s favorite movie as a child.) Rio Bravo—made in reaction against the failure of Land Of The Pharaohs, after Hawks took an unprecedented break to reconsider his career—would come to represent the director’s reputation for making richly shaded, incidentally plotted movies that luxuriate in characters and conflicts of values. But the stark, morbid Land Of The Pharaohs, “problematic” in the most exhilarating sense of the word, stands as a testament to his pure visual artistry.