I came across Land of the Pharaohs in a somewhat backwards fashion: I saw the ending first. Somehow, I forget the exact circumstances, I saw a clip of how Land of the Pharaohs ends, and it intrigued me so much that I was determined, someday, to see the movie in full. At last, I tracked down a copy, and I definitely have some thoughts about it. For those who might not have seen or heard of this film, Land of the Pharaohs was directed by Howard Hawks and starred Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, Dewey Mertain, and Alexis Minotis. It is set in ancient Egypt in the time of Khufu (Hawkins), a pharaoh obsessed with building a robber-proof tomb to protect his treasure for “the second life.” To this end, he enlists the skills of Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), a slave who is also a brilliant architect, to design the tomb in what will become known to history as the Great Pyramid.
First, let’s start with one of the big positives of Land of the Pharaohs and that’s the music. Dimitri Tiomkin created a gorgeous score for this film, and for me is that one detail that makes the bulk of the film watchable. From the strange chants hinting at ancient Egyptian religion, to the joyful singing as work on the pyramid begins, Tiomkin’s score flows through every scene, rich and vibrant with strings, brass, and choral chants. The music helps to move the story along, and serves as a good distraction from the, er, slower moments in the story.
Another positive in this story are the costumes. While not quite as vibrant as those of The Ten Commandments (another story largely set in ancient Egypt), the costume design in Land of the Pharaohs is quite fetching. You can tell there was great attention to detail when putting these designs together, and a decent attempt made at historical accuracy (some of the outfits resemble those seen in Egyptian tombs).
As for the rest….oh boy. I should make it clear that Land of the Pharaohs is a generally enjoyable film, but it does have its fair share of weak points that detract from the experience. One of the big sticking points for me comes with all the time spent watching the pyramid being built. The initial montage starts fine, but then it goes on…and on…and ON. And during this never-ending sequence, all of the major characters disappear, it’s just a scene of nameless extras. I found myself squirming towards the end, more than eager to get back to the story of Khufu, Nellifer, and all that treasure. And speaking of…Nellifer is one of the most frustrating characters I’ve ever seen in an epic film of this kind.
I understand what they were going for with Nellifer, the devious princess from Cyprus, but her character has all the subtlety of a rock being thrown through a window. It’s painfully obvious what she’s after (gold and power), so much so that it’s a wonder Khufu and Hamar (his loyal high priest) don’t figure it out sooner. Not only that, but for all her scheming, Nellifer is shown to be rather stupid too. A good example comes towards the end of the film: Nellifer has decided that Khufu must die so she can rule Egypt while nominally serving as regent for his minor son. To do this, she sends her personal slave (one KNOWN to Khufu) to do the deed. Wouldn’t you think the smarter thing would have been to send an unknown slave so that Khufu couldn’t instantly trace the plot back to Nellifer if it went wrong? The one thing they get right about Nellifer is that she’s designed to be very unlikable, so much so that by the end of the film you’re secretly cheering when her comeuppance finally arrives in dramatic fashion.
That comeuppance comes from a plot detail that I find fascinating. From listening to the commentary, I learned that Howard Hawks was fascinated by the ongoing puzzle of how the Great Pyramid was built. A student of engineering himself, the director decided to puzzle out a theoretically feasible means that might explain how the pyramid was built so perfectly. The solution came in the form of a system that used sand to slide the remaining blocks into place (to both seal the tomb and give it a finished look). While there’s no way to know if the ancient Egyptians actually used a system like this, I’d like to think it’s plausible.
One other detailed that bothered me: the wide shots, or should I say the lack thereof. When an epic film is shot in CinemaScope, you expect scenes packed with action and pageantry (a la The Ten Commandments and especially Ben-Hur). However, many of the scenes in Land of the Pharaohs struck me as feeling…cramped. To be sure, there is a grand parade with Khufu at the start of the film, but it doesn’t feel like the space is used properly with the format. Many of the shots feel much too close up, and I feel that CinemaScope wasn’t used to its greatest advantage.
As I said before though, despite these issues, Land of the Pharaohs is pretty enjoyable; the plot is basic, but watchable, and great satisfaction can be derived from watching the fate of Nellifer (that I won’t dare spoil because it’s something you just have to see for yourself).
Let me know what you think about Land of the Pharaohs in the comments below and have a great day!
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