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My Thoughts on: Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Soundtrack Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of composer Miklos Rozsa’s film scores. Rozsa (1907-1995) was a titan of film music and his epic score for Ben-Hur (1959) remains a benchmark that few have ever equalled (let alone surpassed).

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I am pleased to announce that Tadlow Music is releasing a completely new recording of this 157 minute score on October 3rd, one that will feature previously unrecorded music. The music has been recorded by the City of Prague Philarmonic and is conducted by Nic Raine.

If you haven’t seen the 1959 epic, it is NOTHING like the travesty that came out in 2016 (in fact, forget that movie even exists). The 1959 version of Ben-Hur is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, winning a record 11 Academy Awards (a feat that has only been equaled twice and NEVER surpassed) as it tells the story of a Judean prince (played brilliantly by Charlton Heston) whose life is thrown into turmoil at the same time that a strange carpenter begins preaching a new message to the people.

When you listen to this soundtrack, I highly recommend starting with the Overture. While it may seem strange now for a film to have an “overture” like an opera, back in the day it was fairly common for an epic film to start with a musical overture of some kind (there was also intermission music and exit music) that would play as the audience took their seats.

Another track that I absolutely recommend is the “Parade of the Charioteers” (this is usually preceded by a series of fanfares). This is the music that precedes the climactic chariot race (where Ben-Hur and Messala settle their differences once and for all) and is rightly considered one of the greatest sequences ever put on film. Curiously, the race itself has no music, something I’ve talked at length about.

Another track that I must recommend is the music that accompanies the “Lepers!” scene. As I’ve said previously, this scene features some amazing musical work, as Rozsa must convey with music alone that something terrible has happened to Ben-Hur’s mother and sister without the audience actually seeing what it is.

Truthfully, I could recommend this entire soundtrack, as it is a beautiful masterpiece, whose importance to film music cannot be overstated. In fact, parts of the score were used as temporary music for Star Wars (1977) (and it is said you can still hear its influence in certain places). If you want to hear some fantastic music, please pick up this new recording when it comes out in October. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this information available.

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When the music says everything: The “Lepers!” scene from Ben-Hur (1959)

(yes I do indeed have Ben-Hur on the brain still)

Film music serves many purposes: it can set the scene, influence the audience, dictate the flow of an action sequence and so on. Occasionally, composers will even use no music at all simply to make a point. On the flip side, however, composers will also use film music when a visual is simply not possible.

A good case in point is the “Lepers!” scene in Ben-Hur. For those not familiar, I’ll explain. In the 1959 version of the film, after Ben-Hur’s mother and sister were unjustly arrested and imprisoned for over three years, the titular character makes his miraculous return to Jerusalem and demands their release (or he’ll have his former best friend’s head on a platter). The order is given to retrieve them, but once the cell is opened, a horrifying discovery is made…

Even before the dreaded word is uttered, you KNOW something terrible has happened, the music and the jailkeeper’s expression say everything. This was a moment that HAD to rely on a combination of music and expression to carry the severity of what was going on, because leprosy was (and still is) a very awful disease.

While leprosy is treatable today, back in the ancient world, contracting leprosy was a slow death sentence, and those who suffered from the disease were condemned to live out their lives in isolation, shunned by the world. We could not see Ben-Hur’s mother and sister because the images would have been too graphic for late 1950s cinema (Google pictures of leprosy and you’ll see what I’m talking about).

I love Rozsa’s music for this scene. The shock chord that coincides with the jailer’s face being illuminated gets me every time. The underlying tone set by the music is “they have leprosy, this changes EVERYTHING.”

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Soundtrack Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

When silence speaks volumes: The chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959)

Miklos Rozsa conducts Ben-Hur suite (1979)

I confess, I still have Ben-Hur on the brain (if you read my little tirade from yesterday then you understand why). And since I can’t stop thinking about the 1959 epic, I thought I would share a concert clip I discovered several years ago. At the time I was studying the different film composers of the Golden Age of Hollywood and I was learning all I could in particular about Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995), the last composer of that era to pass away.

Having lived so long, I was curious to see if there were any film clips of him giving interviews or, even better, conducting some of his work. That’s when I discovered a clip from a 1979 television program that was looking at film music. In this excerpt, Rozsa himself is conducting a suite from his most famous work, Ben-Hur.

Miklos Rozsa conducts Ben-Hur Suite (1979)

The suite is divided into three sections:

  1. Overture and Main Theme(s) (for more on the overture to Ben-Hur, see “Overture” from Ben-Hur by Miklos Rozsa )
  2. Judah and Esther (The Love Theme): One of the many subplots of the film is the love building between Judah (initially a prince of Jerusalem) and Esther (the only daughter of Judah’s steward and technically a slave as a result, though she’s given her freedom early in the story). The theme is first heard when Esther is about to leave for an arranged marriage (that ultimately never takes place) and returns poignantly when Esther and Judah meet again after almost five years have passed.
  3. Parade of the Charioteers: Actually, this piece wasn’t written for Ben-Hur at all. The music that became this piece was originally composed for Quo Vadis, a 1951 Biblical epic that many credit with launching the Biblical epic obsession of the 1950s. The music comes at the end of the film as Gratus, the new emperor, makes a triumphal entry into Rome. 8 years later in Ben-Hur, Rozsa turns the music into a fanfare as the charioteers ceremonially circle the track before the race begins.

I believe that if you ever have the opportunity, you should always listen to the film score as conducted by the composer, because that will give you the best idea of what the music SHOULD sound like (for example, listen to the overture in this clip and then search YouTube for more performances of the same piece, you’ll hear it a slightly different way each time.)

Enjoy the music of Ben-Hur, composed and conducted by Miklos Rozsa and brought to life by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra-Bex

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When silence speaks volumes: The chariot race in Ben-Hur (1959)

Film composers have the difficult task of choosing music that correctly fits the intended mood of a particular scene or action sequence. But on a rare occasion, the composer will make the decision to give a scene no music at all, because doing so would actually detract from the moment.

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Credit to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

A good case in point comes in William Wyler’s 1959 epic Ben-Hur. Scored by film composing legend Miklos Rozsa (1907-1995), the film broke a record for winning 11 Oscars at the Academy Awards, a feat that has never been surpassed (though Titanic and Return of the King have since matched it).

Rozsa’s score contains a number of musical moments: the “Overture” (covered in Soundtracks); the “Rowing of the Galley Slaves”; “Parade of the Charioteers”; and the ever beautiful “Nativity.” However, what many consider the action climax of the film, the chariot race in Part II, has no music at all after the initial “Parade of the Charioteers.”

Rozsa considered for a long time whether or not he should give the actual race any music, but he quickly determined that the action itself would be “music” enough.

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The chariot race of Ben-Hur was an event over two years in the making. Not only did the race track have to be built from the ground up, but also the horses had to be trained to run in groups of three and four, the various stunts had to be planned out, and the chariots had to be built and tested to make sure they would hold up under stress. Once everything was ready and the cameras were rolling, the entire race was filmed in one take. The production had become so expensive that it was only possible to do the entire race once.

The entire clip runs for about ten minutes, but it is well worth it to watch all the way through. One moment in particular that always stands out to me comes at 5:35 when Ben-Hur’s (Charlton Heston) horses (in white) and Messala’s (Stephen Boyd) horses (the blacks) are running stride for stride down the track. And on a quick side note, the moment when Ben-Hur nearly falls out of his chariot was NOT scripted. The jump over the fallen chariot was planned, but Heston’s stunt double refused to wear a harness, insisting that he could ride the jump without it (oh was he ever wrong).

Please watch the race here: Ben-Hur Chariot Race and note the complete lack of music, diegetic or otherwise until the race is over. In my opinion, the true test of a film composer’s talent comes when they have to decide when NOT to use the music. Enjoy!

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See also:

When the music says everything: The “Lepers!” scene from Ben-Hur (1959)

“Overture” from Ben-Hur by Miklos Rozsa

Miklos Rozsa conducts Ben-Hur suite (1979)

*Everything is copyright to MGM Studio

“Overture” from Ben-Hur by Miklos Rozsa (1959)

One thing that must be understood about “classic” Hollywood films (usually anything made before 1960) is that in those days, the large epic films were constructed very much like an opera or a play would be. By this I mean, they would have separate screens labelled “overture” (as Ben-Hur does above), “Intermission” and also “Exit Music” (music that would play while the audience left the theatre).

This overture was composed by the Hungarian composer Miklos Rozsa for the 1959 epic Ben-Hur. He won the Academy Award for Best Score and many cite it as being one of the greatest film scores of all time. The image is an extreme close-up of the figures of Adam and God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Above is the first eight measures from the beginning of the overture (from the original score)

I love this overture because of how it begins, with this attention-grabbing fanfare from the brass and woodwinds. The call repeats three times and swells at the last moment before the brass breaks through with the immortal “Hallelujah” motif (my term for it), the timpani thundering in the background. The motif repeats again, and again, building and swelling and then…dying away into the main love theme and other side themes that recur throughout the film. That’s a technique seen multiple times in film overtures: beginning with a brassy motif and transferring to strings (*cough* think of Star Wars *cough*)

The overture ends as it began, with the brass and woodwind trumpet call, more firm this time. This signals that the overture is ending and the main story is about to begin.

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Miklos Rozsa conducts Ben-Hur suite (1979)