Isn’t it Pharaonic? Don’t you think?

I mention the prospect of LAND OF THE PHARAOHS for our Hawks binge, and Fiona declares at once, “That’s one of my favourite movies!”

Afterwards, she admitted it wasn’t.

But it made a great impression on her as a kid, because of the ending. “Buried alive with a lot of people with their tongues cut out!”

SPOILER ALERTIt’s like a great ending in search of a movie. And perhaps evidence that no movie about a giant construction project is ever any good (Civil Engineering: See Boring). we have SUEZ, WESTERN UNION, and this. There must be exceptions but I can’t think of any. Don’t say THE FOUNTAINHEAD.

Hawks had engineering training and I guess he got carried away by it. Later, he complained that the film didn’t have sympathetic characters — the slaves are theoretically “sympathetic” because they’re not mean, but they can’t engage our interest because they’re not active protagonists. Which is ironic, since they’re the only ones who do any work. But they’re not actively engaged in a personal struggle of their own, or minimally. They’re not DRAMATIC.Joan Collins plays a weird character — introduced as sympathetic, sent into sexual slavery to spare her father’s people from starvation, and swiftly sentenced to a lashing by Jack Hawkins — but then she becomes a monster of lust, ambition and avarice. If she were simply vengeful, destroying the dynasty (hah!) from within, it would be more consistent.

Despite the colossal sets, the spectacle isn’t very engrossing: Hawks ignores the lessons of CABIRIA and INTOLERANCE, which used the moving camera to involve us in the scenery and bring out the size of the construction work, combining them with a human scale. A bit of dollying in the pyramid interior could really have added to the feeling of being surrounded by great thicknesses of stone. Again, this only comes to life at the climax, where it’s fast cutting rather than camera motion that invigorates the action.My assumption is that after Joan gets entombed alive with the mutes, they all have sex. Am I wrong to think that?

I mean, what else are they gonna do?

(It was major Hawks collaborator Ben Hecht who suggested you could entertainingly read every single fade-out in Hollywood history as an ellipsed sex scene. This is a thought experiment which will liven up any dull B-movie.)

“I don’t know how a pharaoh talks,” is a classic line, and a decent objection to this kind of malarkey. Language gets deracinated. And you could see how the problem would be particularly devastating to Hawks. In the end, apart from the stunning climax, the film’s value is as a course correction that led to RIO BRAVO, a film in which practically everybody is an admirable Hawksian professional, even the baddies, and the talk is casual and plentiful and easily peppered with idiomatic spice.

18 Responses to “Isn’t it Pharaonic? Don’t you think?”

  1. I tried to watch this one last year, but gave up after 10 or 15 minutes (my rule if absolutely nothing has pleased me by then). At least I know how it ends now. I had a similar experience as a child with Robert Newton as Blackbeard the Pirate. That ending with him buried up to his neck as the tide comes in! It has stuck with me ever since. I tried to rewatch the film recently but found it rather ordinary (apart from Newton, of course) the last scene held up though. It was even more gruesome. Surprsingly so for the 1950s.

  2. Does Buster Keaton’s One Week count as good film about construction? Prefab house built in a day with hilarious consequences.

  3. Jack Lechner Says:

    There’s one great exception: THE BRIDGE ON THE RICER KWAI.

  4. Jack Lechner Says:

    RIVER, that is.

  5. Yes to both of those. And 8 1/2? I can’t remember how much construction there actually is in that. Synecdoche NY?

  6. I remember seeing the ending. Also a scene where a guy who looks like Curly Howard wrestles with a bull. I kept waiting for Curly’s trademark slap of his own face, followed by “wooWOOwoowoowoo” and butting the bull’s head with his own.

  7. revelator60 Says:

    Forget construction, how many good films have been made about ancient Egypt? All that springs to mind are Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Faraon (which I only know from The Forgotten) and Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh (which is no more than good). A pity, considering all the great material in Egyptian mythology and history (Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt is an excellent introductory text, aka starter drug).

  8. I think the bull-wrestler is Jack Hawkins! But I’ve forgotten already. They should have called on him as a replacement Stooge.

    I guess Kwai has to count — no wriggling out of that one. The Keaton film is so small-scale it makes as much sense to call it a film about DIY, but Buster certainly COULD have made a great engineering movie.

    (The big structure in 8 1/2 is just THERE. And I STILL haven’t seen Synecdoche. I’m working on it!)

    As far as Egypt goes, Hawks put his finger on the problem. Giving the characters a viable idiom, and anything resembling a sense of humour, seems to defeat filmmakers. The Kawalerowicz partly gets around it by being in Polish — I siimply can’t assess the language. And partly he succeeds by making it so alien, perhaps a strategy more likely to work than humanising the ancients.

  9. My favorite Unintentionally Gay movie. Joan Collins as an Evil Queen and Dewey Martin in a Tea Towel

  10. Bal – der- dash, and I beg your indulgence. Love this movie, could have thrown a shoe through the screen when Bogdanovich dissed it on a commentary. It’s structurally a remake of RED RIVER, right down to the ten-year time jump. Sometimes epic values and class-A kitsch are their own reward … grandiosity writ large. Alexandre Trauner, that great music score, even Warners’ brassy sound effects. Hugely enjoyable despite its drawbacks. Joan Collins is fantastic, and we learn how to pronounce Pyramid, Piddimid!

  11. It’s perhaps not even “unintentionally” gay — plenty of clues from Hawks’ other films and rumours from his biographers than would suggest he could be knowing about such things, even without Cary Grant around.

    Dewy Martin seems quite a convincing movie star in The Big Sky but he doesn’t make any particular impression here except as a Nile Chippendale.

    The Red River comparison is interesting — Wayne in that is Hawks’ other seemingly unsympathetic protagonist — really he’s the heavy for most of the movie. I also like Krohn’s relating the ending to Twentieth Century.

    It’s a film with real virtues, but few of them translate into pleasure for me.

  12. Hawks was always given to saying “It’s really a love story between two men” And it was!

  13. Precisely! There’s a lot more strife in his romcoms than in his buddy movies, which are very harmonious affairs.

  14. Jerzy Kawalerowicz’s Faraon is good because it isn’t about Egypt. It’s about Poland. Every Polish film – whatever its ostensible subject – is about Poland. Chinatown is really about Poland.
    Three men were commissioned to write books on the elephant. The Englishman wrote “Elephants I have shot”. The Frenchman wrote “The Sex Life of the Elephant”. The Pole wrote “The Elephant and the Polish Question”.

  15. I eventually figured out (with help from my excellent commenters) that Danton was about Poland, so yes.

  16. Not a full movie, but the section on ancient Egypt in Marcell Jankovics THE TRAGEDY OF MAN is tremendous.

  17. Wow, that looks epic. How come I never heard of this?

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