Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Land_of_pharaohsI guess you may call it ironic (though I prefer more subtle term such as ‘moronic’), this amusing little tale of ancient Egypt and its megalomaniac rulers being told with the help of 10 000 extras i.e. poor contemporary Egyptians hired to drag blocks of stone across the desert for the prospect of meager pay and promise of life eternal within the celluloid frame in the theater. According to the movie itself, things haven’t really changed. Old pharaohs didn’t pay wages though so if there’s some progress to be observed within the frame of last couple of thousands years it’s the progress of syndicates and paid labor. Quite revolutionary back in the day. Quite extinct nowadays.

One other thing is to be said. Whoever wrote the script (and I’m saying whoever because when there are three scriptwriters involved in a project, one of them being William Faulkner, it’s pretty impossible to discern whose idea was it anyway) actually knew how to dispose of a bad guy. This is the skill sorely lacking in contemporary Hollywood and it might have something to do with dominant puritanism that keeps controlling events on any stage in America. Anyone can write-off a character but to write-off a villain takes balls (and skill). You have to compensate adequately for the negative emotions vested into this character. If you write him off just like that, audience will be furious. If you write him off using revenge-discourse some moralist prick is bound to come along screaming about corruption and destruction of this or the other value. Suffice it to say that burial of Joan Collins within the tomb was a satisfactory ending of her character. At least in this instance, scriptwriter knew what he was doing. Probably venting.

bscap0001There are some other points of interest as well. Consider the nature of Hollywood epic. Ever since technology of moviemaking progressed to a point where you could produce more or less believable grandiose setting for any page of the Bible (though things like this have been done in early days of cinema – remember Griffith’s Intolerance), producers started having wet dreams about thousands of people in period-costumes doing period-stuff while crowd went wild showering them with money. History epics provided their audiences with cognitive dissonance. Ancient Egypt and its pharaohs were so strange and so detached from post-WWII USA that you just had to invent stuff to make the entire world understandable. Ancient Egypt was an alien culture (much like feudal Japan is alien culture to any Westerner, and even when you watch movies by Kurosawa, who was heavily influenced by West, there’s always something lost in translation), but story of Land of the Pharaohs is anything but alien. Watched from half a century distance, it’s so conventional that it hurts.

bscap0000There’s something that still bugs me though and it is pharaoh himself. You can’t really escape implicit critique of pharaoh. Howard Hawks plays with this on meta-level. For average Christian in 1955, belief-system of ancient Egypt was nothing but a bunch of bullshit. Walking gods my ass. Polytheistic religion? Pffft. So we got this pharaoh guy who believes in crap and forces thousands of people to build a monument to his glory. If there ever was a megalomaniac, Howard Hawks made a story about him right then and there. Still, as movie progresses, pharaoh becomes more humane. Final betrayal humanizes him completely. In the end, we’re left with the notion than even though he was a tyrant, he managed to complete something that will last for all eternity. He fulfilled the dream most of us humans have and you can’t really hate him for that. There’s something American in this presentation of pharaoh. He had a dream, and no matter the cost, he managed to pull it off. Thing is, pharaoh didn’t pay the cost but no real believer of American dream bothers himself with such communist nonsense. In the end Land of the Pharaohs encourages megalomania. After all, without megalomaniacs of old we couldn’t very well make pictures on the topic. It took us some time to finally look underneath the grandiosity of pyramids but at that point we moved into a post-modern. Land of the Pharaohs still belongs to classical Hollywood – a time and place where no such though could exist.

Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced by Howard Hawks
Written by Harold Jack Bloom
William Faulkner
Harry Kurnitz
Starring Jack Hawkins
Joan Collins
James Robertson Justice
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Russell Harlan
Edited by Vladimir Sagovsky
Continental Company

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