Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The first wonder of the world


Directed by Howard Hawks
Written by William Faulkner, Harold Jack Bloom, and Harry Kurnitz

Spoiler alert: well, the pyramid gets finished, but moderate otherwise

If I were to discuss the subject with Film People, and frankly I would rather not, I would doubtless be told that I don't appreciate Howard Hawks enough, nor in the way that I'm supposed to; but for me Hawks was always a very solid filmmaker, whose films I haven't always liked, and only very occasionally loved.  So I realize that I am way off the consensus when I say that my personal favorite Hawks film—give or take a certain Thing From Another World, which may not count, and maybe (big maybe) Ball of Fire—is the one generally considered his least-characteristic of all.

This was 1955's Land of the Pharaohs, an attempt by Hawks on behalf of Warner Bros. to do a richly-produced sword-and-sandals picture that backfired badly enough for Hawks to wind up spending the rest of his life and beyond apologizing for it.  If the "beyond" part seems impossible, that's because I'm referring to the Hawksheads who've felt the need to continue apologizing for it, and for him, decades down the line.  E.g. critic, director, and irritating Hawks superfan Peter Bogdanavich, who spends most of his mumbly, shitty commentary track doing precisely that, declaring that Hawks was simply too sophisticated and too intelligent to do a good sword-and-sandal picture, not like that moron DeMille.  (And, as a public service announcement: the mediocre Warner Archives DVD-R that Bogdanovich's commentary is on is still about one thousand times better than the awful rental option offered by Amazon, which is not only in an incorrect aspect ratio, but has such problems with color stability that it's borderline psychedelic.  This means that I'm recommending a movie that there is barely any way for you to properly see.  Sigh.)

Anyway, I am not sure what exactly gave Hollywood its Egyptian fever in the 1950s.  The easiest explanation is that studios simply extrapolated from 1949's big hit Samson and Delilah, set in the ancient Levant, and 1951's big hit Quo Vadis, set in ancient Rome, and, in their attempt to spice up the sword-and-sandal genre and diversify it past Bible stories, turned to antiquity's other famous civilization, Egypt—and hence Warners' Land of the Pharaohs in 1955, and 20th Century Fox's The Egyptian the year before.  It was simply the times, I guess, yet I'm tempted to pin this brief fad-within-a-fad on one film specifically, and of course I mean the movie that would define what "Egypt" would look like in Hollywood movies for the rest of time, The Ten Commandments.  I'm not entirely sure that the timeline works, but, considering that The Ten Commandments, released in 1956, was highly-publicized and eagerly-anticipated, it's not unreasonable to at least suspect that, in 1954, Paramount's rivals saw what looked like a gap that could be profitably filled by their own Egypt-set epics.  And I'd find it hard to believe that Hawks had not consciously and explicitly decided to compete with the guy he'd worked for once as a prop boy—it's probably the easiest-to-grasp reason it even fits into his filmography.

Not pictured: a noisy screwball comedy.

Both The Egyptian and Land of the Pharaohs were about pagans and not the Bible; therefore they were disinterested, at least nominally, in the Bible movies' religious moralizing.  Obviously, being a product of pretty much the same impulses, and being written by and for people whose foundational exposure to Egyptian history came from the Bible, each one inevitably offers something of its own riff on the Exodus.  The Egyptian took on the story of Sinuhe, sometimes credited as an inspiration for Moses, and then Judeo-Christianed the fuck out of it, with a wobbly take on Pharaoh Akhenaten, the Egyptian monotheist killed by his own priests.  Pharaohs, made with a decidedly materialist bent, is somehow both more blatant and more subtle about it, and it's some of the most admirable restraint I've ever seen that it refrains from directly identifying its monument-building slave heroes, who walk out of Egypt in the end, as the original Israelites.  It's fair to say, however, that it only ever had a limited interest in them in the first place.

Mostly, what Pharaohs does is propose to tell its version of how Khufu (Jack Hawkins) built his Great Pyramid of Giza back in the 26th Century B.C., examining the king as he became more and more consumed with the security of his grave and his burial treasures, until his monument became the only thing in the world that mattered to him.  To this end, he decreed a new design, impervious to the graverobbers who had defiled so many of his ancestors' tombs.  But when the native Egyptian architects prove incompetent, he can turn only to Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), recently brought to Memphis as one of the thousands of slaves taken during Khufu's recent successful expedition against the kingdom of Kush.  Vashtar had served as the Kushite forces' engineer, and nearly ensured Khufu's defeat, and he's hardly enthusiastic to serve his Egyptian nemesis.  Yet, in exchange for his people's freedom upon completion of the task, he agrees to build Khufu's pyramid, agreeing further that when it is done, and Khufu dies, Vashtar and the secrets of his pyramid shall join the Pharaoh in his grave.  (And, of course, it's worth mentioning that everyone involved was racist enough to decide that most of their Kushites would be so pale that living in Kush would kill them.)

After that, and starting at the 42 minute mark, Pharaohs proposes also to tell the story of how Khufu met his second wife, Nellifer (Joan Collins), a Cypriot princess sent as tribute, and how she conspired with a captain of his royal guards, Treneh (Sydney Chaplin), to hasten the day that Khufu's khet would be commended to his tomb.

You've probably already identified the big, fundamental problem with Land of the Pharaohs: these plots don't have anything to do with one another.  Indeed, they ought to badly work against one another.  In one of these stories, after all, Khufu's an oppressive tyrant, enslaving populations and bullying one slave in particular while hoarding vast wealth that he plans to throw into a hole in the ground—you know, the villain.  In the other, he's the victim, a dumb film noir protagonist finding a newfound late-life horniness in the presence of a half-dressed 22 year old who plays mindgames with him that, ultimately, she wins.  It's not really worth trying to force these plots to gel—the best you can say is that "Khufu is complicated?", but then, it's not a character study.  In some rarefied theoretical sense, I suppose that both of these two plots could each be said to represent an old man denying his impending mortality: the first presents this in the grandiose terms of religion and kingship, having Khufu raise a monument to his greatness that still stands to this day; the second undercuts the first with sour commentary, laying bare the hollowness of the endeavor, offering up the utterly banal tale of a man of power using his power to bang an intern, while fooling himself into thinking she's fallen in love.  Of course, this is a thesis that isn't remotely well-argued, or possibly even noticed, by either Hawks or his screenplay, courtesy Harold Jack Blum, Harry Kurnitz, and William Faulkner (and yes, that William Faulkner—though, honestly, "novelist trying to be a screenwriter" is almost as good an explanation as "studio-mandated action and sex" for what at least clunkily resembles thematic parallelism).

The good news is that this disconnect is never catastrophic, if not so much because Hawks manages to make it invisible, or even avoids the big holes in it (though we can politely refrain from pointing out that Vashtar's neat scheme to seal the pyramid automatically with nuclear-bunker-grade blocks of solid stone ought to render "secrecy" moot).  Frankly, if it's a good story at all, it's just because both its plots are entertaining, and it does at least have the decency to mechanically link them in a satisfyingly-nasty pair of climaxes that allows for a surprising amount of blood for a 1955 film, as well as a startling amount of experimental cinematography shot from the point-of-view of the person bleeding, before moving immediately to a fantastic evocation-through-editing of a death much more terrifying than just losing all your blood.  As for the performances animating this, there's really only two of any note, and Collins's doesn't need much explanation: she's evil sex, and that's that, though she's certainly good enough at it that it's a delight to watch her vamp her way through her paces.  (It is not, unfortunately, a delight to see the violence wrought upon her by the make-up and cinematography: whatever the hell happened, it's bad, and she spends her early scenes looking like she just got bitten in a low-budget zombie movie before they finally fix it.)

As for Hawkins, by no means does he exert himself to actually link his two plots psychologically—and he is the only real commonality between them, other than his high priest Hamar (Alexis Minotis)—but I wind up finding it a remarkable performance anyhow, one of the oddest turns in a 50s period piece: he's the chummiest, most "just-a-guy" pharaoh you will ever see.  He's chummy with Hamar, with the help, with his first wife ("exotic" French-born actress Miriam "Kerima" Charriére); and while his relaxed style with the cast can feel deeply anachronistic, it's in an unaccountably exciting way.  It's not in the dialogue—most of that remains in the stilted style of any mid-century period piece, though there's a great interchange with a featured extra regarding a parrot that comes off as stunningly organic when it happens—but it is in Hawkins' delivery and body language.  It freshens up a script that might've easily been deadweight with somebody else, granting Khufu not so much an "inner life," because it's not a complex performance, but an appealingly human quality that combines productively with a character who thinks he's literally a god.  That it at least points in the direction of a theme of a certain equality before death is a bonus.

Which means we can talk about the really cool stuff, and one of its other most idiosyncratic qualities is that it's a movie about ancient pagans that doesn't condescend to them.  It's not uncritical—it is certain that their religion is made-up bullshit, and Vashtar and his pals are withering mouthpieces for the screenplay to make sure you get that—but it never feels malicious or partisan about it the way Bible movies can be.  The inescapable conclusion is that its target isn't long-dead Egyptian beliefs in the afterlife, but it also comprehends that, even if life after death is a lie, there's a deeply-felt need for the lie.  Accordingly, it doesn't despise the Egyptian peasants who submit themselves to the pharaoh's corvée with a song on their lips; it doesn't despise the priests who mimic the voices of the gods for the crowds, which I am not sure are actually "fooled" anyway; I'm not convinced it even despises Khufu, who believes what he believes with all his soul.  If he is an irrational old man who refuses to deviate from his ways even as they spell disaster for him—and that's your "Howard Hawks movie" right there, if you want it—it merely observes that, and feels bad for everybody involved.  And I may appreciate it more than, e.g., Red River or Only Angels Have Wings, because Pharaohs never once asks me to like these jerks.

More importantly, though, it is still an epic spectacle in grand mid-century style, and whatever Hawks's interests in this project actually were—it's typically speculated his mechanic's background pushed him towards a fascination with the construction of the pyramid itself, and not the folks constructing it—the director went to the wall to DeMillify the hell out of his film.  He starts right from the beginning, as Dmitri Tiomkin's pharaonic march thunders across the prologue and Khufu makes his triumphal parade through the streets of Memphis, both in something close to real time and in a form almost indistinguishable from a real Egyptian army coming home.  For good reason: it was the real Egyptian Army, also employed by DeMille for The Ten Commandments, and somehow I doubt that allowing Hollywood to march their infantry around the desert with sticks in their hands for weeks on end was that helpful in maintaining their combat readiness for a war that was just a year away.

Well, it worked out for Hollywood, anyhow: Land of the Pharaohs is absurdly awesome and sometimes beautifully-executed (as happens several times throughout the film, Tiomkin's score is presented as a semi-diegetic march being performed by on-screen sources, or, in a slower tempo, as a hymn), and I decided within maybe the first two minutes that I was probably going to adore this movie.  Hawks lingers, too, on the logistics: maybe the most impressive single shot of the film—probably two shots, stitched together using a rock to hide the seam—pans impassively across the vastness of a quarry as 9,787 human beings (as tallied by Warners' marketers, anyway), staged deeply across the canvass of the CinemaScope frame, pry the rock from the desert.  (Pharaohs is, I believe, the only 'Scope film of Hawks's career, and he reputedly didn't much care for it.  Despite this, he and/or his assistants acquit themselves well.)  Throughout, Lee Garmes and Russell Harlan's decidedly-unvibrant Eastmancolor photography manages to impose a naturalism upon the proceedings that, in this mid-century epic context, comes off as damned near gritty.  One gets the sense that art director Alexandre Trauner was also instructed to likewise play things down, permitting the opulent palace to be a lived-in space, and scrupulously avoiding the "bank lobby" shininess that often accrues to these pictures' visions of royal luxury.  Altogether, it allows the sets and locations to remain overwhelming, while still feeling like places humans built to actually use.  And, somehow, Hawks gets his epic in and out of our eyes in just 106 minutes, a mind-blowingly concise runtime for this kind of flick, though there's a serious argument that its brevity is the reason its story can feel clumsy.

In closing, I will say that it has a blood-curdlingly great scene with a mom, a kid, and a cobra; does that sell it?  Martin Scorsese called it his favorite movie as a child, and as an adult still called it a "guilty pleasure."  For myself, I feel no guilt over it at all.

Score: 8/10

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