Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
Within the first five minutes of Land of the Pharaohs (1955), a widescreen turkey directed and produced by Howard Hawks for Warner Brothers, the original audience must’ve gotten what they paid for: several thousand extras marshalled into a spectacular victory parade through the Egyptian desert. Teeming crowds are amassed on the sidelines and instructed to wave awkwardly at the passing army that, clad in multicolour uniforms, consists of soldiers supplied by the Egyptian military. I can imagine Harry Warner, or some other honcho at the studio, walking out of the preview after five minutes, assured that the money spent can be seen up there.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

If the parade and its reception vaguely resemble Nazi rallies, they are intended to be. The man leading the parade is the pharaoh Khufu. He’s just returning from a war campaign that has won him vast amounts of treasures and slaves. The pharaoh, a voiceover tells us, lusts after riches and power. In the ideology Hollywood sells (but doesn’t itself believe), this means only one thing: Khufu is going to bite the dust. Hollywood filmmakers were adept at condemning vice while harnessing its spectacular possibilities to the fullest. So the next hundred minutes of Land of the Pharaohs details the wrongheadedness of Khufu’s pursuit even as it invites us to marvel at the wonderful the result of his sin: the Great Pyramid of Giza he builds for his burial. This duality also dovetails with the production’s obligation to promote Egyptian tourism while upholding Christian admonition against pagan pageantry.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

But it isn’t Khufu who is the artist figure of the film. That would be the slave architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), recruited to design an inviolable labyrinth around Khufu’s future tomb. It isn’t clear what tribe Vashtar and his kinfolk belong to, but they serve as stand-ins for the film’s Western audience, covertly commenting on the barbaric practices of pharaonic faith and law. Vashtar is righteous, willing to sacrifice his own life for the freedom of his people. He bargains with the pharaoh, using his expertise to carry out his social vision. He is the filmmaker equivalent to the studio executive Khufu, who does little more than exploit his artists and workers to death in his quest to immortalize himself.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Khufu is played by British thespian Jack Hawkins. Like Rex Harrison later in Cleopatra (1963), this stage actor, with his stately line delivery and swaggering gait, brings gravitas and finesse to a two-dimensional role. He’s absent for considerable stretches of the narrative, which only enhances the impression of his importance. There’s an impressive little gesture he does to get the prostrating crowd back on its feet. However, I am with Luc Moullet in wondering how it might have been with John Wayne in the role. Wayne, who was busy playing Genghis Khan at the time, would at least have bought something of the ridiculous and the sublime to the rather staid proceedings.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Being a Hawks film, the romance between men overshadows the heterosexual ones emphasized by the script. The object of the pharaoh’s affection is his chief priest Hamar (a demure Alexis Minotis) who goes to the grave with his ruler at the end. When the jewellery-loving pharaoh returns home in the first scene, his fondness for women is on public display, while he reserves his affection for Hamar for his private chamber. He comes out of the shower bare-chested, eats a plum, and reminisces about his youthful days with Hamar. The conversation is interrupted by the queen, who has come to urge her husband to spend more time at home. Women, as is not unusual in Hawks, spell trouble: Khufu’s first queen discourages him from war, his second queen discourages him from peace.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Watching the film, I was reminded of Straub-Huillet’s Too Soon, Too Late (1981), the second half of which takes place in the fields and streets of Egypt as well. I’m fond of Serge Daney’s article on the latter film, which makes a distinction between acupuncturist-filmmakers and meteorologist-filmmakers. Where the acupuncturist Straubs, through trial and error, attempt to feel out the only morally defensible choice of lenses and camera placement in each of their shots, Hawks the meteorologist always goes for the widest possible angle from the farthest possible distance, so as to pack the greatest number of extras within the wide frame. At times, like the Straubs, he films extended panoramas to expand the space and multiply its spectacular possibilities. It’s a proto-fascist idea—of reducing people to specks on a hagiographic canvas—that results in a number of awe-inducing compositions.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)

Finally, while the Straubs are looking to capture something of the real present—the winds sweeping Egyptian fields, the gaze of the workers trickling out of a factory—Hawks’ film exudes Hollywood fakery on every level. The dialogue is heavily dubbed, with dilated, accented voices replacing the original. “They sang songs of their faith and of their joy”, tells the voiceover, even as we see thousands of men and women, who may have never been before a film camera, reluctantly march past, barely trying not to stare at it. The irony of an American super-production hiring Egyptians as dispensable extras to build a turgid monument in CinemaScope is, no doubt, lost on the film. But, hey, they got paid.

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Too Soon Too Late (1981)