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 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 is 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)

[From Luc Moullet’s Politique des acteurs (1993, Cahiers du cinéma). See Table of Contents]

The first real appearance (Stagecoach, 1938)

Stagecoach (1938) is distinct in its sobriety and simplicity. There are effects but they aren’t visible. They are perfectly integrated into the continuity of editing. It’s the ideal stylistic exercise for film schools to take note of.

Even so, John Ford went for a flashy effect—just one—which is completely incongruent with the rest of film. It occurs in the first shot John Wayne appears in. Here is the film that will rescue him from oblivion and make him world famous. And how is he introduced? Firstly, notice that we see him eighteen minutes after the film has begun. A delayed entrance that is quite useful and well-planned: we have already heard much about Ringo Kid in the preceding conversation. This delay could seem normal: after all, Wayne’s is only the second name in the credits behind Claire Trevor, and as we have seen, it’s a good strategy to delay the entrance of the second protagonist.

But what an entrance! Everything has been smooth so far. Suddenly, without any narrative reason, there is a tight shot of the unknown Wayne all by himself, with the tracking camera culminating in a closeup, and the Monument Valley in the background, overlaid on a thunderous score. All this for a gentleman who stops the stagecoach with a hand signal, not for a holdup but simply to use the public service: to alert the driver…

We can’t think of a better beginning for a mythification. What’s curious is that it’s for a square almost unknown to the big studios, a handsome, scrappy giant, a sharpshooter trapped in Z movies of Republic Pictures where he had made forty mid-length features in six years. Ford seems to have wanted to create a star, his star, since they were to make fifteen films together in twenty-five years. The most faithful duo in the history of cinema. Amazing intuition, when none of the earlier films helped foresee Wayne’s abilities.

Ford places Wayne in the shadows—mythicizing darkness—as much as possible, while his partner Claire Trevor is frequently in full light in the preceding shot. One wonders if this doesn’t reflect a certain lack of confidence of Ford in the dramatic capabilities of his new protégé. Testimonies confirm this: Ford had asked Wayne to emote as little as possible, to stay impassive. Whatever the case, even if it was necessitated by fortuitous reasons, the mythification is no less present, and will continue to shape Wayne’s future work in a very perverse way.

At the end of the film, Wayne kills two villains within a few seconds. We don’t have time to see anything. As Wayne joins Claire Trevor, he is seen from behind. It’s only when he is very far in the background that he turns and lets us see his face.


[From my column on studio-era Hollywood films for Firstpost]

Sergeant York

Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), starring Gary Cooper as First World War hero Alvin C. York, was the biggest box-office draw of the year and was nominated for eleven Academy Awards. Even so, it isn’t cherished the same way the classics of the period are. The film doesn’t feature in critics’ polls nor do cinephiles count it among director Hawks’ finest. There are reasons for this. Produced by the Warner Brothers, Sergeant York is ostensibly a prestige picture, very different in tone from the studio’s lean, mean films about the “little guy”. Intended to celebrate Alvin York’s personality and exploits, it’s too reverential of its subject, taking artistic omission or modification as sacrilege—understandable given that the studio had a tough time convincing York to let them make a film of his life. Moreover, it’s not as muscular and economical as the regular Hawks picture, with its pious solemnity and overlong acts and coda. Yet, Sergeant York is full of those fruitful tensions and contradictions typical of Golden Era Hollywood, that glorious period of film production between the 1910s and the 1950s.

The film opens with a church service by Pastor Pile (Walter Brennan) in a village tucked away in the mountains of Tennessee. As the pastor talks about God’s stray sheep, he’s interrupted by the sound of gunshots. It’s York and his pals, drunk and raising hell on a Sunday morning. Disappointed, York’s hardy, suffering mother (Margaret Wycherly) requests the pastor to pump some sense into her wayward son. The pastor tells York that a “fella’s gotta have roots in something outside his own self”. The sermon doesn’t move York, but he does change. The first half of the film unfolds like a religious parable, tracing a boorish, vengeful drunk’s transformation into a forgiving Christian. The first turning point comes in the form of Gracie (Joan Leslie), the girl York intends to marry. To that end, he works day and night to buy some “bottom land”, a piece of field in the valley more fertile than his barren ranch on the hills. When cheated out of the deal by the landowner, he sets out to kill him, only to be struck by lighting on his way. Saved by what appears to be a miracle, York trudges into the church, having found the light.

This Damascus conversion is only the first of York’s two major transformations. After York, the champion of turkey hunting, turns non-violent, America decides to enter the Great War. The year is 1917 and, after an unsuccessful attempt at abstaining from drafting, York enlists as a conscientious objector. His sharp-shooting skills at the training grounds gain him a promotion, but he refuses it. His superiors have a long conversation with him, handing him a book of American history, and emphasizing the price one must pay for freedom and Christian living. Still unable to reconcile the commandment against killing and his duty to protect life, York retreats to the countryside, where another supernatural intervention turns his attention to Matthew 22:21 in the Bible. This military reasoning—now a foundational belief of American foreign policy—relieves York of his dilemma and he submits to earthly authority with gusto: not only does he kill German soldiers, but he almost single-handedly captures 132 more in a bloody operation.

The film follows York’s outward spiral, from his self-centred individualism to his coupledom, to his community membership, and finally his American citizenship. This corresponds with an opening up of the film’s consciousness as it moves from the secluded life in the hills, to the national melting pot that is the army, and to the veritable international forum that is the war trenches. Hawks is in his elements when dealing with the egalitarian camaraderie of the recruits at the army camp, and the idea of inverting the village topography in the war field is interesting. But for most part he’s clamped down by the material’s reverence. Hawks and his cinematographer Sol Polito shoot a good part of the film in Warners’ house style full of lights and shadows, but York’s transformation scenes are conceived with a preciousness and sentimentalism closer to Frank Capra territory. His second conversion is a baroque sequence filmed on the edge of a rock, with the silhouette of York and his dog set against the sunset, as the conflicting demands of the pastor and the captain on the soundtrack. Once York’s moral quandary is resolved, the film goes down the hagiographic slope.

In his Oscar-winning role here, Gary Cooper refines the naïf character he developed in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and Meet John Doe (1941). Forty years of age, Cooper interprets the character with a boyishness endearing in its absurdity. He grooms himself awkwardly in front of a mirror as “ma” fixes his pants and makes his meals. His characterization as a great shooter who eschews violence gives him a power that pays off at the end. That he could finally kill the German soldiers the same way he shot turkeys back home bestows on him an aura of innocence beyond corruption. Cooper conveys his entire character with a play of his fingers, especially his thumb: he adjusts his suspenders, dabbles with “bottom land” soil on a plate, turns the page with a lick of his thumb, hesitates with his left hand and, more remarkably, wets the aim of his rifle with saliva before shooting—a single gesture that seals his status as a son of the soil untainted by war, business and the big city life.

Sergeant York isn’t significant, however, for Cooper’s performance as much as for its crucial historical situation. It was made at a time when America had not yet entered the Second World War. The political discourse was divided between isolationists, such as Charles Lindbergh, who didn’t want America to get involved in Europe and those, like the Communist Party of America, who wanted to intervene on humanitarian grounds. These tensions are palpable in Sergeant York, made by Warner Brothers, the first studio to pull its films out of Nazi Germany. Both producers, Jesse Lasky and Hal Wallis were Jewish, as were two of the film’s four writers. One of the co-writers is filmmaker John Huston, a well-known anti-Nazi. Their film clearly calls for an American intervention. The facts from World War I are superimposed current events. The Germans officers in the film are cunning and back-stabbing, far cry from Jean Renoir’s uprooted gentlemen, while Britishers and Frenchmen are good blokes.

One the other hand, the film is directed by someone known to be casually anti-Semitic and fronted by the symbol of corn-fed Americana, Cooper, who testified against suspected communists in Hollywood after the war. The film’s duality is apparent in its ambivalence towards the York’s village. With their blissful ignorance of the war and geographical isolation, the villagers are depicted as being in the wrong by the script, but Hawks treats them with an affection and respect that files their rough edges. The discrepancy was, of course, resolved by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor months after the film’s release. Now, to be in the war and to be an American and a conscientious Christian were not a contradiction in terms. The film’s success is testified by the soldiers it encouraged to enlist in the army and by the fact that Sergeant York was presented as an evidence of communist influence in Hollywood during Senate hearings in September 1941. By December that year, though, all this was a footnote.


[Originally published at Firstpost]

Only Angels Have Wings

Straight Shooting

Ball of Fire

The Iron Horse

To Have Or Have Not

3 Bad Men

The Big Sleep

Young Mr. Lincoln

A Song Is Born

They Were Expendable

Gentlement Prefer Blondes

My Darling Clementine

Rio Bravo

3 Godfathers


She Wore A Yellow Ribbon

El Dorado

The Searchers