Monday, January 3, 2011

The Strange Greatness of Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs

"When I first saw it as a kid, Land of the Pharaohs became my favorite film." 
Martin Scorsese

Scorsese's rather audacious proclamation aside (he does also call it his number one cinematic guilty pleasure), if one wished to call Howard Hawks' 1955 Cinemascope epic a great film - or even a good film - one would surely have a mighty strain on their hands to convince others they were serious about such an audacious proclamation of their own.  But that lack of obvious quality - it truly is a ridiculous film in many many ways - is part of what makes Land of the Pharaohs so damned enjoyable.  Yet, for all this ridiculousness - and there certainly is more than one movie's worth of such - Howard Hawks is still the great director he is in all of his other films, and therefore transposes the idea of camp or cult or whatever those in the know have called this movie throughout the years, and crafted a well-made motion picture experience that somehow manages equal parts good and bad, great and terrible, visually stunning and laughably portrayed, and has handed us (along with co-scenarist William Faulkner) one of the finest bad movies this critic has ever seen.   How's that for a schizophrenic appraisal?

Seriously though (well, at least seriously, with a slight mocking tone) Land of the Pharaohs is a beautiful looking film, with its muted colours and achingly detailed sets and costumes, and there are shots in here that would amaze even the most novice of cinephiles - one of which seems to have been pulled straight out of Hawks' film and placed smack dab in the center of Scorsese's Gangs of New York - and even though it does not equal the great auteur at his best, which is a list too long to reproduce here (Hawks is after all, in this unabashed Hitchcocko-Hawksian's opinion, the greatest of the Hollywood studio directors - no argument!), it is one of the most fun (the funnest?) movies I have seen in a while - and a great way to start off the new year (eight of us watching it on the big screen of Midtown Cinema after hours on New Year's Day night, via DVD projector, and yelping as if we were filming the latest episode of MST3K).  I suppose, in the end, even with the obvious string of ludicrous throughlines throughout, Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs is a strong and powerful film indeed, and is one of the auteur's weakest films only because he has so many strong films to compare it too (even lesser Hawksian is good Hawksian). 

My three favourite moments of Land of the Pharaohs:

1) Joan Collins' entrance into the Pharaoh's palace, offering herself to him in lieu of her country's required payment to the realm and he ripping her robe off to uncover the beaded and bronzed feminine lures that were hitherto hidden beneath, all the while (and all through most of the film) her face an unearthly lavender that is probably less the would-be exotic affectation it is perhaps meant to be and more a poorly painted make-up job and/or the on-screen result of that strange creature known as Warner Color.

2) The moment when the stone statues of the Egyptian Gods begin to speak in voice-over and the cast of thousands (nearly 10,000 extras - a feat that would sadly be CGI'd in these days) ooh and aah and chant after them.  Scorsese says this is one of the defining moments of his cinematic childhood. The scene is just as wryly funny as it is awe-inspiring as it is somehow spiritually necessary.

3) The grand finale when Joan Collins' back-stabbing, gold-hungry would-be Queen Nellifer realizes her fate and the sand keeps pouring and the stones keep dropping and the would-be Queen Nellifer keeps screaming that she does not want to die.   I suppose the joke is on her after all.

Let me end with one of the best movie tag lines ever: "Her Blood Stained Every Stone of the Pyramid."


Ed Howard said...

The best part of this film is all the loving shots of pyramid construction in action - and then the wonderful finale in which all that meticulous work pays off in the engineering marvel of the sand trap. I think it takes a real Hawksian to appreciate the film's pleasure; Hawks is the greatest Hollywood auteur in my opinion, too, and thus even lesser films like Land of the Pharoahs can be appealing in their weird, minor ways. For all the melodrama and ridiculousness in the film, Hawks seems to be almost uninterested in the human affairs, working more on an abstract, epic scale, cramming all those extras into the frame and using more wide shots than ever before or after. It's a unique film in Hawks' oeuvre, his stab at a genre that arguably isn't naturally suited to his talents or interests, but he makes it interesting anyway.

Kevyn Knox said...

Glad to know another Hawksian.

I love the wide shots and the shots of the pyramid building - great stuff indeed.

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