Cult Camp Classics Volume 4: Historical Epics Review
LAND OF THE PHARAOHS: 7/10
If Land of the Pharaohs seems an unlikely project for Howard Hawks, then that’s a judgement with which Hawks himself would have agreed. Although he had total control over the finished movie, the director frequently expressed his dissatisfaction with it, particularly after it became a significant financial failure. Indeed, in some respects one can understand why it has long been considered an unsatisfactory film. But the overwhelming epic sweep of the film is undeniable, as is the fact that it presents some classic Hawksian themes in such a way as to make it a surprisingly personal work.
The film is set during the reign of the Pharaoh Khufu (Hawkins) who ruled Egypt for about a quarter of a century during the 26th Century BC. Our knowledge of him comes mostly from an Egyptian oral tradition of folklore in which he has long been condemned as a cruel and vindictive leader. But he is most widely known as the likely builder of the Great Pyramid of Giza, the oldest and biggest pyramid which stands in the suburbs of Cairo. Land of the Pharaohs documents the building of the pyramid, demonstrating how Khufu turns from a reasonable man into a tyrant obsessed with his own memorial, the only way in which he can live, and keep his riches, beyond his time. The pyramid is designed as a burglar-proof tomb by Vashtar (Justice), a slave who agrees to organise the building in exchange for the release of the slaves who work on it. But Khufu’s promises are hollow and become ever more so when he is enamoured by Nellifer (Collins), a Cypriot princess whom he marries. Nellifer, a femme more fatale than most, plans to relieve her new husband of his treasure before it can be sealed into his tomb and doesn’t care who gets hurt in the process.
Khufu is a fascinating character, a man who devotes his life, and the lives of thousands of slaves, to the building of his own necropolis. His single-minded obsession reminds one of Tom Dunson in Red River - and as Glenn Erickson points out in his excellent review of the film, the structure of the two movies is very similar. One is also reminded of Tony Camonte in Scarface and the way in which a personal obsession slowly begins to loosen a tyrant’s grip on power. The obsession that Khufu has with his own mortality would also recur in the two key Westerns of Hawks’ later career - Rio Bravo and El Dorado; particularly in the latter film where Cole Thornton spends much of his time musing upon the knife edge between life and death. The people around Khufu are equally recognisable Hawksian types; professionals who know their jobs and don’t suffer fools gladly. However, as many critics have pointed out, what’s missing here is the Hawksian woman. What we get in her place is Nellifer, played with lip-smacking glee by a very young Joan Collins. She looks like a million dollars and is clearly having a ball but the character is a misogynist’s compilation of all the potentially bad things about any woman he might happen to have met. Femme fatales are fun but Nellifer is presented as so malicious and without any redeeming features that she’s more like a pantomime villainess than a fully realised character.
What still takes the breath away is the astonishing scale of the production. The massive Cinemascope frame is filled with sweating extras, heaving away at rocks and ropes. It’s easy to believe that what we’re watching is a faithful recreation of a historical period, certainly more so than one would expect from a 1950s historical epic – the general standard of which was pretty low and well represented by Henry Koster’s The Robe. There were reportedly 9, 787 extras working on the locations in Egypt and in the Titanus studios in Rome – less famous than Cinecitta but the site for some of Visconti’s best work including Rocco and his Brothers and The Leopard.The silly soap-operatics of the story, particularly the second half, are easy to ignore when they’re presented on such a vast and impressive stage. The final scenes are particularly memorable and the self-sealing tomb, once seen, is never forgotten. Hawks never used Cinemascope again and this is a little regrettable since he shows himself to be more than able to adapt himself to the wider frame.
Of course, there are flaws with the film. The acting is often a little uncertain with some bad dubbing detracting from the wordier scenes. Jack Hawkins tries very hard indeed as Khufu but he doesn’t quite have the commanding presence in these surroundings that he showed in The Cruel Sea. James Robertson Justice fares better but neither actor is well served by a script which would faze any actor unlucky enough to come into contact with it. Since neither William Faulkner nor Harry Kurnitz were exactly illiterate, one has to either put the blame on Harold Jack Bloom or generously suggest that none of their hearts were really in it. But when the huge Warnercolor vistas unfold and Dimitri Tiomkin’s majestic choral score kicks in, it’s not hard to wallow in the scale of it all, whereupon the flaws don’t really matter at all.
THE COLOSSUS OF RHODES - 7/10
Although The Colossus of Rhodes was Sergio Leone’s first credit as director, it was not his first film. After the original director, Mario Bonnard, fell ill, he directed the lion’s share of The Last Days of Pompeii; the film which first introduced him to Sergio Corbucci. Made two years later, The Colossus of Rhodes uses many of the same crew members as the earlier film and can be seen as a considerable step-up in Leone’s career. It was not only his first directorial credit, it established his visual flair, his talent for action and some of the interests which would later define his career.
The actual Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, stood 30 meters high on a hill overlooking the city of Rhodes. It was built between 292 and 280BC and stayed up for about fifty years until the city was decimated by an earthquake in 226BC. The film begins with the unveiling of the finished statue – pictured here as straddling the harbour – and tells a wildly convoluted story in which Rhodes is planning an alliance with Phoenecia which would be hostile to Greece. A renowned Greek soldier named Dario (Calhoun) is visiting his uncle at the time and becomes embroiled in a plot by freedom-fighters to thwart the Phoenecian alliance and win their freedom.
This plot was the product of eight writers, which probably accounts for why it is so full of incident. But, in effect, the film is actually more like a greatest hits package of the best bits of various Sword and Sandal epics. The genre had been long established in Hollywood but was given a shot in the arm in Italy with the success in 1957 of the Steve Reeves epic Hercules. Under the Italian name ‘peplums’ – referring to the short tunic worn by the heroes of these films – the genre was spectacularly popular for a period of roughly eight years. The films, set in antiquity, tended to be very colourful, rather cheap and depended largely for their quality on the imagination of the individual director. So, for example, Hercules in the Haunted World, made by Mario Bava, is considerably superior in every respect to The Fury of Hercules, directed by the unfailingly mediocre Gianfranco Parolini. There were a number of peplum heroes, notably Hercules, Machiste and Ursus, and this ensured a consistent stream of work for muscle-men such as Steve Reeves, Gordon Scott and Mark Forest.
However, The Colossus of Rhodes, while in the peplum tradition, is equally influenced by the rash of widescreen epics which came from Hollywood in the 1950s. This is not only a clear case of financial common sense but also the result of Sergio Leone’s own experience working second-unit on many of those movies. He was a key player in the making of Helen of Troy, Ben Hur (where he assisted Andrew Marton in devising and filming the chariot race) and Robert Aldrich’s Sodom and Gomorrah. As stated above, the film plays a bit like a compilation from recent hits, not only peplums but also major American productions. We have a coliseum scene, a chariot race, a slave revolt, a natural catastrophe unseating the decadent aristocracy, a duplicitous femme fatale, gloating torture, and bits of action every ten or fifteen minutes to keep the Saturday matinee audience interested. Beyond this, the film, as Leone was keen to point out, has certain Hitchcockian references - notably to Saboteur and North By Northwest - and, at the middle point, turns into a Western briefly when Darios visits the secret rebel camp on horseback.
It’s not a very distinguished film in some respects, It has severe pacing problems – twenty minutes could easily be shaved off without any serious damage – and the acting is no more than functional. The role of Dario needs an iconic actor - or even a massive non-acting presence like Steve Reeves - but Rory Calhoun merely supplies a pleasant smile and rarely makes any impact. As for the supporting cast, Antonioni’s discovery Lea Massari seems uncomfortable as a femme fatale and the bad guys aren’t a patch on Fernando Rey’s Abarces in The Last Days of Pompeii. While the great Roberto Camardiel looks good in a silly red wig, he never gets to be as truly vile as he is in Questi’s Django Kill. As for the script, it's never more than fuctional despite managing to cram in enough incident for three movies. There are few truly terrible lines of dialogue but "I imagine soldiering is not a simple job, especially when you have to play the hero all day" is pretty dire.
But throughout, Leone wins through. His visual style is constantly in evidence, notably in a great 360 degrees pan and in the use of a staircase leading to the top of the Colossus. He keeps the film going, although his direction falters (as it always did) in the love scenes, and stages the action with his usual panache, especially a swordfight on the head of the Colossus. Some elements of his films are present in embryo here – a torture sequence, for example, which is curtailed far sooner than it would be in later movies – and we also see the idea that the urban is equated with corruption while the countryside represents freedom and liberty. If it’s not an especially personal movie, that’s perhaps because, as Christopher Frayling suggests, Leone found the epic form limiting and needed to turn to the Western to fully express himself.
THE PRODIGAL - 2/10
Not even a die-hard fan of Hawks or Leone is likely to make any great claims for Land of the Pharaohs or The Colossus of Rhodes. However, both of those films begin to look like cinematic masterpieces compared to The Prodigal. An endless parade of nonsense, The Prodigal has virtually nothing to commend it. The sole virtues are one good supporting performance from Joseph Wiseman and some vivid Techicolor cinematography. That's not a lot to compensate for 112 minutes of tat. Fans of Lana Turner may disagree with this assessment of course, but most of them are so madly besotted that they manage to find some virtues in The Big Cube.
The story, cooked up by three MGM hack writers, is based very loosely on the Biblical parable of the Prodigal Son. As someone who holds an A Level in Religious Studies, I should be able to tell you more about this but I keep getting it confused with the parable of the Talents and all I can recall is that a fatted calf is involved somewhere along the way. Anyway, the plot involves Michah (Purdom), a Hebrew farmer in dire need of acting lessons, who deserts his true love and monotheistic belief for the charms of Astarte, personified by Samarra (Tuner). Needless to say, this turns out to be a bad decision - one look at the decor in Astarte's temple should have warned him - but all ends happily enough, especially for this viewer who has never been so pleased to see an end title in all his life.
It would be straining at a gnat to laugh too much at The Prodigal because virtually everything in it is embarrassing. One doesn't have to comment on the horrors of the dialogue because a quote will serve as ample explanation: "Asham. I've drunk deep of every wine from here to Petra, and I've had my full share of women. Yet I'm behaving like a beardless boy panting for the first forbidden fruit that he sees. A priestess who worships a painted graven image! But she's in my blood!" Everyone in the film talks like that. Micah keeps offering us theology lessons about how he must believe in the one true God while Samarra floats around seductively trying to persuade him otherwise. It might help if Edmund Purdom showed any signs of being able to act but he must surely be one of the few Hollywood leading men to have never given anything resembling a performance in his entire career. As for Lana Turner, I'm tempted to offer a few unkind words but, to be fair, she looks like a million dollars and that's all that's really needed.
The blame for this mess can be placed at the feet of both the scriptwriters and the director, Richard Thorpe. Although he was never a very distinctive filmmaker, he was a very competent journeyman who was, occasionally, more than that. Certainly, Ivanhoe, The Prisoner of Zenda and Knights of the Round Table are brisk, enjoyable adventure movies which compare well with anything else in the genre. But he can't conjure up any interest here. The pace is deadening, the performances generally hopeless and there's barely any action - what there is comes across as incidental and tired. The only hope for The Prodigal was to be made with energy and invention. As it is, the only value is that of camp - and if it's camp you want, there are far more diverting places to find it.
Volume 4 of Warner Brother's Cult Camp Classics Collection is of a generally high standard in terms of presentation, not least because these three films have rarely been seen in their correct aspect ratio since they were released.
Land of the Pharaohs looks very nice on the whole. It's framed at 2.55:1, reflecting the original Cinemascope presentation. There's some minor damage on the image throughout but this isn't too much of a distraction. The level of grain is suitably filmlike though occasionally excessive - this is most noticeable in the exterior sequences. I wasn't overly impressed by the colours. Skin tones are good but the rest of the palate is a bit subdued in places, although this does vary from scene to scene. The Dolby Surround soundtrack is quite atmospheric and very crisp.
The Colossus of Rhodes is the weakest transfer in the collection. There is an awful lot of dirt on the image and almost constant grain which rises to an excessive level at times. Colours are strong, however, and compared to other transfers I've seen of the film, this is certainly no disgrace. The soundtrack is mono and perfectly clear without being distinguished.
The Prodigal looks excellent for the most part with a sharp picture - certainly the sharpest and crispest in the set - and nice colour. Like Pharaohs, it's framed correctly at 2.55:1. The Dolby Surround track has some decent separations and is, once again, very clean.
Each film is accompanied by a commentary and a theatrical trailer. The trailers are wonderful period pieces as you would expect from the period. As for the commentaries, they vary from the essential to the embarrassing. In the former category is Christopher Frayling's track on The Colossus of Rhodes. As both a respected scholar of myth and tradition and Sergio Leone's biographer, Frayling has heavyweight credentials and he doesn't disappoint. His track is full of trivia, wit, facts and, above all, enjoyment of the film. In the latter category is Drew Casper's ludicrous commentary on The Prodigal which treats the film as some kind of classic (which it isn't, even on a camp level) and tries to read in things which just aren't there. Coming between the two is Peter Bogdanovich's commentary on Pharoahs which contains some great recorded material from Howard Hawks along with Mr Bogdanovich's comments. Your enjoyment of these will depend on your tolerance for his particular style of speech which might best be described as idiosyncratic.
In terms of value, this is a great purchase. One quibble however. None of the films strikes me as particularly campy, particularly not compared to the likes of The Big Cube or Trog. Still, labels don't really matter so long as Warners manage to get some interest in their classic releases.