When it’s on: Saturday, 5 May (2.50 pm)
Years ago, Mrs Mike and I went on holiday to Luxor. She was five months’ pregnant (the perils of booking well in advance) so we didn’t get to hazard the peril-strewn train journey to Cairo and the pyramids, but I saw them anyway. 20,000+ feet in the air, flying over the endless Saharan desert with its thin strip of blue, and they were easily visible, amongst the few man-made objects I can imagine being able to recognise from that height. Without wanting to wax lyrical, even from such a distance they were still pretty awesome.
It’s that sense of awe that Howard Hawks attempted to capture in Land of the Pharaohs. The film was a flop, forcing Hawks into a self-imposed exile from film-making for several years, but it’s possible to see what he was trying to achieve. It’s a paean to the achievement of constructing something so monumentally vast and so ultimately futile. Hawks blew his budget on depicting the sheer scale of the pyramid building operation. Thousand of extras were hired to dress in contemporary garb, many wearing nothing more than loincloths. Shown working in the quarries, hauling enormous slabs of granite across the sand and toiling on the superstructure, no expense was spared in filming the massive labour that went into knocking up an ancient tomb.
Land of the Pharaohs clocks in at around half the time of most epics. The money clearly went on the extensive building scenes, Hawks filming in Cinemascope for the first time and filling the frame with hundreds and hundreds of bodies. It’s an impressive sight, as usual far more jaw-dropping than anything similar shown now because the camera’s picking up a real army of people, no matter how ant-like they appear on the screen (which presumably was the whole point); it’s the closest we will ever get to seeing how life really was around the time of the pyramid-building pharaohs. Hawks even tries to gauge the morale of the workers. At first, they’re happy to answer the call of their king, their god on earth with whom they have a living covenant. They sing while they work. But as the months turn into years and the pyramid refuses to near completion, the happy graft becomes hard toil. Singing gives way to drums and whips.
The entire effort of the film seems to go on this aspect, leaving the rest of the plot to be filled in around it. James Robertson Justice is the enslaved builder, Vashtar. His son, Senta, is played by Dewey Martin as a corn-fed American youth. Both work for Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who orders the building of the pyramid essentially because that’s what he does. Clearly having grown up in the traditions of the Pharaonic dynasty, it’s natural for him to expect this monument to his own glory. Unfortunately, Khufu’s prowess in battle is matched by his lust for women, a fatal flaw when he grows close to Joan Collins’s Princess Nellifer. ‘Nelly’ has ‘wrong ‘un’ written all over her and the young Collins is perfectly cast as a vain gold-digger.
Everything’s building up the the last scene, the sealing of the pyramid. As the pharaoh’s most loyal retainers wait inside the central tomb with their master, all around doors are sealed, slabs of stone slamming into place. For this sequence, Dimitr Tiomkin’s dramatic score is cut, leaving only the sound of enormous slabs sliding and shutting, heard by the people trapped within. It’s a moment of claustrophobic excellence, disturbing and frightening and quite out of kilter with everything that’s happened previously.
Land of the Pharaohs: ***