Sunday 18 October 2020

Streaming and on DVD - John Baxter contemplates images of ancient Egypt in LAND OF THE PHAROAHS (Howard Hawks, USA, 1955) FARAON (Jerzy Kawalerowicz, Poland, 1966) and more.


       Howard Hawks’ 1955 Land of the Pharaohs is one of those train wrecks from which cineastes avert their eyes as they pass. Among Hawks’s later films, Red
Line 7000 
and Man’s Favorite Sport remain watchable, but his lone historical spectacle and first CinemaScope production might as well have fallen off the edge of the earth. 

       Most directors come a cropper in ancient Egypt, notwithstanding a formula which appears straight-forward, even simplistic: for a setting, some pyramids on the horizon, a few palms in the foreground, the Nile in the middle distance, with a felucca or two for luck. Sheets, skirts and sandals will do for costumes. Garnish with a music score of devotional oooo-ahs and the occasional dissonant march, heavy on drums and chimes. Land of the Pharaohs has all these, and more. So what went wrong?

Howard Hawks

aving gone the distance with Marilyn Monroe on Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Hawks was enjoying a yachting holiday in the south of France when he was beguiled by an archeologist with stories of the pharaoh Khufu employing 100,000 men for twenty years to erect the Great Pyramid. Jack Warner, no stranger to delusions of grandeur, was also enjoying the Riviera sun, and agreed to back the project. It took a year to make and four years for Hawks to recover, after which he retreated to the security of Old Tucson, Rio Bravo and Duke WayneOne toys with antiquity at one’s peril.  

       In Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, a new arrival in Rome, glimpsing the Coliseum, says in awe “Can mere men have built such a thing?” Standing in the ruins of the Parthenon or among the pyramids at Teotihuacán, most of us will admit to a similar incredulity. How could ordinary men create something so vast with roughly the degree of technology we would need to DIY a bathroom? As Werner Heisenberg may have said, “Not only is the universe stranger than we know; it is stranger than we can know.”

       Harry Kurnitz was not the writer to evoke such awe. His sole period credit was on The Adventures of Don Juan, a minor effort even for the under-achieving Errol Flynn. His Valley of the Kings bore a closer resemblance to Gower Gulch, and the seedy Hollywood Boulevard end at that. In desperation, Hawks turned to William Faulkner, who rescued The Big Sleep in 1946, but the writer was so far gone in bourbon that he was taken off the plane insensible and spent the next two weeks in hospital. Kurnitz insists the sage of Yoknapatawpha County contributed “not a single line.”  

       Though shot in Rome, Hawks prudently found his cast in London: Hollywood actors don’t give good gravitas. Tony Curtis’s performance in The Black Shield of Falworth was still painfully fresh in the collective memory. Maybe he didn’t actually say "Yonda is da castle of my fodda" but the reality was far worse. 

Jack Hawkins, Land of the Pharaohs

audiences, it was said, wanted “kings talking like kings never had the sense to talk.” With this in mind, Hawks chose Jack Hawkins for Khufu, hoping filmgoers accustomed to hearing him bark “Steady as she goes, Number One” while playing Royal Navy officers would not giggle when he ordered “Prepare the fastest camels. I ride for Luxor tonight!”  

       Even the fastest camel, however, could not outrun his leading lady. A mere four years after her debut in Lady Godiva Rides Again, Joan Collins saddled up once more, this time to invade Hollywood as Nellifer, the slinky siren from Cyprus who brings pharaoh low. Her comeuppance mandates a jaw-dropping climax. Lured into the heart of the pyramid by her greed for gold, she watches aghast as a McIver contrivance of sand and counter-balanced stone seals her in with a troupe of priests wishing now they had read the small print of their contracts. It’s the film’s most original sequence but comes too late to save it.

Joan Collins, Land of the Pharaohs

If Howard Hawks couldn’t lick ancient Egypt, who could? In 1966, Polish director Jerzy Kawalerowicz made an interesting attempt with Faraon. An account of the power struggle between Rameses XIII and his priests,it was shot mostly in Uzbekistan with a cast that belonged in a different universe to Jack and Joan. 

Jerzy Kawalerowicz

       Unlike the burly near-six-foot Hawkins, Rameses (Jerzy Zelniks) is slight, pale and boyish. He feels no need to prove himself as Hawkins does, by wrestling a bull. Rather he stands serenely as the fixed point around which the universe turns. A golden helmet reflecting the cloudless desert sky imparts a sense of the ineffable.

       Spectacle is not this film’s strong suit. Its battles barely qualify as skirmishes on the Hollywood scale. Instead of cavalry on camels advancing to the blare of trumpets, his army is a rabble in skirts, their flimsy leather shields barely adequate against the heavy artillery of that era, rocks. To the accompaniment of a singer celebrating the glory of pharaoh, they trudge across shifting sand towards a far distant enemy, panting as they scramble up dune after dune. 

       Magic and omens rule this world. A battle is delayed because the route is blocked by two sacred scarab beetles wrestling a ball of dung. Aware that, to the ignorant, science looks like magic, the priests use foreknowledge of a solar eclipse to assert their power. Kawalerowicz evokes the primal terror of such an event, but also pauses for a brief lecture, with visual comparisons, on the economics of a nation reliant not, like Khufu’s kingdom, on looted gold and jewels but on grain, land and, above all, labour.


       The women of Rameses’ court, lithe and inhuman as cats, barely belong in the same universe as the aggressively mammalian Joan Collins. Their elaborate wigs are sculptural versions of the uniform hair style of Rameses’ troops, whose heads are covered with what looks like coke. The courtesans’ hair styles and plain linen shifts were designed by Shadi Abdel Salam, whose 1969 Night of Counting the Years would give faces and personalities to the thieves who lived on looting graves like that of Khufu. His work helps to give this ancient Egypt a true touch of the strange.

            In 2013, Martin Scorsese chose Faraon for a travelling season celebrating the under-rated Polish cinema of the sixties. The lesson appears to have fallen deaf ears and the film remains rare, though it’s well worth the trouble of tracking down.

Editor's Note: Faraon is available on a Polish edition DVD  if you click here


No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.