Land of the Pharaohs was Howard Hawks’ most ambitiously spectacular film, even if he did bring it in with a tight 55 day shooting schedule at a cost of only $3.15 million, still about a million over budget. Yet this truly lavish film, which might seem on the surface to have much in common with such other 1950s spectacles as The Robe, Ben Hur, and other equally oversize films – right down to the aspect ratio in which the film was shot, CinemaScope – was a resounding failure at the box office – the only Hawks film ever to lose money, despite a script that was principally authored by Hawks’ old pal, William Faulkner.
When asked by Cahiers du Cinema why he made the film in the first place, Hawks replied simply “CinemaScope” – he wanted a chance to work in the widescreen format on a suitably ambitious project. But in its tale of the ancient Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), who is obsessed with building a pyramid tomb that is “robber proof” from the outset of the narrative, just one theme hangs over the film; death, and the uncertainty of what awaits one in the next world, if there is one.
To achieve this, Khufu enlists a captive slave, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) to build a tomb whose design is so ingenious that no one can possibly break in. Vashtar, in return for the freedom of his people once the task is accomplished, creates such a design, which closes in on itself when a series of clay jars filled with sand are broken, moving huge stone blocks to seal the pyramid for eternity. Khufu approves the design, and the work gets underway, but as the years pass, Khufu becomes are even more obsessed, more brutal, and more ruthless in his quest for gold, so that the pyramid becomes not only a monument to his life, but also to the boundless greed that has informed it.
Hawkins struts about with the proper degree of arrogance and pomp as Khufu, and Joan Collins is remarkably good as the nefarious Princess Nellifer, who plots to kill Khufu’s first wife and her son so that she can ascend to the throne. But her plans come to naught as, with Khufu’s death, she is buried alive – much to her surprise – along with Khufu’s willing servants in a gigantic pyramid that is indeed “robber proof,” from which there is no possible means of escape.
Why was the film a failure? Hawks put it down to a lack of a “star” cast, and the fact that “I don’t know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn’t know. None of us knew. We thought it’d be an interesting story, the building of a pyramid, but then we had to have a plot, and we didn’t really feel close to any of it,” but there’s more to it than that. Of all of Hawks’ films, this is easily the most despairing, and in the end, there’s no character that inspires even a vestige of sympathy, and the film’s penultimate shot; the pyramid, sealed, sitting silently atop the sand, where tens of thousands of slaves had once toiled night and day to build it, is both chilling and distancing.
I admire the film tremendously, just as I admire most of Hawks’ work, especially when one considers his effortlessly multi-genre career, encompassing everything from His Girl Friday to Red River to the unsigned The Thing From Another World to The Big Sleep and numerous stops in-between. But Land of The Pharaohs offers such a bleak vision of human existence that audiences of the time simply couldn’t relate to it, and yet it retains much of its power today, and stands as a unique accomplishment in Hawks’ long career.
But Hawks knew, however, that as a commercial filmmaker he had failed. As a result, he wandered through Europe for the next four years, uncertain as to his next film, or the direction his career was taking, until he teamed with John Wayne on a traditional western – a genre he knew well – for Rio Bravo in 1959. But Rio Bravo, despite its enormous critical reputation, is really a film that takes very few risks. In Land of the Pharaohs, nothing is certain, especially life after death, which is more than a little ironic since the entire film is concerned with preparing, in essence, for a funeral.
In one telling exchange, Khufu tells Vashtar that if he builds the pyramid for him, he will have to kill him to ensure that the secret of the tomb’s construction dies with him; but that as a reward, Vashtar may also build an equally ornate pyramid for himself, stocked with food, jewels and gold so that Vashtar can enjoy the afterlife in equally luxurious fashion as Khufu is sure that he will. Vashtar replies that he has no belief in life after death, and instead bargains – successfully – for the lives of his people now, and in the end, it’s only the slaves who survive after years of privation, while the wealthy perish in an air tight tomb.