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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Hawks’

Howard Hawks’ Land of the Pharaohs (1955)

Tuesday, September 16th, 2014

Howard Hawks directs Land of the Pharaohs on location in Egypt, 1955.

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.

Such a film can’t hope to catch fire with the public imagination, but it’s a nihilist masterpiece nonetheless.

Frame by Frame Videos on Film History, Theory, and Criticism

Tuesday, June 24th, 2014

Here’s a carousel of more than sixty videos in my Frame by Frame series; click here, or above, to play!

Frame by Frame is a series of short videos I made with Curt Bright on film theory, history, and criticism — each is about 3 minutes long or so. Episodes of Frame by Frame cover The Hollywood Blacklist, Ridley Scott, Commercials in Movie Theaters, Inception, 3-D, Film Critics, War Movies, Film Composers, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Subtitles vs. Dubbing, The Aura, John Ford, Remakes, Special Effects, John Huston, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, Howard Hawks, Alice Guy Blaché, Oscar Micheaux, Horror Movies, Deep Focus, Pan and Scan, Jean-Luc Godard, Camera Movement, Metropolis, Psycho, Movie Trailers, Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, Minorities in American Film, The King’s Speech, Alfred Hitchcock, The Great Gatsby in 3-D, Digital Cinema, Special Effects, John Huston, Manoel de Oliveira, Orson Welles, Martin Scorsese, Westerns, Nicholas Ray, Busby Berkeley, Claire Denis, Woody Allen, Film Archives, George Cukor, Roger Corman, Billy Wilder, trailers, the Hollywood Ratings System, and many other topics.

Check it out! Useful for your classes; feel free to download as you see fit; use as you wish.

Howard Hawks’ Air Force (1943)

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

John Garfield and John Ridgely in Howard Hawks’ Air Force (1943); click here, or on the image above, to watch the trailer for this film.

There’s no question that Air Force is sheer propaganda — we were in the midst of fighting World War II, a war we couldn’t afford to lose, not only for ourselves, but for the world as a whole — and so the film is brutal, racist, and full of the anger and violence of combat. But it’s also a compelling document of a nation at war, ready to fight to the finish, and of the Hawksian ethos of personal responsibility, professionalism, comradeship, and shared sacrifice. The film’s plot mirrors the beginning of the war: the Mary Ann, a B-17 Flying Fortress, takes off from California for Hawaii on a routine training flight on December 6, 1941. En route, they learn of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Subsequently the crew mans the Mary Ann through action at Wake Island, the Philippines, and the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Impeccably photographed mixing nearly undetectable — for the period — miniature work with actual combat photography, Air Force is, along with Lloyd Bacon, Raoul Walsh and Byron Haskin’s wartime submarine drama Action in the North Atlantic (also 1943) — one of the greatest films to come out World War II from Hollywood, and one that, even today, in the naturalistic performances of John Garfield, John Ridgely (usually cast as a second lead), Harry Carey, Gig Young and the other players, holds both one’s attention, and remains a compelling drama of exactly what it takes to win a war — blood, sweat, and tears. There are some sentimental moments, and the entire film is shot through with flag waving moments that may make some uncomfortable, but as a document of the time and the era, it remains unmatched, and is yet another example of Hawks’ superb craftsmanship as a director, no matter what the genre.

The Thing from Another World (1951) vs. The Thing (1982)

Monday, September 12th, 2011

James Arness as The Thing in the Hawks/Nyby The Thing from Another World (1951)

Nominally directed by Christian Nyby — although most of the cast members assert that Nyby only directed one scene before deferring to producer/director Howard Hawks; Nyby had been Hawks’ editor for many years, and was superbly gifted at this, but he seems to have been out of his depth as a director — the 1951 film The Thing from Another World is a dense, fast-moving thriller, an an iconic film of its time and place.

In any event, The Thing from Another World features all the hallmarks of a Hawksian universe; men and women banding together as a group, in adverse circumstances, to defeat an external threat that seeks to destroy them — it might as well be Hawks’ Rio Lobo, or El Dorado, or Carpenter’s homage to Hawks, Assault on Precinct 13. But the pervading spirit is one of hope; people will die, there’s a real struggle going on, but in the end, the group will triumph, and the film ends on a note of optimism.

In contrast, John W. Campbell’s source novella is a much more downbeat affair, from its first lines on: “The place stank. A queer, mingled stench that only the ice-buried cabins of an Antarctic camp know, compounded of reeking human sweat, and the heavy, fish-oil stench of melted seal blubber. An overtone of liniment combated the musty smell of sweat-and-snow-drenched furs. The acrid odor of burnt cooking fat, and the animal, not-unpleasant smell of dogs, diluted by time, hung in the air.” (You can read the entire text of the novella here.)

Bill Lancaster, Burt’s son, wrote a screenplay for the Carpenter film that hews much more closely to Campbell’s original text, simply because Hawks realized that The Thing’s ability to assimilate and imitate any life form at will was beyond the reach of 1950s special effects, except perhaps with stop motion animation, and Hawks wasn’t about to get involved with that.

John Carpenter, however, working with the young and ridiculously ambitious Rob Bottin at the start of his career (with a slight assist from the late Stan Winston on the scene with the dog morphing into a spider), created a vision of nihilistic hell, in which the members of the Antarctic base camp, instead of coming together, fall apart completely, becoming more and more paranoid as the The Thing successfully takes over one person after another.

In addition to the superb ensemble acting, Carpenter’s patient direction, and Dean Cundey’s moody scope cinematography, what makes the film so compelling is the tactile realism of Bottin’s special effects work. There’s only one shot in the final film that’s stop motion (a tentacle of The Thing pulls a dynamite plunger into a hole in the floor — there’s more stop motion in the outtakes, but Carpenter wisely decided not to use it), and there is, of course, no CGI, since this is 1982; all the film’s remarkable, still-unsurpassed special effects are done “on the floor,” prosthetically, and so they have a degree of verisimilitude that CGI can never attain.

Nor are there any women in Carpenter’s, Campbell’s and Lancaster’s bleak world — other than the synthetic female voice in a Chess Wizard machine — and when trouble strikes, the men revert to almost infantile behavior, putting themselves before the group with disastrous consequences, culminating in a narrative conclusion in which The Thing is (it seems) triumphant; it will freeze again in the Arctic cold, only to be resurrected another day.

Then, too, there’s an interesting touch; Dr. Carrington (Robert Cornthwaite), the head research scientist in Hawks’ version, seeks to shield The Thing from those who would oppose it, even to the point of allowing other members of the expedition to be sacrificed; in Carpenter’s version, the lead scientist, Dr. Blair (Wilford Brimley) figures out rapidly that if allowed to escape, The Thing will infect the entire world, and destroys all means of getting out of the base camp.

Soon, however, Blair too has been subsumed by The Thing, leading to a final scene in which only two members of the “group” survive; the hot-tempered Childs (Keith David) and group leader R.J. MacReady (Kurt Russell), after destroying the camp — and thus ensuring their own deaths, as they’ll freeze to death in the cold — the two men share a bottle of scotch and engage in some final, hopeless banter.

Childs: Temperature’s up all over the camp. Won’t last long though.
MacReady: Neither will we.
Childs: How will we make it?
MacReady: Maybe we shouldn’t.
Childs: If you’re worried about me…
MacReady: If we’ve got any surprises for each other, I don’t think either one of us is in much shape to do anything about it.
Childs: What do we do now?
MacReady: Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…

and thus the film ends. Carpenter’s film is every bit as good as Hawks’, and closer to the spirit of the original text, and both versions are clearly masterpieces; one of the few times in cinema history when the remake (or revision) of the original is as good as its predecessor. Hawks holds out for hope; Carpenter realizes that there is none. That’s why Carpenter’s version failed at the box office in 1982, but perhaps its unyielding fatalism is why it resonates so powerfully today.

Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982)

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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