Sog., Scen.: William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz, Harold Jack Bloom; F.: Lee Garmes, Russell Harlan; Mo.: Vladimir Sagovsky; Scgf.: Alexandre Trauner; Co.: Mayo; Eff. spec.: Donald Steward; Mu.: Dimitri Tiomkin; Su: Oliver S. Garretson; Ass. regia: Paul Helmick, Jean-Paul Sassy (non accred.); Int.: Joan Collins (Nellifer), Jack Hawkins (Cheope Khufu), James Robertson Justice (Vashtar), Alexis Minotis (Hamar), Dewey Martin (Senta), Sydney Chaplin (Treneh), Kerima (Nailla), Luisella Boni (Kyra), James Hayter (Mikka), Piero Giagnoni (Zanin); Prod.: Howard Hawks per Continental Company-Warner Bros.; Pri. pro.: 24 giugno 1955
35mm. D.: 104′. Col
“It’s Red River all over again. The Pharaoh is the cattle baron, his jewels are the cattle, and the Nile is the red river. But the thing about Howard is, he knows it’s the same movie, and he knows how to make it” (William Faulkner).
Robin Wood complements Faulkner’s statement with a fine summary of how Land of Pharaohs joins the mainstream of Hawks’ body of work: “…a clearly defined group, here the captive race; a young man’s development through experience to maturity (Dewey Martin, as in The Big Sky); the instant sexual antagonism so common in Hawks’s comedies; one can compare the way in which the pyramid comes to obsess the Pharaoh (Jack Hawkins) with John Wayne’s obsession with the cattle-drive in Red River; for both, once they have embarked on a course of action, it becomes impossible to turn back without losing face, and the films trace the consequent stiffening of the characters into inflexibility.”
What Wood concludes is true (“In theory it ought to be one of Hawks’s most important films, but Hawks is the least theoretical of major directors”), yet we face a film interesting enough to cancel the need to decide if it is a success or failure. First, the Pharaoh, a powerhouse as such (according to Alexander Trauner, “Hawks thought of the pharaoh like a tycoon in Hollywood”), is perhaps the most vulnerable of Hawks’ characters – he is the most imprisoned by an illusion. Of Hawksian work processes, here is the most gigantic of them, a vast organism of interacting parts, and as such a challenge to the engineer that Hawks originally was. To solve the mystery of how the pyramids were built, he engaged the best man to guess: Alexander Trauner whose art direction from Quai des brumes and Les Enfants du paradis to The Apartment and M. Klein, via Land of Pharaohs, is one of the glories of film history.
Yet even with this fabulous team, the problems (and not only the famous one “we didn’t know how pharaohs talk”) proved insolvable. The English actors (“those jerks”) don’t react adequately to the Hawksian challenge of actors becoming persons, and the other way around (which is the key to his greatest films).
The Joan Collins (“tragédienne pour snack-bar” – Godard) character might be both evil and noir, but she falls very flat as a Hawks heroine. Still some palpable sense of tragedy survives: the years go by, winning only blood and tears; everybody gets older, and suddenly face a grim tale of alienation where only routine and ruthlessness prevail; joy, never present in the lives of ordinary people, has escaped all life; and even the work, and its motives, have lost their significance to greed, selfishness, and ice cold calculation.
Peter von Bagh