Mutiny in the Desert
"Land of the Pharaohs" was considered a flop for director Howard Hawks when it was released leading to an extended sabbatical from film making and I can see why. "Land of the Pharaohs" aims to be an Egyptian epic featuring impressive sets, a triumphant score and a huge cast of actors but it doesn't quite hit the heights it is aiming for thanks to a poorly chosen cast and a double sided storyline which whilst interesting never feels like it has the scope for a vast movie. It is a shame because "Land of the Pharaohs" looks glorious and the double sided story which has a first half about the construction of a Pharaoh's tomb and a second half about a treacherous wife is interesting and maybe in a different director's hands it would have been the epic it deserves to be.
Having won many battles and taken many treasures and slaves Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins - The Cruel Sea) wants to make sure that in his second life no one can come and rob his tomb of his vast collection of gold and jewels. In order to do so he persuades Vashtar (James Robertson Justice - David and Bathsheba), an architect who along with his son Senta (Dewey Martin - The Big Sky) are two of the many men he has captured, to design him an impenetrable tomb which he does in return for Pharaoh allowing his people to go free on completion. Many years pass as the tomb is built with great attention paid to making sure its secrets remained hidden and in that time Pharaoh takes himself a second wife, the feisty Nellifer (Joan Collins - The Good Die Young) from Cyprus. But unbeknown to Khufu is that Nellifer is scheming to take not only all his treasures but also become Queen, plotting with Khufu's captain of the guards Treneh (Sydney Chaplin) to seize power.
You can split "Land of the Pharaohs" into two halves with the first half focussing on the way the great pyramids were built and how ingenuity was used not only to shift the huge stones across the desert but also in the traps placed inside these tombs to keeps their secrets just that. It is interesting and Hawks does a solid job of controlling a huge cast of extras as we see men come from far and wide to work on the pyramid, moving giant stones and digging out vast caverns. But whilst visually it has the components of an epic movie and also features an appropriately triumphant score it just lacks something to make it come to life. It sort of feels like Hawks didn't quite have the vision to make it epic in the same way a director like Cecil B. DeMille did despite it being generally interesting.
Then we get the second half which focuses on Nellifer and her scheming ways to take Khufu's treasures and become queen. It is again an entertaining drama which sees Nellifer seduce Captain of the Guards Treneh and have him complete various nefarious acts for her. But again whilst it is an entertaining storyline built around treachery it lacks an edge which stops it form feeling genuinely epic.
Now I put the trouble down to Hawks picking the wrong cast because whilst the likes of Jack Hawkins, James Robertson Justice and even Joan Collins could act there characterisation just doesn't come alive. Hawkins as Khufu comes across as stiff and unsure rather than a triumphant ruler whilst Joan Collins surprisingly doesn't get across the bitchy nefariousness of her character, relying on looking sexy than being scheming and seductive. And it is the same in lesser parts as both Dewey Martin as Senta and Sydney Chaplin as Treneh also coming across as stiff and just reciting lines rather than playing a part. And whilst James Robertson Justice puts in the most convincing performance, delivering a sense of dignity even the great actor doesn't manage to truly convince.
"Land of the Pharaohs" has other flaws and there are some noticeable historical goofs including one of my favourites because there is a scene where Khufu on learning of something says he must return to Luxor immediately. Now Luxor wasn't called Luxor back then but was called Thebes which means technically Pharaoh Khufu would be an early time traveller if he was going to Luxor.
What this all boils down to is that "Land of the Pharaohs" is a flawed epic which never reaches the heights it aims for. But the individual parts work, it has an epic look and score whilst also featuring two interesting stories it just never comes together to be the great movie it is trying to be.