Director: Howard Hawks
Starring: Jack Hawkins | Joan Collins | Dewey Martin | James Robertson Justice | Alexis Minotis | Luisella Boni | Sydney Chaplin
Writers: William Faulkner | Harry Kurnitz | Harold Jack Bloom
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
The Land of the Pharaohs is a film I have been trying to track down for years. Not that it was particularly hard to find, but I didn’t know its name. It’s one of those films I saw as a youngster on Saturday or Sunday afternoon television – and the ending has remained indelibly burnt into my brain ever since. I am relieved to have finally tracked it down, and I am pleased to say the film didn’t disappoint.
The Land of the Pharaohs is a big sprawling epic – with a cast of thousands – as they used to say. It is directed by the legendary Howard Hawks – although it is a very different type of movie to his usual output. Jack Hawkins stars as Khufu, the Pharaoh – the living god – the ruler of Egypt. As the film begins, he returns to Thebes, having won a war in Kush. It is an occasion of great pomp and ceremony. People line the streets as the Pharaoh and his men make their way into the city. Trumpets and horns blare and rose petals are thrown into the air. It is a celebration.
Not only has Pharaoh won the war, but he has increased his wealth – plundering riches and acquiring many slaves. It is revealed that Khufu is obsessed with acquiring gold. He believes it will serve him well in the afterlife (or second life as it is referred to in the film).
Leading the slaves brought to Thebes is a man named Vashtar (James Robertson Justice). Khufu has kept Vashtar alive because he is a master architect and wishes for him to construct a thief proof pyramid. If Vashtar does this, Pharaoh will let the slaves go free. Vashtar’s idea is simple – seal the corridors to the tomb with stone blocks. The stone blocks are engineered to hydraulically move into place (but rather than fluid to move the blocks, dessert sand is used).
Work on the great pyramid begins, and for fifteen years workers toil away constructing the great stone edifice. Pharaoh becomes frustrated at the slow progress. He is told for the work to be completed faster, they will require more workers and more food to feed them. Pharaoh vows to get both – calling upon the surrounding kingdoms to pay tribute.
One kingdom doesn’t have the food to spare, and send Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins) instead. Pharaoh has a choice – he can either insist on tribute being paid (resulting in famine and starvation) or he can have Nellifer. Nellifer is spirited and defiant, but he chooses to keep her. That night, when he calls for her, she bites him. So much anger and hatred can only lead to one thing. Marriage. Yes, she becomes his second wife.
However, Nellifer soon learns of the vast amount of treasure Khufu has accumulated and begins to plot and scheme to acquire it for herself. Aided of Treneh, the Captain of the Guard (Sydney Chaplin), a man infatuated with Nellifer, she puts in motion a chain of deadly events – moving her from number two wife, to number one.
The Land of the Pharaohs is a flawed film to be sure, some stilted dialogue, poor acting etc., but it is a big Hollywood spectacle that delivers on most fronts. It looks great, the score by Dimitri Tiomkin is rousing, and the climax… the climax to the film is just perfect, exactly the way I remembered it from all those years ago.