Howard Hawks, Tomb-Builder: Land of the Pharaohs and Pyramid Mania

Howard Hawks’ colossal 1955 Cinemascope production, Land of the Pharaohs, is not your typical Hawks movie.  Among the most versatile of the golden-age Hollywood directors, Hawks made films not marked by a particular genre (as, say, John Ford and Westerns) or filmic style (Orson Welles’ baroque use of the camera), but by a unique sensibility. Hawks worked in many genres, including screwball comedy (Bringing Up Baby, Ball of Fire), Westerns (Rio Bravo, The Big Sky, Red River), war films (Sergeant York, Air Force, Dawn Patrol), adventure (Only Angels Have Wings), even musicals (Gentleman Prefer Blondes).  His films, whether set in a contemporary urban location (e.g., The Big Sleep), in the classic American West, or in more exotic locations (Africa in Hatari, the Caribbean in To Have and Have Not, Antarctica in The Thing, a film nominally directed by Christian Nyby, but in which most viewers see the hand of Hawks, credited as producer), are always informed by a characteristic tone–a speed and dry wit, a cool, understated irony, a stoic sense of independence–that unmistakably brands a film as “Hawksian.”

But LOTP is the only Hawks film of what Andrew Sarris calls “the costume spectacle of hopelessly remote antiquity.”  It certainly looks different from the rest of Hawks.  Set in ancient Egypt, the story concerns the building of the Great Pyramid by the all-powerful Pharaoh Khufu (played by a stolid Jack Hawkins).  We know Khufu is all powerful because he enters town at the film’s start heralded by a bang-up procession of soldiers, slaves, musicians, camels, and long-legged lasses scattering brightly-hued flower petals, which could have come straight out of Aida.  That’s a far cry from Roz Russell and Cary Grant slinging wisecracks in a newsroom or John Wayne and a couple of misfits cleaning up town. In fact, LOTP is pretty far from anything else Hawks did, even Howard Hughes’ misbegotten flick The Outlaw, on which Hawks worked for all of two weeks.  (Hughes completed that film and released it to a censorship uproar, but that’s another story.)  LOTP was a flop on its release, nor were critics enthusiastic; A.H. Weiler in his New York Times review wrote that “Mr. Hawks…is more passionate about the archaeological aspects of [the film] than stirring, inventive drama.” Hawks himself disliked the movie, describing it in an interview as “a lousy picture.”

Nevertheless, LOTP does have its fans.  Henri Langlois considered it “the only epic film which has style, rigor, and plastic beauty”; Sarris thought it “the most sensible film of its kind ever made.” Even detractors such as Donald Willis conceded that “[f]or its first forty minutes it’s a technical marvel.”  Indeed, what praise there is for LOTP focuses on those first forty minutes, during which Khufu oversees the planning and erection of the massive pyramid that will become his tomb.  Hawks, who was trained as an engineer, had remarked that his interest in LOTP was with the mechanics of pyramid construction; and undoubtedly the magisterial visuals of the early sections, as the camera pans in stately fashion over a veritable landscape of sweaty extras hauling stone, pulling ropes, and pushing rocks, are what convey the “plastic beauty” invoked by the movie’s admirers.  So much tomb building takes up the first third of LOTP that it almost becomes a primer on How to Build a Pyramid in Thirty Years or Less.

Yet in spite of all this onscreen activity, not much is going on. Simply put, pyramid-building doesn’t make for great drama.  After all, the only reason the tomb is being built is so Khufu can gather up his immense hoard of treasure, which he’s collected after a lifetime of war, conquest, and pillage, and, in a literalized notion of the consumer paradise, bury it all with him.  Or, as Khufu himself puts it, he just wants a place where “I can rest in peace and enjoy all this” (gesturing to his costly possessions) “in my second life.” Well, maybe you can’t take it with you, as the saying goes, but you sure can try.

The result, Hawks admitted, is a movie that gives audiences no one to root for. As Willis astutely noted, the film has no sense of purpose; basically it’s about Khufu “get[ting] what he wants, and what he wants happens to be, fortunately, everything.”  In other words–who cares about Khufu or his old tomb?  And because almost everything, and everyone, centers around Khufu building a pyramid that nobody can break into to steal all the junk he’s stolen, it’s hard to get worked up over other, nominally sympathetic characters (as Hawks laconically summed it up, everybody was “a jerk”).  Neither the nobly dull High Priest (Alexis Minotis), nor the enslaved architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice, who resembles a doleful Peter Ustinov) who barters for his tribe’s freedom as his price for building the tomb, nor his son Senta (Dewey Martin, the film’s resident hunk) arouse any interest. The film is an epic wanna-be, its impact diminished by its central narrative non-issue.  There’s more grandeur and excitement in the cattle drive from Hawks’ Red River; at least moving the cows has a point.

In fact, LOTP has now pretty much slipped into the status of camp classic, confirmed by its DVD packaging as part of the Warner Bros. “Cult Camp Classics” series.  (Other series’ entries include Joan Crawford’s last film, Trog; MGM’s lavish The Prodigal, starring a becomingly undraped Lana Turner; and the delirious Queen of Outer Space, with Zsa Zsa Gabor.  Heady company, that.)  We looked up ‘camp’ in our Encarta World English Dictionary, where it’s defined as: “exaggeratedly or affectedly feminine behavior,” and “deliberate outrageousness for humorous effect.”  If you’re wondering how any movie dealing with tombs and treasure in an era of “hopelessly remote antiquity” can be considered deliberately outrageous or exaggeratedly feminine, look no further than at the abundantly undressed charms of LOTP’s female star, Joan Collins. No doubt, Joan’s presence is the main reason why this film is considered Cult Camp.  After all, it’s her sumptuous figure that’s spread so generously across the DVD box; the pyramid is reduced to a mere background shadow.

Joan Collins is the lip-curling element of LOTP.  Its commentators do not approve of her.  As the wicked Cyprian princess Nellifer, she comes into the story after those first plastically beautiful forty minutes and, blessed with a physique that could rival any technically engineered marvel, changes the tone entirely.  Weiler’s review dismissed her as “a torrid baggage in filmy costumes who obviously is equipped to turn a potentate’s head.  Her acting never does.”  Gerald Mast labelled her a “sexy British anybody”; and whereas Sarris tried to fit her into an auterist interpretation as “the anti-Hawksian woman, a useless creature corrupted by greed and self-indulgence,” Willis was far more scathing; once LOTP “runs into Joan Collins [it] disintegrates almost instantly.”

Well, frankly, we think they’re being a bit unfair.  True, Joan comes straight out of the DeMillean Sex-n-Sin playbook:  She gets to do all the naughty bits, such as seduce the Pharaoh and his army captain, while scheming to sneak the Pharaohnic treasure out of the tomb and all to herself–those pricey little trinkets would just set off her Jayne Mansfield-sized bosom so nicely.  But at least Joan wants to do something with the stuff.  Why keep all that gold and jewelry stashed in the basement when it would look so much better decorating her?  If you’ve got it, flaunt it (and Joan certainly has much to flaunt).  And she’s the only character who doesn’t give a damn about that pyramid. So who ya gonna root for–the guy who wants to be buried with the Ferrari, or the gal who wants to drive it?  We say, Go to it, Joan!

Unquestionably, Joan’s performance not only livens up LOTP but definitely raises the camp quotient–a quality foreign to the tough, masculine Hawksian universe celebrated by the auteurists.  As Sarris pointed out, Joan is the antithesis of the cool Hawksian woman.  She’s more like an overgrown adolescent, widening her kohl-rimmed eyes, baring her teeth, shaking her tousled hair and big boobies, as she shrills her demands in a high-pitched, petulant voice.  It’s not surprising that committed Hawksians try to overlook her.  Make no mistake:  Lauren Bacall she’s not.  So what is she doing here, viewers might ask.

We, of course, would like to suggest our own theory–one that not only explains Joan’s presence in LOTP, but also allies her with the Hawskian worldview.  Our theory may not have the earth-shaking impact of the politique des auteurs devised by the contributors to Cahier du Cinema, but it does have the virtue of coming from the lips of the Master himself.  In a 1970 interview, Hawks was asked why a film of his might start in a serious mood, but then “loosen up toward the middle.” Hawks replied that, as a way to get audience attention, he would start a film with “a good dramatic sequence, and then find a place to start getting some laughs….[A picture] starts off being very serious and then before the audience realizes it, you’re starting in having some fun.”

So Joan, you see, is LOTP’s version of Hawksian “fun.”  After we’ve gotten the details of the pyramid done with, on struts Joan, providing “some [quite needed] laughs” (and, clad in next to nothing, positively grabbing the attention).  Thus, with a bit of theoretical tuning, we have established the auteurist foundations for Joan Collins vamping it up at Khufu’s court.  Armed with our simple, yet solid, conceptual hypothesis, viewers can now watch all of LOTP with the full seriousness it deserves, and not mind that sensation of guilty pleasure tingling at the back of the cerebellum.

The Cahier crowd couldn’t have expressed it more neatly.

Sources:

Hawks, Howard, 1970 Interview; from Focus on Howard Hawks; McBride, Joseph, ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972

Langlois, Henri, “The Modernity of Howard Hawks,” 1963; from Focus on Howard Hawks; McBride, Joseph, ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972

Mast, Gerald, Howard Hawks, Storyteller, New York: Oxford University Press, 1982

Sarris, Andrew, “The World of Howard Hawks,” 1962; from Focus on Howard Hawks; McBride, Joseph, ed., Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972

Weiler, A.H., “Ancient Story; ‘Land of the Pharaohs’ Is Standard Saga,” The New York Times, July 27, 1955

Willis, Donald C., The Films of Howard Hawks, Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1975

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