Imagine my surprise when upon accessing the Commentary track on my DVD of “Land of the Pharaohs” I was regaled by 109 minutes of both critic Peter Bogdanovich and director Howard Hawks explaining what a crappy movie I had just wasted my money on! Now I could understand the defensive nature of Hawks’ comments. This film had not been a hit for him. I imagine that Hitchcock would have been equally defensive doing a commentary to “Under Capricorn” or “Stage Fright.” Hawks claimed that neither he nor his lead scriptwriter William Faulkner “knew how a pharaoh talked.” I guess that one could say, “He talked like an Egyptian,” and Faulkner himself decided to have him talk like the owner of a large plantation down South. As a film critic and a director of some repute, I found Bogdanovich’s comments less easy to digest, although they do point up a limitation of the Auteur Theory.
To Bogdanovich, “Land of the Pharaohs” is an outlier in an otherwise clear-cut career, therefore it was a mistake, a “film maudit”–and to someone interested solely in the work of Howard Hawks that may well be so. But I would argue that there is another way to look at “Land of the Pharaohs”–a better way. Instead of looking at WHO made it, let’s instead examine WHAT it is. “Land of the Pharaohs” is a peplum, a sword-and-sandal film, a costume epic. Like others of its genre, “Land of the Pharaohs” revolves around a great historical event–the building of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. Hawks remarked that Khufu is “the most selfish man that ever lived,” but he’s speaking as a 20th Century American. In terms of his own times, Khufu was a living god–a bit more than a plantation boss–and he wanted to ensure his status in the afterlife. That meant amassing a treasure and being entombed with it. He also remarked that Joan Collins’ character Queen Nelifer, Khufu’s second wife, is too one-dimensional, but this genre demands simplified villainy, albeit of almost-operatic proportions. (Sergio Leone’s out-sized western villains, Indio, Angel-Eyes, Frank would be right at home wearing togas as villains in a peplum.) Collins brought enough sexiness and curled-lip hauteur to her role to be effective in the role.
The real theme of the film is the inability of disparate groups to communicate. Because Nelifer is a Cypriot, not an Egyptian, she can’t place the same importance on an after-life that Khufu does, so she, like Hawks, sees his amassing of treasure as an act of simple selfishness, not as a form of religious observance. Hence she finds it incomprehensible that her husband, who claims to love her, won’t allow her to take a single jeweled necklace from his funeral horde. Vashtar, the captured architect who must build Khufu’s tomb also sees Khufu’s belief in an afterlife as a fool’s dream, but, unlike Nelifer, he honors his commitment to the pharaoh and builds him an impregnable final resting place, where he and his gold can rest undisturbed. Vashtar functions as the hero of the piece–portly and middle-aged at the start, old and half-blind at the close, he seems an unlikely fit for the part. But so many of these films begin with a hero journeying to a strange land, encountering strange customs then either aiding the “home team” to repel an outside threat or, if the rulers are wicked and abusive, aiding the underclass to overthrow them. In a sense Vashtar falls under the first category, he helps Khufu defeat the would-be tomb-robbers and secure his afterlife by building his pyramid-tomb for him.
If we ask how does “Land of the Pharaohs” measure up as a peplum, it is clearly one of the better examples. It looks good, has a great score, a good villainess and if Khufu, Vashtar and Nelifer all speak as though they were translating their lines from a foreign language, that’s also a convention of the genre, coming from opera librettos and 19th Century history plays by everyone from Robert Bridges and Stephen Phillips to Gabriele D’Annunzio. You’ve got to play the game. Don’t complain because your lamb chop doesn’t taste like a porterhouse steak.