The arrival of widescreen cinema in the early 1950s brought about a new golden age of the ancient world epic.
The very first CinemaScope production was the biblical drama The Robe (1953), and it proved a massive hit. Suddenly, swords, sandals and crucifixions became the flavour of an era in which Hollywood moguls hoped to restate the cinema’s capacity for awe in the new age of TV with blockbusters like Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960).
Warner Bros’ Land of the Pharaohs had the requisite cast of thousands but failed to break even at the box office. Perhaps the shift away from Judeo-Christian subject matter made it less of an event for audiences in the American heartlands. Or maybe the comparatively modest running time (104 minutes) failed to give a proper indication of just how huge this Howard Hawks production is.
Telling a fictional story behind the building of the Great Pyramid, with Jack Hawkins as Pharaoh Khufu, the King of Egypt, and Joan Collins as his beautiful but scheming second wife Nellifer, it balances courtly intrigue with vast, almost documentary-style scenes showing the pyramid construction.
Obsessed with taking all his gold with him into the “second life” after his death, Khufu enlists the aid of Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), an architect whose people are enslaved in Egypt.
The Pharaoh makes a deal with Vashtar – build a robbery-proof tomb, and the enslaved people will be freed.
Meanwhile, Cyprian Princess Nellifer plots to prevent Khufu from taking his treasure with him when he dies – as well as helping him make that journey early with the help of her lover Treneh (Sydney Chaplin), the treacherous Captain of the Guard.
The crowd work is stupendous (the Egyptian government supplied 3,000 to 10,000 extras to the production, including many soldiers from the Egyptian Army), and the masonry is gigantic, but neither swamps nor dwarfs the central characters.
This was Martin Scorsese’s favourite film as a kid: “I’d always been addicted to historical epics,” he said, “but this one was different: it gave the sense that we were really there. This is the way people lived; this is what they believed, thought, and felt. You get it through the overall look of the picture: the low ceilings, the torchlit interiors, the shape of the pillars, the look of the extras.”
Interior filming took place at the Titanus Appia Studios in Rome (Italy), but the exteriors are the real thing.
Vashtar, the Master Architect
James Robertson Justice
Hamar, the High Priest
Senta, Vashtar’s Son
Mikka, Vashtar’s Servant
Treneh, The Captain of the Guard