powered by AFI
The newspaper advertising that Warner Brothers ran for Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs (1955) sold the film as an eye-popping spectacle: "This is the way it was 5,000 years ago... and every staggering sight, every sound, every scene is real! With all Egypt as its stage and with thousands upon thousands swelling its cast, here is realism on a scale never even dreamed of before." For once, the ad copy was not exaggerated by much. In order to recreate the construction of the great pyramid of Khufu (Cheops), Hawks and his crew shot much of the film on location in Egypt, using some 10,000 extras supplied by the Egyptian government, half of them soldiers in the Egyptian Army. In that regard, Hawks' production far surpassed the efforts of Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954), which only a few months earlier also used Egyptian locations, but mainly for its prologue and some second unit photography.
In a 1956 interview originally published in Cahiers du Cinma, Hawks stated: "I made this film for one simple reason: CinemaScope." When Warner Brothers initially approached Hawks with a lucrative contract to make a film in CinemaScope, he first thought of a story depicting the wartime construction of an airfield in China. However, according to Hawks, this project proved impossible due to the political situation in post-revolutionary China. Other initial ideas included Song of Ruth and Solomon with John Wayne slated to star as the Hebrew king. Ultimately, Warner decided to go with a story about the Egyptian pharaoh Khufu building his great pyramid. Hawks chose his longtime friend William Faulkner as the main scriptwriter, but brought in the playwrights Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom for good measure. Bloom later maintained that it was he who came up with the idea of the enslaved architect who devises a way to seal the pyramid from looters. Originally Hawks considered Sydney Chaplin as the Pharaoh before deciding on Jack Hawkins, who had recently drawn acclaim for his performance in The Cruel Sea (1953). Hawks wanted Ursula Andress to play the role of Princess Nellifer, but Paramount signed her before Warner was able to secure her. They also tested the British model Ivy Nicholson, but she bit Jack Hawkins' hand while playing one of her scenes a little too enthusiastically. He finally settled on the young British actress Joan Collins, who appeared here in her first Hollywood production.
Shooting locations included the actual pyramid at Giza, a limestone quarry outside of Cairo, and a granite quarry near Aswan. In addition to digging a giant pit for the film and recreating the base of the pyramid under construction, they hired hundreds of Egyptian workers to scrub the western face of the actual pyramid and temporarily fill in the missing blocks to make it look newly finished. The massive granite building blocks depicted in the film were hollow and constructed with fiberglass. The production designer Alexandre Trauner, who had created some memorably atmospheric sets for the French director Marcel Carn during the Thirties, worked closely with Egypt's Department of Antiquities and a French Egyptologist. In the same Cahiers interview Hawks stated: "It is possible to reconstruct the furniture and dress, even some of the ritual, of the Pharaohs from the hieroglyphics and drawings on the tombs. We know what the soldiers' uniforms looked like, what musical instruments were played, and what utensils were used."
As one might imagine, the location shooting in Egypt presented a number of logistical challenges. The Los Angeles Times journalist Scoop Conlon noted that the film's international crew "agreed that it was by all odds the toughest location they had ever experienced." The temperature reached as high as 128 degrees, and on one day some sixty extras fell victim to heatstroke. This was compounded in part by filming during Ramadan, when observant Muslims fast during the day, avoiding both water and food until sunset. Hawks then took most of the crew to Rome to shoot studio interiors; the director of photography Lee Garmes accompanied them while Russell Harlan stayed behind with the second unit to photograph additional pyramid scenes. According to Hawks biographer Todd McCarthy, Harlan was depressed by the extreme poverty he encountered in Egypt.
Ultimately the film went far over budget, costing roughly $3.15 million compared to approved budget of $1.75 million. Due to lukewarm reviews and audience response, it failed to recoup its cost. The New York Times critic A. H. Weiler called Land of the Pharaohs "impressively sweeping in its eye-filling pageantry" and praised the production design, including the replicas of the pharaoh's recently discovered solar boats. At the same time, Weiler noted "little distinction in the performances of the principals." In particular, he characterized Joan Collins as "a torrid baggage in filmy costumes who is obviously equipped to turn a potentate's head. Her acting never does." In retrospect, Hawks admitted: "I don't know how a Pharaoh talks. And Faulkner didn't know. None of us knew. We thought it'd be an interesting story, the building of a pyramid, but then we had to have a plot, and we didn't really feel close to any of it." He also complained that while CinemaScope was good for "showing great masses of movement," the format made it "hard to focus attention" and was "very difficult to cut." Still, thanks to its meticulous production design and formidable pyramid-building sequences Land of the Pharaohs remains worth a look today.
Producer and Director: Howard Hawks
Script: William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom
Directors of Photography: Lee Garmes and Russell Harlan
Art Director: Alexandre Trauner
Film Editor: V. Sagovsky
Costume Design: Mayo
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin
Cast: Jack Hawkins (Khufu, the Pharaoh), Joan Collins (Princess Nellifer), Dewey Martin (Senta), Alexis Minotis (Hamar), James Robertson Justice (Vashtar), Luisa Boni (Kyra), Sydney Chaplin (Treneh), James Hayter (Vashtar's servant), Kerima (Queen Nailla), Piero Giagnoni (Prince Zanin).
by James Steffen
Berg, Louis. "How to Build a Pyramid." Los Angeles Times, December 26, 1954, p.18.
Breivold, Scott, et al. Howard Hawks: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006.
Conlon, Scoop. "Hot time in the shadow of Cheops' pyramid." New York Times, September 5, 1954.
McBride, Joseph. Hawks on Hawks. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
McCarthy, Todd. Howard Hawks. New York: Grove Press, 1997.
Weiler, A. H. "Screen: Ancient Story" (Review of Land of the Pharaohs) New York Times, July 27, 1955, p.15.