Valley of the Kings
Saturday March, 14 2015 at 12:15 PM
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When writer-director Robert Pirosh presented his screenplay for Valley of the Kings (1954) to MGM, studio executives saw a chance to repeat the success of King Solomon's Mines (1950). That film had been a big hit for the studio, and here was an opportunity for a similarly colorful adventure-romance in Africa. The setting this time would be Egypt at the turn of the 20th century, and the hero would be an archeologist, in something of a precursor to Indiana Jones. Played by Robert Taylor, the archeologist aids a beautiful woman (Eleanor Parker) in carrying on her late father's ambition to find the lost tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh.
Valley of the Kings was the first major Hollywood production to be filmed in Egypt, and also the first to have its world premiere there. The film shot all over the country, including at an ancient monastery on the Sinai Peninsula. According to a Good Housekeeping article from the time, the cast and crew traveled 300 difficult miles from Cairo, including a final portion by camel, and lived for a week with the 19 monks who resided there. "They slept on wooden cots in the cells provided for pilgrims and joined the holy men in their meager daily rations. The brothers, members of the Greek Orthodox Church, showed little interest in the filmmaking but were willing hosts and did not object to playing themselves."
Certainly the exotic settings and ambience proved the main draw for critics and filmgoers. The most positive elements of major reviews revolved around the locations and the brilliant camerawork of cinematographer Robert Surtees. Variety declared, "Viewers are treated to day and night scenes of great beauty as the cameras pick up the Sphinx and Pyramids, historic Mount Sinai, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal, the vast desert, Cairo streets and buildings, Mena House, a famous hotel near the Pyramids, and other landmarks." The New York Times pronounced, "The modern romantic adventure displayed here is hardly as impressive as the monuments of the ancient civilization against which it is played."
It was no coincidence that Surtees had also shot King Solomon's Mines. He had won an Oscar® for that work, as well as for The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), and would again for Ben-Hur (1959). He was nominated 11 further times.
Valley of the Kings was one of only five pictures directed by Robert Pirosh, who remains best known as a fine writer of films including A Day at the Races (1937), Up in Arms (1944) and Battleground (1949), for which he won an Oscar® for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay), as the Best Original Screenplay category was then called. He was nominated for another screenwriting Oscar® for Go for Broke! (1951), his first directorial effort and a thought-provoking combat film about Japanese-Americans fighting in WWII. Later on, Pirosh developed the 1960s hit TV series Combat.
Pirosh later said that he stopped directing movies after 1957 because he couldn't bear the creative power struggles behind the scenes. On Valley of the Kings, he clashed with MGM production chief Dore Schary and Schary's underling Charles Schnee. The executives demanded script changes; Pirosh made one or two and ignored the rest. Then, once shooting began in Egypt and rushes were screened back in Hollywood, Pirosh started receiving phone calls demanding to know where the other changes were. "It was real, real tough," Pirosh later recalled. "One day Charlie Schnee showed up in Egypt. He said, 'I have instructions from Dore that you either make the changes that I want made or he's sending over another director.' So I made the changes. They were not too hard to make, but they changed the character relationships in a way that I didn't like, and there was a certain amount of friction with the actors.
"I was not good at handling the Robert Taylors in the business," Pirosh continued. "If the actor is more powerful with the studio than the director, it's serious trouble for the director. Then the director has to make tremendous compromises and go through all sorts of agony and develops ulcers. I knew that sooner or later I was going to drop out of directing."
There was behind-the-scenes drama involving the actors as well. Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker had previously teamed for Above and Beyond (1952) and had had an affair on that film; at that time, Parker was still married and Taylor had recently divorced Barbara Stanwyck (though, according to historian Jane Ellen Wayne, he was still seeing her romantically). By the time Taylor and Parker reunited in Egypt on Valley of the Kings, Taylor was involved with young actress Ursula Thiess, and Parker was newly divorced. The two resumed their dalliance. Thiess heard about it, grew jealous, and started seeing other men back in Hollywood, making sure the news hit the gossip columns. When Taylor returned home, Thiess refused to see him, which had the intended effect of making him even more jealous. Finally one night he showed up at her house during a dinner party, waited for her guests to leave, and proposed. Thiess accepted, and on May 24, 1954, a few months before Valley of the Kings opened in theaters, they were married. Eleanor Parker was stunned by the news and broke down in tears upon hearing it, but somehow she composed herself by the time she started working with Taylor days later on their third and final screen pairing, Many Rivers to Cross (1955). Barbara Stanwyck was also saddened, saying, "It's true I'm still carrying a torch for him. There will be no other man in my life."
Valley of the Kings carries no producer credit, though according to trade reports of the time, Sam Zimbalist was the likely producer.
Director: Robert Pirosh
Screenplay: Robert Pirosh, Karl Tunberg; C.W. Ceram (book "Gotter, Graber und Gelehrte")
Cinematography: Robert Surtees
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Jack Martin Smith
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Film Editing: Harold F. Kress
Cast: Robert Taylor (Mark Brandon), Eleanor Parker (Ann Barclay Mercedes), Carlos Thompson (Philip Mercedes), Kurt Kasznar (Hamed Backhour), Victor Jory (Taureg Chief), Leon Askin (Valentine Arko, Antique Dealer), Aldo Silvani (Father Anthimos), Samia Gamal (dancer).
C-86m. Closed Captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold
Ronald L. Davis, From Words Into Images: Screenwriters on the Studio System
Axel Madsen, Stanwyck
Doug McClelland, Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces
Lawrence Quirk, The Films of Robert Taylor
Jane Ellen Wayne, The Leading Men of MGM
Good Housekeeping, May 1954 issue
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