The mystique of ancient Egypt has long captivated Hollywood, serving as fodder for lavish spectacles throughout cinema history. But perhaps no Egyptian epic bombed bigger both critically and financially than 1955’s Land of the Pharaohs, helmed by legendary director Howard Hawks. Now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, this fascinating flop reveals moments of greatness amidst its obstructed vision. While a flawed spectacle, Land of the Pharaohs endures as a compelling study of directorial frustration.
Hawks Tackles the Sword-and-Sandal Epic
By the mid-1950s, director Howard Hawks reigned as one of Hollywood’s most versatile talents. Equally adept at screwball comedies, westerns, film noir and musicals, Hawks sought to further expand his repertoire with an historical epic. Teaming with writer William Faulkner, Hawks envisioned Land of the Pharaohs as an sober counterpoint to the lurid, effects-driven epics popular at the time.
Hawks’ approach emphasized archaeological accuracy and immense scale grounded in reality. The story followed pharaoh Khufu as he constructs the Great Pyramid, only to be betrayed after completion. To realize such ambition required lavish production values. With a record $6 million budget, Hawks built vast faithful recreations of ancient Egyptian society.
Populating these sets were a mix of veteran actors and newcomers. Screen legend Joan Collins starred as deceitful princess Nellifer, alongside Alexis Minotis as the architect overseeing pyramid construction. And American football player-turned-actor Dewey Martin portrayed Khufu with palpable vulnerability. Hawks coaxed solid work from all, though friction behind the scenes took a toll.
Troubled Shoot Plagues Production
Part of Land of the Pharaohs’ glacial pace stems from the chaotic shoot, hampered by actor injuries, financial quibbles and Hawk’ clashing leadership style. Joan Collins called him a “bastard” for his detached methods. And the Egyptian summer heat melted expensive sets and sent costs ballooning. Hawks grew frustrated as his visionary project descended into just another troubled epic.
But traces of the mood Hawks sought still shine through in moments. Early scenes of pyramid construction convey wordless wonder and backbreaking scope. Hawks’ blocking of masses of extras remains impressive, creating stunning tableaus. And the immaculate recreations of ancient Egyptian life feel believable because they are palpably real, not just matte paintings. These segments fulfill Hawk’ vision of ethereal grandeur through cinematic precision.
Less successful is the centerpiece pyramid heist sequence, marred by technical glitches and compromised vision. Cinematography inconsistencies betray the troubled filming conditions. Process shots lack the sweeping grace that Hawks perfected in aviation films. Motivations also turn muddled amidst shovelfuls of exposition. As studio interference mounted, Hawks lost hold of Land of the Pharaohs’ complex narrative threads.
Stunning Restoration On Blu-ray
One aspect never in doubt was the film’s visual splendor, beautifully captured on Warner Archive’s Blu-ray release. The 2.55:1 widescreen vistas display incredible depth and clarity in 1080p high-definition. The sandy vistas possess almost three-dimensional tangibility. Interiors reveal textures in stonework completely obscured on DVD. The increased resolution exposes just how massive these sets truly were.
Colors also receive major enhancement, with primaries gaining far greater vibrance. Yellow torch flames and blue night skies shine with renewed luster. Red blood during the climatic murder pops luridly. The level of fine detail visible in backgrounds and costumes is mightily impressive. This restoration makes Land of the Pharaohs’ fabled production design gleam anew.
The 2.0 stereo DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack also impresses, with robust fidelity showcasing the score’s grandeur and ambient soundscape. Hawks maximized stereo separation for auditory immersion, and those dynamics resonate wonderfully here. All audio elements sound full and pristine. For a 65 year old stereo mix, Warner Archive delivers first-rate sonic quality.
Flawed Vision, Modern Relevance
Viewed today, it’s clear why Land of the Pharaohs proved a tough sell upon release. Hawks’ sober approach lacked the wanton titillation moviegoers expected from costumed epics of the era. And the downbeat narrative defied convention, offering little heroic inspiration. No wonder audiences stayed away.
But the same qualities that doomed the film in 1955 make it fascinating viewed now through a modern lens. The production’s exacting faithfulness to actual history seems quietly radical for Hollywood. And Hawks’ ambivalence toward power structures and religious authority channeled the coming youthquake’s rebellious energy. As a big-budget downer, Land of the Pharaohs was arguably ahead of its time.
Though not fully realized, the greatness Hawks pursued glimmers throughout this star-crossed epic. Warner Archive’s Blu-ray gives the film its best chance to shine for patient viewers. Land of the Pharaohs deserves appreciation as an ambitious passion project by a brilliant filmmaker defeated by forces beyond his control. Much like the pyramids themselves, it endures as a monument to doomed megalomania.