Saturday, April 25, 2009
Land of the Pharaohs
During his four decades in Hollywood, Howard Hawks worked on virtually every type of picture possible within the studio system of the time. Though he is today known primarily as a director of manically fast screwball comedies or rambling, low-key Westerns, he also made musicals, proto-noirs, sci-fi and war movies, along with now-forgotten genres like racing pictures and aviation adventures. And he also made one grand historical epic, Land of the Pharaohs, a big-budget blockbuster on a truly staggering scale. On its surface, it's an odd type of film for Hawks to make, considering his usual comfort with small-scale wit and romance, his touch for handling simple stories of people interacting, forming relationships and friendships. His best and best-known films are the definition of what the critic Manny Farber appreciatively called "termite art," films where the director's aesthetic and thematic concerns gnaw away subtly beneath the surface. Land of the Pharaohs would seem to be the very opposite, a towering "white elephant" carrying its pretenses aloft and carving its themes out of tremendous stone blocks.
Indeed, the film is grand in every sense. Its epic story takes place on a level almost entirely above human concerns, taking to a bird's eye perspective from which individuals are just dots in a sea of similar dots. The film's events are set in motion by the powerful Egyptian Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), a man who arguably sees other human beings from exactly this aloof vantage point. According to his people's customs, he is the embodiment of a god on Earth, and by divine right he is able to command his people to do nearly anything. He is beyond worldly concerns, beyond any thought of his fellow beings. What consumes him is the thought of his afterlife, the eternal rest after his death, in which he will be buried with the massive treasure he has accumulated through the bloody wars he fought while on Earth. He dedicates the final two decades of his life to the construction of an enormous and elaborate pyramid, a crypt designed with clever traps and rigged so that, upon his death, once the lid is lowered on his coffin, the pyramid will be sealed with solid stone, the great pharaoh and his treasure unreachable for grave robbers or other desecraters who would come along after he was gone. Towards this end, the Pharaoh enlists one of his prisoners, the architect Vashtar (James Robinson Justice) and his son Senta (Hawks regular Dewey Martin), to devise the pyramid's ingenious self-sealing mechanisms. In doing so, Vashtar knows that he dooms himself, but he agrees if the Pharaoh will release his people as prisoners.
The human dramas in the film are generally sketched out on a broad scale like this; motivations tend to be simplistic and characters are defined by one trait. For the Pharaoh, it's a love of power and a greed for gold, both attributes that find their match in his rebellious mistress Nellifer (Joan Collins), a proud princess who marries the Pharaoh but secretly lusts after his treasure, scheming and plotting to undo him. This is a lurid melodrama with a schematic plot, with both Hawkins and Collins turning in stark, iconic performances, their characters reduced to walking symbols. For his part, Hawks hardly seems interested in these petty human affairs. He's working on a very abstract level here, populating the film with literally thousands of extras — reportedly close to 10,000 for one scene — and dramatizing the mechanical and physical processes involved in constructing the pyramid rather than the human dramas behind the scenes. Next to the spectacle of massive slabs of stone being hauled across the desert via complicated pulley-and-crane systems, the Pharaoh's love affairs and the machinations of his mistress seem trite and inconsequential. The actual human events play out in disconnected vignettes, with large gaps of time yawning in between. In one scene, Senta is a boy; in the next, it's fifteen years later and he's grown into a man. Similarly, at one point early on the Pharaoh tells his first wife (Kerima) that he wants an heir, which might've provided another film with its driving force and drama, but this script simply presents the boy not long after, already around ten years old.
If the film's human dramas are largely inert and so elliptical as to nearly disappear, this hardly means that the film is without drama altogether. It's merely that the characters here are consistently dwarfed by the physical spectacle of the processes they set into motion. There are long sequences in which Hawks fully exploits both the long Cinemascope frame — the first time he'd shoot outside of his favored Academy ratio — and the tremendous quantity of extras he had at his disposal. The frame is frequently packed with people, thousands of them struggling through the desert sand like ants scurrying around in the dirt, hauling massive stones with ropes and complex riggings. Long trains of people and animals sprawl across the desert in dense crowds and rigidly uniform lines. Hawks always maintained an interest in documenting how real people work, and here was the ultimate subject for him, the ultimate group effort: thousands of people subjugating their identities to the will of the pharaoh in order to accomplish a demanding, impossibly complicated task of building and design. His images, remote and sweeping, strain to take in the entirety of this bustle of activity within a single frame. There's an epic grandeur to these images, a sense of large-scale work and action that Hawks had only ever approached before in the exhilarating cattle drive sequences from Red River. This film's pyramid-building scenes lack that same excitement, since Hawks proves equally adept at capturing the drudgery of this work, the slow process by which the Egyptian workers, initially happy to be working for their Pharaoh in this way, begin to wear down, to become bitter and sluggish, driven on only by the pounding of the work drums and the crack of the whip.
These sequences reach their fruition in the film's great final set piece, following the Pharaoh's death, when the mechanisms that will seal the pyramid's tomb are at last set in motion. This is a harrowing sequence, staged from a perspective at the heart of the tomb: all around the interior of the pyramid, various stone slabs slam into place with a crushing finality, accompanied by a reverberating and terrible clamor. It's a claustrophobic nightmare of being locked up behind impenetrable stone walls, buried alive, a horror worthy of Poe. Hawks accentuates the geometry of the pyramid's labyrinthine interior, the elegant interlocking structures that come together once Vashtar's brilliant design is triggered. Stone slabs crawl across the frame, slowly blotting out the lines of sight through the pyramid's interior, closing off all exits, each door closing accompanied by that final sinister thump, the sound of another escape being closed off. This sequence traps the audience along with those at the pyramid's center, the retainers and workers who are sealed up with their dead master.
The grim automated processes of this final scene are indicative of the macroscopic interest Hawks takes in this story. His grandly effective mise en scéne comes alive whenever he's charting the hefting of a stone block into its position within the pyramid's architecture, or visualizing the vast hordes of slaves working on this massive construction project. The more human scale of the story fails to advance beyond clichéd melodrama. Moreover, the Hollywood convention of casting white actors as Egyptians yields the distracting and uncomfortable spectacle of Joan Collins made up in brownface makeup that darkens her skin to a strange glossy orangish hue.
Equally distracting is the overbearing music, and especially the periodic outbursts of singing, clapping and chanting. The Baptist fervor of the music turns quite a few of the early scenes into weird approximations of Christian masses rather than Egyptian rituals; one almost expects the chanting Egyptians to shout out "Hallelujah!" Indeed, these early scenes sometimes seem like subtle commentaries on religion in general, slyly suggesting that all religions, with their convoluted, fanciful conceptions of the afterlife, are equally deluded. Hawks has the most sympathy for the pragmatic architect Vashtar, who, though obviously modeled on the Jewish people, has a skeptical detachment from all this fascination with the afterlife and would much rather live for the present than the future. It would seem that, within the overbearing façades of this "white elephant" of a film, Hawks the termite was nicking away at the stone edifices of his creation, subtly tweaking the solemn religiosity of his protagonists and their vain desires for immortality.