Land of the Pharaohs - Warner Archive CollectionOverview -
One of Martin Scorsese's favorite films gets a Blu-ray upgrade, much to the glee of its rabid fan base. Land of the Pharaohs never will be regarded as one of Howard Hawks' best movies, but it stands as an impressive cast-of-thousands spectacle and quintessential guilty pleasure. Warner Archive's high-quality transfer struck from a 4K scan of the original camera negative and remastered 5.1 audio track thrust us into the sandy desert landscapes of ancient Egypt and showcase a scantily clad and deliciously evil Joan Collins in her American film debut. Highly Recommended.
Director Howard Hawks, who worked brilliantly in virtually every genre, shows his mastery of the large-scale epic with this gigantic production filmed on location in Egypt. Thousands of extras (9,787 in one scene alone!), magnificently detailed sets (including the pyramid's inner labyrinth, booby-trapped so no one can learn its secrets and live) and vast desert vistas fill the screen and astonish the eye. There are also human-scaled stories. Of the Pharaoh (Jack Hawkins) who orders the pyramid as his tomb, dooming untold numbers to unending toil. Of the architect (James Robertson Justice) designing it to earn his people's freedom. Of the slaves constructing it of blood and sinew. And a beautiful queen (Joan Collins) whose greed leads to murder- and a stunning revenge!
Special Features and Technical Specs:
- NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM FROM THE ORIGINAL CAMERA NEGATIVE (2023)
- Audio Commentary by Director Peter Bogdanovich (with archival interview comments by Howard Hawks)
- Classic Warner Bros. Cartoon SAHARA HARE (HD)
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature
Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take
Howard Hawks was a jack of all genres, directing comedies, dramas, westerns, film noirs, gangster yarns, period pieces, musicals, adventure flicks, and war movies with equal aplomb, so it was only a matter of time before he tackled one of cinema's most daunting forms - the ancient historical epic. Biblical blockbusters like Samson and Delilah, David and Bathsheba, Quo Vadis, and The Robe might not seem like Hawks' cup of tea, but if anyone could breathe some life into a stuffy, stilted sword-and-sandal saga surely it would be Hawks, whose movies brim with scintillating chemistry, conflict, and action.
Like Hercules, Hawks labored mightily to lift Land of the Pharaohs above other films in its class, but this meticulous chronicle of the construction of an Egyptian pyramid often buckles under the weight of its lumbering story and became Hawks' Achilles heel. The movie is a technical marvel, but its cardboard characters, creaky script (co-written by Nobel Prize-winner William Faulkner, no less), and pompous performances make it the black sheep in Hawks' stellar film canon. Yes, it's entertaining in fits and starts, but by allowing style to supersede substance for perhaps the only time in his four-decade career, Hawks produces an eye-filling but surprisingly stagnant motion picture that only revs its engine during its final half hour.
Jack Hawkins and Joan Collins in her American film debut receive top billing, but spectacle and grandeur are the true stars of Land of the Pharaohs. Lots of movies advertise a cast of thousands, but this one makes good on its promise. Masses of people (no CGI here) populate the frame at any given time, magnifying the scope and impact of many shots. Location shooting in the Egyptian desert adds the authenticity most epics of the period lack and a commitment to historical accuracy - at least as far as pyramid construction is concerned - somewhat compensates for a hackneyed plot that's all about greed, vanity, treachery, and power.
Pharaoh Khufu (Hawkins) is so obsessed with his "second life," the spiritual one that starts after his death, he can scarcely enjoy the fruits of his kingdom during his first. Amassing riches beyond belief from numerous conquests, Khufu enlists the services of Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), a Jewish slave and master architect, to design an impenetrable tomb that will allow Khufu to enjoy his riches in the afterlife without fear of plunderers. The intricate plans involve precise mechanisms that will be activated after Khufu's burial and seal the interior chamber of the pyramid so no one can get in and nothing can get out.
The construction will take at least 15 years and requires armies of slaves to haul three million stones, each weighing 5,000 pounds, to the site. Khufu's dogged determination keeps the project on track, but the arrival of the bewitching Princess Nellifer (Collins) from the island of Cyprus complicates the task. Khufu takes the alluring, headstrong, and avaricious siren as his second wife, but Nellifer hates playing second fiddle to Queen Nailla (Kerima). Nellifer's jealousy and insatiable desire for Khufu's wealth lead to palace intrigue, infidelity, and murder, as she tries to supplant Nailla and engineer her husband's premature entry into his second life.
Despite heavy dark makeup that varies in tone throughout the film, some suspension of disbelief is required to buy the largely British cast as Egyptians. (Hawkins looks more like a Roman emperor than a pharaoh and recites his formal dialogue in his best King's English.) That said, the actors file solid performances, though the script hardly seems worthy of Faulkner's pen. How much of the screenplay the acclaimed novelist actually wrote remains open for debate (Oscar nominees Harry Kurnitz [What's Next, Corporal Hargrove?] and Harold Jack Bloom [The Naked Spur] also receive screen credit), but the stuffy dialogue adds another layer of artifice to the proceedings. Land of the Pharaohs marked the fifth and final collaboration between Hawks and Faulkner, who also worked together on Today We Live, The Road to Glory, and most famously on two Bogart-Bacall movies, To Have and Have Not and The Big Sleep. Though Faulkner doctored numerous scripts for many directors, his only screenwriting credits came on Hawks films.
In a warmup for her iconic turn as Alexis Carrington Colby on the 1980s primetime soap Dynasty, Collins sharpens her talons as the feisty, diabolical, gold-digging temptress and steals the show. She doesn't appear until the 40-minute mark, but instantly energizes the picture, oozing a slinky sexiness in her bare midriff gowns that showcase her bejeweled navel. (Ironically, the coverage of her belly button with a gem was mandated by the censors, who deemed a naked navel too provocative, but the sparkling jewels used throughout the film call even more attention to it.) Collins spits out many of her lines with her trademark spite and gets a chance to one-up Bette Davis in a critical scene that was obviously ripped from the pages of Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes. Collins' comeuppance in the climax is a classic movie moment and worth the price of admission.
Hardly a typical Hawks film, Land of the Pharaohs nevertheless outclasses many similar 1950s epics because of Hawks' patented craftsmanship and attention to detail. He makes the pyramid's intricate construction fascinating to behold and pulls out all the stops (literally and figuratively) in his flawless execution of the thrilling climax. His mastery of crowd scenes - not to mention cobras and crocodiles - and ability to seamlessly weave pageantry into the tale enhance the movie, and despite his distaste for CinemaScope (Land of the Pharaohs would be Hawks' first and last film in the format), his compositions are often striking and keep the eye engaged whenever the story sputters.
Land of the Pharaohs was far from a dud when first released, but its failure to turn a profit so disappointed Hawks he stayed away from moviemaking for three years before roaring back with Rio Bravo, arguably his crowning cinematic achievement. The passage of time has revived interest in and increased respect for Land of the Pharaohs (Martin Scorsese cites it as one of his favorite films), and while it never will be regarded as one of Hawks' finest pictures, it's an entertaining diversion best served up with a big bucket of popcorn.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Land of the Pharaohs arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
A brand new 4K scan of the original camera negative, restored with the promotional support of The Film Foundation (and at the urging of Martin Scorsese), yields a wonderful 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that's a substantial step up from previous home video versions. It's not perfect - some softness creeps in here and there, a few scenes appear either a tad murky or a bit bright, and the single-strip Warnercolor hues occasionally look slightly flat - but it brings the film back to brilliant life. Clarity and contrast are quite good and a natural grain structure preserves the celluloid feel while faithfully honoring the cinematography of Oscar-winner Lee Garmes and six-time nominee Russell Harlan.
Rich blacks and well-defined whites combine with an array of true colors to produce an eye-filling image. Bold blues and reds, verdant greens, and lovely pastels beautifully offset the prevailing earth tones of the desert landscape. (The obvious dark makeup used to make the English and American actors look more Mediterranean makes it difficult to evaluate flesh tones.) Fine details like wisps of sand blowing in the wind, the nooks and crannies of the pyramid stones, the etchings on gold treasures, and tile and costume textures are sharp, crisp close-ups showcase Collins' glamor and Hawkins' weathered complexion, and excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay.
Not a single nick, mark, or scratch dots the pristine source material, and compared to the standard definition version of the film that accompanies the commentary track, this Blu-ray rendering is brighter, sharper, more colorful, and far more dimensional. Fans who have been waiting for this release for quite some time will not be disappointed and should definitely upgrade.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track fashioned from the original 4-track master provides robust, immersive sound worthy of a widescreen epic. Though surround activity is limited to a few faint score bleeds, the stereo separation across the front channels is quite striking and enhances the expansive CinemaScope visuals. Strong bass frequencies lend the beating native drums plenty of weight and excellent fidelity and tonal depth add power and nuance to Dimitri Tiomkin's majestic score. Sonic accents like clanking swords and the rumble of massive rocks sliding down pyramid passageways are crisp and subtleties like the delicate chipping of stones and hiss of a cobra are distinct. All the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend and no age-related hiss, pops, or crackle mar the mix. Spectacles like Land of the Pharaohs demand strong audio and this high-quality track delivers in spades.
The audio commentary by filmmaker/historian Peter Bogdanovich, which includes archival interview excerpts with Howard Hawks, has been ported over from the 2007 DVD, but is presented with a standard definition print of the film. The reason for this is unclear at this time, but the Warner Archive Angel Face disc also presents its commentary track with a standard definition print due to a syncing issue that cropped up when the original camera negative yielded additional frames that did not appear on the print used to produce the DVD. That might be the case here as well. The inclusion of the standard definition print might also explain why the classic Bugs Bunny cartoon Sahara Hare, which is listed as one of the extras on the Land of the Pharaohs packaging, has been dropped from the disc, most likely due to lack of space.
Audio Commentary - The late filmmaker/historian Peter Bogdanovich sat down for this commentary in 2007 and sprinkles his remarks with some excerpts from his personal interviews with Howard Hawks conducted in the 1960s and 1970s. Bogdanovich, who calls Land of the Pharaohs Hawks' "weakest film," talks about Hawks' style, distaste for CinemaScope, what attracted him to the project, and the differences between Hawks and Cecil B. DeMille with regard to spectacles. He also discusses Hawks' interest in engineering and how his fascination with pyramid construction came at the expense of human drama. In addition, he compares Land of the Pharaohs to Hawks' Red River and shares some entertaining anecdotes about Hawks. Hawks himself recounts how he got into movies, lists his favorite directors, examines some of the challenges he faced making Land of the Pharaohs, and discusses his collaborations with William Faulkner. Though several gaps litter the track and Bogdanovich starts repeating himself toward the end of the film, this is still a worthwhile commentary and it's a treat to hear Hawks' own recollections and perspective.
Theatrical Trailer (SD, 4 minutes) - The film's original preview touts the spectacle, melodrama, and larger-than-life characters in "a motion picture triumph you will never forget."
If you're looking for a history lesson on the building of the pyramids, find a documentary, but if you want a grand spectacle laced with sex, villainy, and violent confrontations, Land of the Pharaohs is your ticket to guilty pleasure entertainment. Pompous and preposterous, director Howard Hawks' epic stokes the senses and has never looked or sounded better, thanks to a brand-new 4K scan struck from the original camera negative and a remastered 5.1 audio track. Fans have waited a long time for this one and they won't be disappointed. Highly Recommended.
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