Land of the Pharaohs (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Jul 24, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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Land of the Pharaohs (Blu-ray Review)


Howard Hawks

Release Date(s)

1955 (July 18, 2023)


Warner Bros (Warner Archive Collection)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B

Land of the Pharaohs (Blu-ray)

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Ancient Egypt was a popular setting for Hollywood films in the 1950s. Three of the major studios released films with major locations in Egypt within a three-year period: The Egyptian (20th Century Fox), The Ten Commandments (Paramount), and Land of the Pharaohs (Warner Bros). Land of the Pharaohs, produced and directed by Howard Hawks (Rio Bravo), is the tale of a monarch determined to build a tomb for himself that will be impervious to desecration by grave robbers.

Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins, Ben-Hur) is obsessed with conquering other nations, looting their treasure, and enslaving their people. He envisions a vast pyramid tomb that will safeguard his body and all his worldly possessions so he can enjoy them in the “second life.” As other tombs were broken into and pillaged, Khufu commanded several architects to draw up plans for a secure tomb but none have met with his approval.

On learning that one of captured slaves, Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), is an extraordinarily gifted architect, the pharaoh orders him to make plans and supervise the construction of a massive, booby-trapped pyramid to thwart would-be thieves. Pharaoh agrees to free Vashtar and his fellow countrymen once the pyramid is completed, but because the work will take years, Vashtar asks that a certain number of slaves be freed each year and the rest go free when the work is done.

To finance the construction, Khufu forces countries he has conquered to send him representatives bearing gold and jewels in tribute. The king of Cypress instead sends him only the princess Nellifer (Joan Collins, The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing). At first, Khufu is enraged, but Nellifer’s fearlessness, defiance, and beauty intrigue him, and he takes her as his second wife. Bringing her into the royal household, however, leads to intrigues and betrayals.

Hawkins conveys an appropriate patrician arrogance. With his square jaw, regal posture, and authoritarian manner, he embodies the characteristics of an ancient monarch. He’s feared by his people and has few confidants at court. His reign is entirely self-interested, consumed with piling up treasure for the day it will join him in eternity. He and his priests manage to sell the “second life” to the populace, a place that promises endless pleasure and is worth the sacrifices of their life on earth. Slavery is a prime plot point, and its horrors are depicted by thousands of men whipped by overseers as they drag gigantic stone blocks over the sand. This is a dictatorial society in which the pharaoh’s word is law.

When Collins comes into the film, the focus shifts and we see how greed and ambition drive Nellifer to seduce Khufu’s most trusted military officer into helping her secure the pharaoh’s kingdom and treasures for herself. Collins’ seductive beauty should make a good fit for the deceptive princess plotting to advance her own interests. Instead, she comes off as an anachronistic shrew more suitable to soap opera than royalty. Her broad portrayal adds a note of camp to the epic.

Dewey Martin (The Desperate Hours), as Vashtar’s son Senta, is an indispensable aid to his father, and also saves the pharaoh’s life in a scene foreshadowing one four years later in which Quintus Arrius (also played by Jack Hawkins) is saved by Ben-Hur. Young and handsome, Martin is shirtless for most of the film to show off his fit physique.

From its widescreen grandiose compositions of hundreds of Pharaoh’s soldiers returning in triumph from a campaign to enrich his personal treasury, to thousands of slaves moving blocks of stone under the brutal desert sun, Land of the Pharaohs is epic in scope. Multi-costumed extras, some mounted on camels, form a seemingly endless line as they parade through the streets. This was well before the days of CGI, so all of those extras are real, flesh-and-blood people. The film spends most of its time on the building of the pyramid, and these scenes are interesting as Vashtar shows how huge blocks of stone can be moved more easily by making use of sand and gravity, thus shortening the time it will take to complete the tomb.

Three writers are credited for the screenplay, including William Faulkner, who admitted that he had no idea how to write dialogue for ancient Egyptians. The script bears him out. The result is entertaining if you’re seeking spectacle rather than drama. The film is a time capsule of the period when studios turned to widescreen color epics to draw audiences away from their TV sets. In this case, the strategy did not work. Land of the Pharaohs was the first box office failure of Howard Hawks’ career. He wouldn’t make another film until Rio Bravo four years later.

Land of the Pharaohs was shot by directors of photography Lee Garmes and Russell Harlan with CinemaScope lenses on 35 mm Eastman color (Warner Color) film and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The Blu-ray features a high-quality transfer sourced from a 4K scan of the original camera negative. The film looks terrific, with its scenes of thousands of soldiers returning from war with Pharaoh Khufu borne in triumph on a gilded litter and thousands of slaves doing the grueling work on the construction of the Pharaoh’s tomb. Hawks fills the wide screen, providing magnificent spectacle justifying the film’s epic stature. In the opening procession, primary colors pop against the desert sands, with fiery reds, deep blues, and brilliant gold adding to the procession’s triumphant feel. By contrast, scenes in the quarry and in the desert have a yellow cast with browns, muted yellows, and darker shades dominating as the men struggle to move stone blocks that weigh tons. Complexions feature heavy dark make-up, though the tones vary from scene to scene. Collins’ creamy smooth skin and red lips stand out to emphasize her beauty. Shots of the various stages of pyramid construction combine matted images with live action.

The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio taken from the original 4-track master. The sound is perfect for an epic such as this and nicely complements the CinemaScope photography. Dialogue, though often stiffly delivered, is clear and distinct, with Hawkins sounding and looking more like a British facsimile of a Roman centurion than an Egyptian Pharaoh. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score sounds majestic and triumphant in the opening procession scene. More subtle sounds, such as the giant stone blocks being lowered into place or sliding down narrow chutes to permanently seal the tomb, the hammering of stone in the quarry, and even the hissing of a snake add drama and suspense. What’s missing is an echo effect within the tomb, which would have contributed to the sense of the labyrinthine edifice’s size.

Though the back of the Blu-ray case from Warner Archive lists the Bugs Bunny cartoon Sahara Hare as one of the extras, it’s not on the disc. The bonus materials, however, do include the following:

  • Audio Commentary by Peter Bogdanovich
  • Theatrical Trailer (4:17)

Audio Commentary – This commentary is the same as the one on the 2007 DVD release but is presented with a standard rather than a widescreen print. Bogdanovich includes excerpts from interviews he conducted with Howard Hawks years earlier. Hawks notes that one of his biggest influences was Marshall Nielan, an actor, director, producer and screenwriter whose career began in the silent era. Later, he learned a lot from watching the films of John Ford, Billy Wilder, Victor Fleming, and Ernst Lubitsch. Hawks also talks about William Faulkner, who worked on many Hawks films over the years. Dimitri Tiomkin, who wrote the score for Land of the Pharaohs, also wrote the music for Hawks’ Red River and Rio Bravo. Hawks wanted to make a significant spectacle. He wasn’t a fan of De Mille’s spectacles, though he admired how they cleaned up at the box office. No one was able to figure out how the massive pyramids were built, and that is what intrigued Hawks. Because he was primarily interested in the engineering aspect of the film, it lacks the intimacy of his other films, and characterization suffered. Both Faulkner and Hawks were stymied by having no idea how a pharaoh should think, act, and speak. Hawks places people in the far background to accentuate a sense of depth. The color palette is more subdued than in Hawks’ previous film, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. He uses close-ups only when dramatically needed. The film deals with the common belief of many ancient people that there is an afterlife. For Hawks, the script was the blueprint, and he encouraged improvisation, but there was little room for that with Land of the Pharaohs. Making both Pharaoh and Nellifer such reprehensible, selfish individuals was a mistake. The audience had no one to root for. This problem could have been solved with script revisions. Bogdanovich notes that the final line of dialogue spoken by Vashtar—“We have a long way to go”—refers not only to the journey of the slaves returning home but to humanity becoming more enlightened.

Land of the Pharaohs is a guilty pleasure. It’s not history and it differs from its fellow Hollywood ancient epics by its focus on the science of how colossal monuments were built. The plot is really secondary, and that’s likely why audiences avoided the film back in 1955. But in its beautiful Blu-ray presentation, it’s an example of a time when studios pulled out all the stops to dazzle audiences with pure spectacle.

- Dennis Seuling