LAND OF THE PHARAOHS (And Then There Was Hollywood: Fourth Rumination)

Land of the Pharaohs (1955)
D. Howard Hawks

(NOTE: Contains mild spoilers)

Hollywood has never known quite what to do with the feral versions of Siren Sex. No woman who has possessed it in sufficient abundance to make ignoring it impossible has ever sustained major stardom without cloaking it under a serviceable veneer, usually The Comedienne (see Jean Harlow, Mae West, Marilyn Monroe) or The Actress (see Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren, Angelina Jolie…Monroe died trying to make the leap).

Lately, Jolie and Scarlett Johansson have been able to work a variation, Action Girl, where the Siren quality can be safely subsumed by Special Effects.

Pack enough CGI on the screen and the Sex can blend with the scenery.

Beside all that, you have the long history of women who couldn’t or wouldn’t shape themselves to fit what the world could handle. Hence a long list of actresses whose careers tend to be summed up by the crit-illuminati with some version of why do you suppose they didn’t amount to more, poor things.

Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor were partially saved from this ignominy by the happy accident of having their prime years coincide with those of film noir. But later shoulda beens–Karen Black, Rosanna Arquette, Ileana Douglas, Rebecca DeMornay, to name only a few of the more obvious–were left stranded in the Brief-Flirtation-With-Stardom-Inevitably-Reduced-to-Working-Actress category.

It’s always been a fine line to walk, but the hard parameters have remained the same from the days of the Hays Code to our current enlightened state of Free Unlimited Porn on the Internet.

Sex, yes.

But please don’t radiate it.

Which brings us to this:

That’s just the black and white version. Of Joan Collins in 1955.

It doesn’t matter if she’s not your type, or that it’s the only still I could find from this Technicolor extravaganza (which the illuminati are universally confident can be dismissed as “camp,” a word they often deploy to dismiss anything they find unsettling….they’re prudes before they’re anything else, no matter how much porn they brag about watching) that comes close to matching the flesh impact Collins has in the film, where, with nothing vulnerable or modern about her, she seems to have been cast as the antithesis of the Hawksian woman.

Of course, she’d have to be something other than modern or vulnerable, given she’s playing someone who had to survive in a time and place where feral sex was one of the few qualities present that is still recognizable (if barely) in our own.

Here’s an attempt to understand it all, from The Guardian, circa 2013:

Khufu has her flogged. “Education is sometimes painful, isn’t it?” he gloats to her afterwards. This is the kind of line that makes a character permanently irredeemable, and the screenwriters (who included Nobel laureate William Faulkner) clearly couldn’t work out how to fix it. So the voiceover just says: “In the succeeding weeks, she became the favourite of the pharaoh. They were married and she became his second wife.” What? How? Why?

It’s nice, of course, that, for now, we live comfortably ensconced in a world where flogging a girl before you marry her is “irredeemable.” But I’m always a little bemused when someone who fusses over Wronged History–dates, places, English accents on Egyptian Pharaohs–because it doesn’t allow the properly educated to either close the distance or keep it at arm’s length (I’m never sure which), can’t bring himself to acknowledge the part that rings true.

Anyone who is really confused about what Pharaoh sees in Joan Collins’ princess–why she might become his favorite once he thinks a good flogging has tamed her–is too stupid to be writing for publication. Anyone who lies about it is….well, you can make up your own mind about those who pretend not to comprehend the obvious, whatever the subject.

But it was Hollywood’s problem before it was The Guardian‘s, and mankind’s long before it was Pharaoh’s.

Yes, Jack Hawkins is badly miscast as an Egyptian. That’s a hole in the movie even Collins can’t quite fill, though she might have with a director who understood feral sex, or a world that ran on it, as something other than perversion (the only time Hawks got the concept across was with Ann Dvorak’s incestuous sister act in Scarface, which was a long way behind him by 1955).

Instead, he–or Hollywood, or Faulkner the Laureate–knew no better than to reduce Collins’ princess to a standard issue shamed harlot in the final scene, when, having been reunited with Pharaoh’s boundless treasure for eternity, she should be in her element and smiling triumph over the peons who think they’ve tricked her.

It’s not a surprise, though.

Failing to punish her for greed, lust and murder in an “unenlightened” world that thrived on all three, would have required real sophistication on someone’s part.

Faced with a character–and an actress–who was nobody’s idea of a Good Wife, Hawks lost his nerve. That, his relatively lackluster hand with crowd scenes (a rather important deficiency in a Sword and Sandals epic filmed on location with the proverbial cast of thousands), and the absence of Yul Brynner, broke his twenty-five year run of commercial and critical success.

Though it lost money, Land of the Pharaohs was hardly a disaster on the first count. And it has gained defenders over the years, including some, like Martin Scorcese and me, who agree on little else. Hawks’ gift for interior scenes and memorable sets is intact and Collins’ performance is a rejection of camp, ferocious enough that it took a quarter-century, middle-age, and the damp squab of real camp on television, for anyone to find any version of it, or her, the least bit acceptable.

I’ll always revisit Land of the Pharaohs.

I’ll always wish it was a little bit better.

I’ll always get at little restless, waiting for the jolt of energy Collins’ entrance gives it and I’ll always marvel at how she sustains it in every scene until the false ending lets her down.

And I’ll always reserve a smile for those who think mankind–and Hollywood–not knowing what to do about Vulgar Sex is the same as having left it all safely behind.

THE LAST TEN WESTERNS I WATCHED…(I Watch Westerns: Take Three)

When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Machree comes to me, and I start watching westerns. The last few weeks were kind of odd in that none of the westerns I watched were by Ford, Hawks, Mann or Boetticher, so I thought it might make a fun post reinforcing my occasional off-hand suggestion that the genre is bottomless. Here’s a look:

April 27–Rimfire (1949, B. Reeves Eason, First Viewing)

rimfire2The essence: An innocent man is wrongly convicted of card-sharping in a “trial by acclamation” and subsequently hanged. (For card-sharping? Yep!) His ghost–or someone channeling it–wanders about, gunning for those who convicted him, offing them with solid gold bullets and dropping deuces and fours on the corpses. A Secret Service man, tracking the gold while he works under cover as a local deputy, tries to catch him between attempts at wooing the local blonde. That’s for starters. Is that enough to overcome indifferent acting by minor period stars, jittery direction and a choppy story-line with more subplots than War and Peace? I would never presume to judge. Each of us must find our own level in these matters. I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if Ian Fleming had this floating around in his subconscious. And I’d bet money Sergio Leone did.

April 26–Little Big Horn (1951, Charles Marquis Warren, First Viewing)

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This actually came in a cheapie double with Rimfire and the contrast couldn’t be starker. The basic story is based on a historical incident and involves a scout patrol which comes across signs that the Sioux are lying in wait for an unsuspecting General Custer. The movie consists of the patrol’s attempt to reach Custer in time. Of course you know they won’t, but it doesn’t matter because the real story is a truly complex study of male honor. Additionally, as a representation of the ethos of the U.S. Cavalry, it stands with John Ford’s famous trilogy and Ernest Haycox’s fine novel Bugles in the Afternoon. John Ireland and Lloyd Bridges, two actors who rarely got enough screen time, get plenty here and make the most of it. Neither man was ever better. The great Marie Windsor is sadly underused, but even that is a small quibble. A real find.

April 25–Rawhide (1951, Henry Hathaway, Umpteenth Viewing)

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Perfect. Along with Key Largo, one of my two favorite films using a common plot: innocents trapped by violent men waiting for an “event.” The setting here is a lonely stage stop. The event is an impending stage robbery. The cast is perfect, the plot unbreakable, the direction, by old pro Hathaway, taut as a piano wire. The denouement features a tension-filled “child in danger” sequence that’s on a level with Battleship Potemkin or Small Change and more fully integrated than either. (Note: I watched this in preparation for an upcoming blogathon where I’ll take a closer look at Jack Elam’s villain. The role was his career maker so watch for further thoughts here.)

April 24–The Last of the Mohicans (1992, Michael Mann, Third Viewing)

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Fenimore Cooper seems a natural for the movies. But this, likely the best adaptation of his work, is far more of a chore than it needs to be (though admittedly less of a chore than the thirties’ version with Randolph Scott). Mann shrouded the Fort William Henry battle scenes in an impenetrable darkness, only occasionally caught either the beauty or the mystery of the Appalachians and evidently convinced his female stars they were playing the Bronte sisters without the comedy. Past that, you have a depressingly inappropriate modernist score, Natty Bumppo transformed into “Nathaniel Poe,” perhaps so Daniel Day-Lewis can play him as a natural vessel for the Method and various English-actor types who deliver their lines as if they are simultaneously passing kidney stones.  Moderately worthwhile for Wes Studi’s definitive turn as Magua, a good surrender scene between the commanding French and English officers, and some occasionally haunting scenery that proves you can’t really turn off Appalachia’s beauty and mystery no matter how hard you try. (Note: I go back and forth on whether Drums Along the Mohawk, the Walter Edmonds novel, which shares its time and place with Cooper’s most famous novels and was filmed by John Ford in the late thirties, is really a western. But Cooper invented the form and nailed most of its elements in place. For whatever reason I have no such qualms about the Leatherstocking tales.)

April 23–The Last Hunt (1956, Richard Brooks, First Viewing)

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A brooding tale of the last days of the buffalo hunters. Robert Taylor takes a rare turn as a villain and he’s fine, though I couldn’t help feeling the movie might have been even better if he and Stewart Granger (who carried a tinge of self-contempt in his bones that came out of his eyes when he put on a cowboy hat) had switched places. The best performance in a solid cast is from Lloyd Nolan as an aging buffalo skinner. The plot is unusually existential. Civilization is not at stake. It’s barely felt. In that respect, it’s more noir than western. In one other respect it’s pure western: Death is real, right down to the last, genuinely chilling scene.

April 21–Drum Beat (1954, Delmer Daves, First Viewing)

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Alan Ladd as an Indian fighter trying to make peace among his enemies, in this case the Modocs of the Pacific Northwest, on orders from General Grant (played, not badly, but rather improbably by Hayden Rorke, who would make his last mark a decade later as the forever flummoxed base psychiatrist in I Dream of Jeannie). A bit staid, but, as one might expect with Delmer Daves at the helm,  it certainly has its moments, not a few of them provided by a very young Charles Bronson as the never-surrender Modoc war chief. Ladd is his usual fine, laconic self, but, a mere three years after Shane, he looks twenty years older in a part that might have been better served by his younger, more energetic self. Worthwhile for fans of Daves, Ladd or Bronson.

April17–Fury at Showdown (1957, Gerd Oswald, First Viewing)

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This one gets where it’s going. There is no especially striking aspect, but the story is a good one (good brother/bad brother, with bad brother trying to straighten up for his brother’s sake) and it’s well executed. Best performance is by Nick Adams, a James Dean/Elvis associate who has never impressed me anywhere else. John Derek is good enough as the lead. I can see why somebody thought he might be a star and I can see why he didn’t make it, though I’m sure I never would have guessed he would eventually be mostly famous for marrying exceptionally beautiful women.

April 17–Along Came Jones (1945, Stuart Heisler, Second Viewing)

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Gary Cooper spoofing himself. I hadn’t revisited this one in years and, upon doing so, I was reminded why there was no particular urgency. Cooper’s fine, but he’s saddled with an out-of-her-element Loretta Young and a script that frequently ambles when it should gallop. Still good for a few laughs, especially when Cooper’s hayseed is sparring with the ever reliable William Demarest. But, with Nunnally Johnson scripting, there was a chance for much more. A bit of a missed opportunity.

April 12–Roughshod (1949, Mark Robson, First Viewing)

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Nifty. I acquired it strictly for the purpose of investigating whether Gloria Grahame’s essence would translate to a western. It does. She’s superb and, more to the point, she’s Gloria Grahame. Oh, there’s a good story, too: Hookers…er, “showgirls,” with and without hearts of gold, try to survive any way they can while traveling from the town they’ve been kicked out of to the town where their dreams will come true (in California, of course). It’s well directed and, excepting Robert Sterling’s stolid but uninspiring presence in the lead, superbly played. Claude Jarman, Jr., one of the period’s finest child actors, is especially good in a part that could have gone wrong a hundred ways. And, after all that? Gloria Grahame is in it. She’s superb and she’s Gloria Grahame. So it’s like every other movie she was in where she was herself: A Gloria Grahame movie. There’s a reason they put her up front on the poster even if they billed her second on screen and fourth in the advertising. I might watch it again tonight.

April 11–Garden of Evil (1954, Henry Hathaway, Fourth Viewing)

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This one has grown on me. I liked it well enough when I first encountered it a few years ago. Watching it about once a year since, it’s gotten better every time. At this point, I’m almost ready to move it to the very first rank. Susan Hayward juggles a dying husband and the four hard men she’s hired to save both him and the fortune he’s excavated from a gold mine deep in Apache country. There’s a powerhouse cast, all in top form: Hayward, Gary Cooper, Richard Widmark, Hugh Marlowe, Cameron Mitchell, Mexican star Victor Manuel Mendoza and a red hot, if too-briefly seen, Rita Moreno. It winds and winds, rather like the mountain trails the plot traverses. That might be what deceived me into thinking it was a little slow the first time around. The more i watch, though, the deeper it gets. The climactic action sequences are of a high order. The final line is classic. And did I mention that, in a western, death actually hurts? That might be because, in the westerns Hollywood used to make, life was never merely existential or programmatic. Not even when they tried.