Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Hawks and Hawkins

The new DVD of Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs looks all right, though it certainly could look better (the process shots in particular show their age). Peter Bogdanovich's commentary, with interview excerpts of Hawks, is surprisingly good: he doesn't like the film much, and that seems to make him more inclined to say interesting things and less inclined to name-drop.

Hawks didn't like the film either, though a lot of that may simply have been due to the fact that it failed at the box-office. (I don't think Hawks believed in the concept of a worthy failure: if the public rejected a movie, that was his cue to figure out what was wrong with it, not to defend it.) The Hawks cult that developed in the '60s also didn't spend much time on this movie, even though it's really quite a bit better than some of the later Hawks movies that the auteurists defended. It is coming in for a bit of a re-evaluation lately, as you can see in this positive review from DVD Savant, and I think people who see it in the "Cult Camp Classics" collection will be surprised at how un-campy it is.

I like Land of the Pharaohs a lot, and had a good time watching it last night. It isn't one of Hawks's best movies, of course. The plot structure is very confused, with plot points drifting into and out of the movie almost at random. While the dialogue is better than a lot of these '50s sand epics, Hawks and the writers (including William Faulkner) felt compelled to respect the convention of having slightly flowery, stilted dialogue -- which meant that Hawks couldn't let the actors improvise lines of dialogue on the set. (Though there are some bits of dialogue that sound very natural: people mock Joan Collins' cries of "I don't wanna die!", but that's exactly what you would expect a person to say in that particular situation.) And as Hawks pointed out, the main character (Jack Hawkins) is such a selfish jerk that we have no one to root for in the film.

But there are a lot of really strong scenes. Almost everything involving the building of the pyramid, and the engineering technique for sealing it (which when we see it in action, is almost like a serious take on a Rube Goldberg device), is excellent. The sets by Alexander Trauner are very imaginative, not gaudy or trashy like the sets in most films of this type. The murder scene with the cobra and the flute, while a bit implausible, is very suspenseful, and it's a great Hawks touch to play the mother's sacrifice matter-of-factly, without sentimentality or pathos. Joan Collins is in a different, campier movie from everyone else -- and, being a Hawks leading lady, is contractually required to speak about an octave lower than she normally does -- but she's a lot of fun, and because she's so evil she's almost more likeable than Hawkins (who does equally horrible things but thinks he's the good guy).

All his career, Hawks had tried to make movies that copied whatever kind of picture was popular at the time, but put his own spin on them. If Casablanca was a hit with its combination of wartime propaganda and romance, Hawks would make To Have and Have Not, a combination of wartime propaganda and romance. After The Robe came out, it was only natural that he would try to put his own stamp on the vogue for widescreen epics. He did this, as usual, by borrowing heavily from his previous work: as co-writer William Faulkner was the first to point out, Hawks just wanted to do Red River again, with the building of the pyramid replacing the cattle drive.

But the thing that really makes Land of the Pharaohs different is that whereas all these other ancient-world epics were religious, or at least metaphysical and philosophical, this is a movie about practical issues: how do you build something, how do you solve an engineering puzzle, how does an architect (whose job is very much like a film director's in this context) continue to supervise the work when his eyesight is failing? Though the Pharaoh is sort of religious in that his whole enterprise is based on a belief in life after death, the enslaved people led by James Robertson Justice don't seem to have any religion (Justice says only that he doesn't believe in life after death). And the conclusion the movie comes to is that what survives us is not our reputation, nor our wealth, but our work: if we work hard and create something really good, then that will be what keeps us alive after death. It's a theme that's so obviously related to the movies -- after all, what's keeping Hawks alive now is his work, the stuff he "built" -- that I'm amazed the auteur critics preferred to focus on a less interesting Hawks movie like Hatari! instead of this one.

It's also the last movie where Hawks really tried something different: all the movies he made after Pharaohs were in genres he'd tried before, and borrowed heavily from his earlier movies. Even if Pharaohs doesn't completely work, and it doesn't, it still is enjoyable to see Hawks doing a type of film he'd never done before -- and going much darker than he would ever go again. (I suspect that the negative reaction to this film was one of the things that put Hawks off ever making another movie that wasn't basically light-hearted, hence his unfortunate decision to rewrite Leigh Brackett's dark, tragic first draft of El Dorado into a Rio Bravo rehash.)

Oh, and one more thing: people often talk about Hawks's tendency to try and turn pretty young actresses into stars instead of casting his films with experienced leading ladies (unlike many people who tried this, he usually made good choices, as he did with Collins in this film). But he also tried to do this with young, inexperienced male actors too, and his biggest push for stardom was clearly with Dewey Martin. He cast Martin in three movies: The Thing, The Big Sky (why isn't that on DVD yet) and this one. It didn't work out, obviously.


Anonymous said...

I didn't think anyone could ever make me want to see "Land of the Pharaohs," but you've succeeded. Another filmmaker who unaccountably tried to make a star of Dewey Martin was Walt Disney. He cast Martin in the title role of four "Daniel Boone" episodes of his weekly TV show in 1960-61, evidently in the hope that Boone would enjoy some of Davy Crockett's popularity, and Martin some of Fess Parker's. Martin was more experienced than when he worked for Hawks, but he was still totally unconvincing as an 18th century frontiersman.

Anonymous said...

Whoah! Mike Barrier! Your blog has officially hit the big-time, Jaime!

I have nothing to say about Hawks other than that he's on my "To Watch" list, along with Roger Ramjet and WKRB in Cinciniatti, but nice post nonetheless.