When he was asked why he made Land Of The Pharaohs Howard Hawks replied “I made this film for one simple reason: Cinemascope”. He wanted to try making an epic somewhat like Cecil DeMille. He didn’t care for the way DeMille made his films, but he had to admit they worked.
Land Of The Pharaohs is rather interesting. However, it wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if Dimitri Tiomkin hadn’t written a rousing score. Its DVD cover calls it a “cult camp classic”. But I think the film would have been deadly dull without the music provided by Tiomkin.
How the film came to be
Howard Hawks was an armchair engineer. Ever since he was a young lad he had been fascinated by how things worked, or how they came to be. When he had completed Gentlemen Prefer Blonds he vacationed in Europe and pondered what his next film would be about. Already knowing it was going to be in Cinemascope he set about trying trying to create a story idea “about manpower”. He first thought about depicting the construction of an airfield in wartime China. The idea sounded a bit too much like the John Wayne film The Fighting See-bees directed by Edward Ludwig. Plus the political situation in post revolutionary China made filming there totally impossible not to mention rather unhealthy – being shot and killed for being a capitalist was an ever present concern. With that story idea quickly out of consideration he looked for a story idea that would “prove an ideal subject for Cinemascope”. During his vacation he encountered a young Egyptian archeologist who filled his head with tales of the time of Khufu. Hawks was entranced with the story of how the pharaoh had one hundred thousand men build his tomb – a task that took twenty or so years to accomplish. Hawks tracked down Jack Warner, told him about Khufu, and the great pyramid, and with the blessing of the studio proceeded to start casting the film. Knowing where he wanted to film and what he wanted to film made the scouting of locations almost unnecessary. The question was to who to cast in the film.
Whose playing whom ?
Hawks was a man with an idea for a film, but not much else. He tapped Sydney Chaplin for the role of the pharaoh Khufu, but waffled when Jack Hawkins drew vast acclaim for his performance in The Cruel Sea which Hawks saw soon after its release. Hawkins had a commanding presence on screen, something Chaplin didn’t, and would a much more believable pharaoh.
When it came to casting the role of Princess Nellifer Hawks knew exactly who he wanted. He wanted the Swiss actress Ursula Andress to play Nellifer and provide the sex appeal. But another studio, Paramount in this case, signed her before Warner did and she became unavailable. Hawks next choice was to screen test British actress/model Ivy Nicholson. Things went somewhat well till she came to the scene where she had to bite Jack Hawkins hand. She chomped down on his hand just a little too enthusiastically and unfortunately made a lasting impression. After that incident Hawkins refused to have anything else to do with her. Ivy was sent packing and Hawks looked to Britain again to supply him with his Princess Nellifer. After a series of actresses were tested and found wanting he tested Joan Collins. She had the training supplied by RADA, the physical attributes supplied by nature, and looked good in a bikini. This was her first major Hollywood production, but it almost came to a premature end when American censors objected, citing her navel as the reason for the objection. When a paste jewel was glued over the offending navel Princess Nellifer had been found.
Hawks knew who he wanted for the role of Senta. He had worked with him some years before in the movie The Thing From Another World. Dewey Martin was available and immediately cast as Senta.
The music isn’t music at all
When the film score was released on compact disc in late 2007 actor and screenwriter Milton Luban reviewed the film for The Hollywood Reporter. It called the film “Land of the Pharaohs a Stupendous Spectacle”. It went on to say that he thought the music was one of the stars. It went on to say “In fact, it is doubtful if this Warner Bros. CinemaScope epic would be nearly as exciting without the tremendous symphonic background created by Tiomkin. As in Lost Horizons, it is almost impossible to separate the story from the music.”. Much has been said and written about this film, that it’s a failed attempt at an epic. That may be true. But Dimitri Tiomkin scored and conducted the music in such a way that the music rescues this film. Hawks didn’t try to hide the fact that he thought he “failed”. The film may eventually become a guide of what not to do when making an epic. But take the music alone and you have the music of a true epic. Tiomkin even employed a tactic he used when he wrote the music for the film Lost Horizon. When he wrote the lyrics for the High Lamas funeral a great many people thought it was some obscure Tibetan dialect. But in truth they were utter gibberish. In the sequence when the Egyptian people start to build the pyramid they are singing – but utter gibberish that Tiomkin wrote to evoke the period and the sound.