Land of the Pharaohs

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Land of the Pharaohs
Land of the Pharaohs - poster.jpg
Directed by Howard Hawks
Produced byHoward Hawks
Written by Harold Jack Bloom
William Faulkner
Harry Kurnitz
Starring Jack Hawkins
Joan Collins
Dewey Martin
Alex Minotis
Music by Dimitri Tiomkin
Cinematography Lee Garmes
Russell Harlan
Edited byVladimir Sagovsky
Warner Bros.
Continental Company
Distributed byWarner Bros.
Release date
  • June 22, 1955 (1955-06-22)(LA [1] )
  • July 2, 1955 (1955-07-02)(US [2] )
  • May 3, 1956 (1956-05-03)(UK [3] )
Running time
106 minutes (US)
103 minutes (UK) [2]
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.9 million (estimated)
Box office$2.7 million (US) [4]

Land of the Pharaohs is a 1955 American epic film in Cinemascope and WarnerColor from Warner Bros., produced and directed by Howard Hawks, that stars Jack Hawkins as Pharaoh Khufu, also known as Cheops, and Joan Collins as his second wife Nellifer. The film is a fictional account of the building of the Great Pyramid. Novelist William Faulkner was one of the film's three screenwriters.


Land of the Pharaohs had a cast of thousands Warner Bros. press office claimed there were 9,787 extras in one scene [5] and was one of Hollywood's largest-scale, ancient world epics, made in the same spirit as The Robe , The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur .


Hamar, Lord High Priest of Egypt and boyhood friend to Pharaoh Khufu, chronicles his reign. Khufu has amassed a fabulous treasure with which he is to be entombed and only wants two more things in this life: a son and heir and a secure tomb free from the threat of grave robbers. Dissatisfied with his own architects' offerings, he enlists Vashtar, whose agreement he gains by offering to free Vashtar's people when the work is completed - although Vashtar will have to die to guard the pyramid’s secrets. Later Vashtar demonstrates to Khufu and Hamar how he will seal the entire pyramid with a solid stone in a matter of moments once Pharaoh's body and treasure are within.

The years pass and Hamar, Khufu, his queen Nailla and Vashtar visibly age. Khufu now has a young son, Prince Xenon, and Vashtar's son Senta is now a young man. The people of Egypt who once thought of the building of the pyramid as holy work now view it as bringing a lifetime of misery and drudgery. When outlying territories are laid under tribute, Princess Nellifer comes as the ambassador from the poor province of Cyprus and offers herself to Pharaoh instead, eventually becoming his second wife.

While Khufu is showing Nellifer his enormous hoard, she is allowed into an inner vault where the Pharaoh is saving the finest of the treasure for his "second life." She puts on a jewel-encrusted necklace which Khufu angrily demands she remove. After he leaves, she puts it on again and dares Treneh, the captain of the guard, to take it from her. In the end he becomes besotted with her.

Due to long hours working by candlelight, Vashtar's eyesight is failing, so he shares the secret of the tomb and gets his son to help him. One day on the construction site, Senta saves Khufu from a runaway stone block. In order to get the injured Khufu out, Senta reveals his knowledge of the tomb and so must now share his father's fate. Promised anything else as a reward, Senta chooses Nellifer's slave Kyra. When Nellifer protests, Pharaoh harshly rebukes her in front of the court.

Home Video VHS cover Land Pharaohs.jpeg
Home Video VHS cover

Humiliated, Nellifer conspires with Treneh to purchase a cobra to kill Queen Nailla while he is away at an oasis. After being informed of the queen's death, Khufu begins investigations. Nellifer then dispatches her servant Nabuna to kill Khufu at the oasis, but he only manages to wound Khufu before being killed himself. Seeing Nellifer's slave and now suspecting her, Khufu rushes back to the city, where Nellifer manipulates him into a sword fight with Treneh. Though Khufu wins, his old wound is reopened and he collapses from blood loss. As he lies dying, he recognizes the forbidden necklace that Nellifer is wearing and realizes her guilt.

After Khufu's death, Hamar releases Vashtar and Senta from their death sentences: once the tomb is sealed the secret will not matter. Nellifer is angered, however, to find that Hamar has already had the treasure moved to the tomb and learns from him that she will not rule in Egypt as Prince Xenon’s regent until she herself gives Pharaoh burial. To appease her, Hamar lets it be known that he and the mute priests who assisted with the building will be entombed along with Pharaoh.

At Pharaoh's funeral, Hamar has Nellifer accompany the body into the burial chamber to give the order to seal the sarcophagus, but she then realizes that she is trapped there herself by the swiftly moving machinery. "There's no way out," Hamar tells he; “this is what you lied and schemed and murdered to achieve. This is your kingdom."

At the end, Vashtar and Senta are seen on the way to their homeland and looking back to gaze at the pyramid.


Dewey Martin and Luisella Boni Dewey Martin-Luisella Boni in Land of the Pharaohs.jpg
Dewey Martin and Luisella Boni


Pharaoh costume by Mayo, with Hawks' notations Pharaoh costume by Mayo - with handwriting by Hawks.jpg
Pharaoh costume by Mayo, with Hawks' notations

Hawks had between 3,000 and 10,000 extras working each day during the fifty-plus day shooting schedule. The government supplied those extras, half of whom were soldiers in the Egyptian Army.

The film was shot on location in Egypt and in Rome's Titanus studios. For scenes showing the pyramid under construction, the film crew cleared the sand away from a ninety-foot deep shaft that was part of the unfinished pyramid of Baka. Elsewhere, they built a ramp and foundation the size of the original pyramid, where thousands of extras were filmed pulling huge stone blocks. Other scenes were shot at a limestone quarry at Tourah, near Cairo, and at Aswan, a granite quarry located 500 miles away. At these sites, 9,787 actors were filmed for one scene.

The costume designs are the work of French painter and costume designer Mayo, who worked on Les Enfants du paradis (1945) and La Beauté du diable (1950). [6]

When the Pharaoh was inspecting, and rejecting, the Egyptian architects' models for his tomb, the third model he looks at is a model of the actual interior of the pyramid built for Khufu.[ citation needed ]


Lacking a big name cast, Land of the Pharaohs was unsuccessful at the box office, earning $450,000 short of its $3,150,000 production budget.

A. H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote that "while it is impressively sweeping in its eye-filling pageantry, this saga of the building of a colossal pyramid 5,000 years ago is staged on the creaky foundation of a tale of palace intrigue that must have been banal even in the First Dynasty." [5] Variety wrote, "While shy of proven draw value in cast names, the Howard Hawks production for Warners makes up for the lack of romance, adventure and intrigue played against a grandioso backdrop of actual story locales populated with teeming masses of thousands upon thousands of extras." [7] Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times wrote: "Hawks has invested his subject with enthralling spectacle from the first victorious march home of the Pharaoh with his captives. The actual story can hardly be designated as having an equally grand concept, and is made exceptional mainly by technical devices." [1] Richard L. Coe of The Washington Post wrote that the technical aspects of the film "will provide moments of complete fascination," but thought that screenwriter "Faulkner, abetted by Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom, has laid a Hollywooden egg." [8] Harrison's Reports wrote that the film "grips one's attention throughout," due to the "overwhelming grandeur and vast production values" and "fascinating story." [9] The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote: "The attraction of such epics as Land of the Pharaohs lies almost entirely in their incidental detail, since whatever the period in time, the situation is predictable and the players are doomed to remain within the limitations of Hollywood's historical imagination. It says much for Jack Hawkins' Pharaoh (a performance of integrity and surprising vigour) that it surmounts the occasional absurdities of dress and unlikely figures of speech, even if we remain unconvinced that he is a living god." [10]

The film was banned in Egypt on the grounds of "distortion of historical facts." [11]

Land of the Pharaohs was Howard Hawks's first commercial failure; it caused him to take a break from directing and to travel through Europe for several years. Hawks made his next film, Rio Bravo (1959), four years later; this was the longest break between two feature films in his career.

Cult Status

The film has drawn more interest over the years and has been defended by Martin Scorsese, French critics supporting the auteur theory, and for numerous elements of its physical production. Danny Peary in his book Cult Movies (1981), selected it as a cult classic. [12] The film currently holds 75% "fresh" rating at the film review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes based on 8 reviews. [13]

In a 1978 article Martin Scorsese listed the film as among his favorites

I'd always been addicted to historical epics, but this one was different: it gave the sense that we were really there. This is the way people lived; this is what they believed, thought, and felt. You get it through the overall look of the picture: the low ceilings, the torchlit interiors, the shape of the pillars, the look of the extras. There's a marvelous moment when the dead are being taken away from battle in their coffins, and someone says, "Let us hear the gods of Egypt speak." The camera pans over to one of the statues of the gods, and it talks. That's it-the statue talks! You don't see the mouth moving, you just hear the voice. Then they pan over to the other god-and now he talks. Soon there are about four gods talking. You're never told, "This is how they did it: it was a joke, a trick." In a sense, you're taken into confidence by the Egyptians; you're let in on a religion. I watch this movie over and over again. [14]

See also

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  1. 1 2 Schallert, Edwin (June 23, 1955). "'Land of Pharaohs' Colossus of Films". Los Angeles Times . Part III, p. 11.
  2. 1 2 Land of the Pharaohs at the American Film Institute Catalog
  3. The Times, 2 May 1956, page 3: Review of Land of the Pharaohs, which states that the film opens "at the Warner Cinema to-morrow". Retrieved from The Times Digital Archive 2013-08-09
  4. 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1955', Variety Weekly, January 25, 1956
  5. 1 2 Weiler, A. H. (July 27, 1955). "'Land of the Pharoahs' Is Standard Saga". The New York Times . 15.
  6. Yeatman-Eiffel, Evelyne (2012). Mayo. France: pp. 143–150.
  7. "Film Reviews: Land of the Pharaohs". Variety . June 22, 1955. 6.
  8. Coe, Richard L. (July 1, 1955). "Faulkner Wrote This One With One Finger". The Washington Post 42.
  9. "'Land of the Pharaohs' with Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins and Alexis Minotis". Harrison's Reports . June 25, 1955. 102.
  10. "Demetrius and the Gladiators". The Monthly Film Bulletin . 21 (249): 143. October 1954.
  11. "Egypt Bans U.S. Film 'Land of the Pharaohs'". Los Angeles Times . December 11, 1955. Part IA, p. 17.
  12. Peary, Danny. Cult Movies , Delta Books, 1981. ISBN   0-517-20185-2
  13. "Land of the Pharaohs". Rotten Tomatoes . Retrieved April 20, 2019.
  14. Martin Scorsese's Guilty Pleasures Scorsese, Martin. Film Comment; New York Vol. 14, Iss. 5, (Sep/Oct 1978): 63-66.