The director is a genius, but the film is a turkey.
So Peter Bogdanovich is anxious to tell us on the commentary track for Howard Hawks’s sword and sandal epic, Land of the Pharaohs. His commentary is not so much a scene-by-scene analysis as a couple of recorded interviews with Hawks introduced at strategic moments in the film. In comparison to some of the best commentaries, Bogdanovich’s work suffers from three flaws:
1) It starts with the conclusion as a premise and so uses the film to illustrate the premise rather than prove it.
2) Bogdanovich tends to summarize for you the quote you are about to hear from the director. This might makes sense if the quote needs some sort of context or explanation, but it is unnecessary when the exchange is something relatively straightforward such as Hawks saying that there weren’t any sympathetic characters in the film. I wonder how much this problem has to do with Bogdanovich’s role as a film historian of sorts…someone whose access to the greats of the past is as much a commodity he trades in as is the work he produced. There is a difference between being a good interview and being a good critic, and Bogdanovich appears content for the moment to tell stories from his personal history of interactions rather than to do formal analysis. Not that he can’t do the latter. The best parts of the commentary are when he makes the occasional formal comment–how deep into the movie we go before there is a close up; how Hawks pans and stops during a crowd shot to allow for logistical problem solving with only so many extras; how (and why) Hawks seldom used slow-motion; even how English actors may fare better than Americans at period pieces because they are trained to do Shakespeare.
3) It’s repetitive.
Given the range of Hawks’s pictures, one of Bogdanovich’s more interesting comments is that Hawks’s fans would probably not recognize Land of the Pharaohs as a Hawks picture unless they were told. (Of course, he then goes on to point out touches that are characteristic of Hawks throughout.) Since Hawks dealt with a range of material–Bringing Up Baby, Scarface, Rio Bravo, Sergeant York, The Thing–this comment would have to mean something more than that the film was in a genre that was uncharacteristic to him. One always want to defend one’s favorite artists by explaining away their failures, and I think there is a little of that in Bogdanovich’s commentary. Then again, he will concede at times, when a scene doesn’t work or is shot in a rather pedestrian manner, that Hawks may have lost interest in a project that he could not figure out.
I don’t believe in making a hierarchy of genres, but the film did make me think about the question of whether certain directors’ styles are better suited for certain subject matters. One will often praise actors for their range, meaning their ability to avoid typecasting, but turn around and praise directors for being Hitchcockian or Spielbergesque, for developing an maintaining a distinctive style. Hawks, it seems to me, had less of a distinctive style–so much so that he could let the material dictate. Perhaps it is because the Cinemascope epics needed to be more stylized that he struggled with this piece.
Struggle he unquestionably did. He reports both in the audio commentary and in his 1956 interview with Cahiers du Cinema (reprinted in the Andrew Sarris edited anthology Interviews with Film Directors) that he and friend William Faulkner struggled with the story because they had no idea how a pharaoh talked or acted. He lamented that one might get the surface details right from hieroglyphics–costumes, settings, adornments–but had to guess at human details.
One might ask, why then did he make the picture? (Especially given the fact that he spoke with some pride about refusing to sign a studio contract so as to not be forced to work on projects he did not care to do.) The answer is somewhat telling:
I made this film for one simple reason: Cinemascope. At the time I was approached to direct a film in this new screen size, I was considering as a project the story of an astonishing feat of construction in China during the war. The American army wanted an airfield which the engineers estimated would take eight months to construct. The Chinese supplied twenty thousand men and women, who carried stone in little baskets on their heads, and this huge airfield was completed in three weeks. I was about to abandon this project because the political situation made cooperation with Red China impossible; the producers then considered shooting in Thailand. It then occurred to me that the building of the pyramids was the same kind of story–it too demonstrated what man is able to create with his bear hands from sand to stone. This kind of story appeals to me tremendously. (229)
It is not surprising then that the engineering scenes and concepts are the most interesting in the film itself. I’m almost tempted to say that the director is the artist most like an engineer and that Hawks might have been pretty adept at directing a modern action picture if he had lived long enough and cared to do it. The script solution strikes me as simple; so simple, in fact, that I think I must not be understanding something since both Hawks and Faulkner were smarter than I am. Why not make the film about the engineers? Why make the film about the pharaoh and the queen and all the machinations? Doing the latter, for one, keeps pulling the film away from the actual making of the pyramids, which is what interests Hawks. It also confronts the audience with the fact that all of this artistic and engineering achievement is for a questionable purpose. Why not reverse the A & B stories and focus on Senta and Treneh, the slaves who figure out how to meet the needs of the pharaoh in order to preserve their lives and win a chance at freedom for their people? The film might have worked as a piece something like The Agony and the Ecstasy, with comments about the nature of inspiration and an examination of artists as problem solvers. If the point was to film in Cinemascope, than why make the vistas the framing device for a melodrama that could, let’s be honest, be shot on a sound stage?
Actually, Hawks may very well have figured out that (or some other) solution, just too late. An interesting feature of the interview with Cahiers is that although it appears prompted by the release of Pharaohs, both Hawks and the interviewer appear to treat talking about that film as a bit of a formality. Hawks’s previously cited quote about Cinemascope carries with it the tone of a director who is already apologizing for a critical or commercial failure, and the interview itself moves on to talk about Hawks’s general philosophy and future projects. When Cahiers asks him what he learned about working in Cinemascope, Hawks’s answer is revealing:
We have spent a lifetime learning how to compel the public to concentrate on one single thing. Now we have something that works in exactly the opposite way, and I don’t like it very much. I like Cinemascope for a picture such as The Land of the Pharaohs, where it can show things impossible otherwise, but I don’t like it at all for the average story. Contrary to what some think, it is easier to shoot in Cinemascope–you don’t have to bother about what you should show–everything’s on the screen. I find that a bit clumsy. Above all, in a motion picture, is the story. (231)
Hawks does go on to speak of the “visual plane” and “dramatic plane” as having a give and take. What I take from this comparison is that he is talking about pure spectacle (back to the idea of the action film). Perhaps one can speculate that Hawks views the elements of mise en scene as tools to shape a story rather than elements with which to experiment. Is he a craftsman rather than an innovator? The “we” in the above quote does hint that Hawks may even be creating a hierarchy himself–placing the artist who is fluid in current techniques on a higher plane than the one who is speaking new languages. Ultimately, however, it’s more about the result than the process. When asked what the “ideal” film is, Hawks’s response focuses on its effect rather than on the process of getting it: “There has never been a picture so good the public didn’t care to see it” (239). He repeats twice that he has no desire to make a picture for himself or his own pleasure, and opines that, “Fortunately, I have found that what I like most people also like, so I only have to let myself go and do what interests me” (239).
That’s fortunate for the viewer as well.