AFI Catalog of Feature Films
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Land of the Pharaohs
Director: Howard Hawks (Dir)
Release Date:   2 Jul 1955
Premiere Information:   New York opening: 26 Jul 1955
Production Date:   late Mar--early Sep 1954
Duration (in mins):   103 or 106
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Cast:   Jack Hawkins (Khufu, the Pharaoh)  
    Joan Collins (Princess Nellifer)  
    Dewey Martin (Senta)  
    Alexis Minotis (Hamar)  
    James Robertson Justice (Vashtar)  
    Luisa Boni (Kyra)  
    Sydney Chaplin (Treneh)  
    James Hayter (Vashtar's servant)  
    Kerima (Queen Nailla)  
    Piero Giagnoni (Prince Zanin)  

Summary: In 2900 B.C., Egyptian pharaoh Khufu, who is considered a living god by his people, returns from war with his soldiers, laden with stolen treasure and slaves. After reuniting with his wife, Queen Nailla, and his loyal and wise priest, Hamar, Khufu turns his attention to planning a burial vault, which will safely house his treasures and the needs of his afterlife. Aware how easily he has raided the tombs of others, Khufu orders his architects to draw plans for an impenetrable tomb, but none can devise a structure that will keep his wealth safe throughout the ages. With admiration, Khufu remembers how a defeated Kushite city was so skillfully laid out that his army nearly perished trying to overtake it, and sends for the enslaved architect and leader of the Kushites, Vashtar. After negotiating for the release of his people when the tomb is completed, Vashtar presents an ingenious design: An elaborate labyrinth of passage, in which the only access point to the inner sanctum will be completely filled with huge stones after Khufu is laid to rest. Vashtar explains that walls of heavy stone will be stacked on sand-filled jugs and when the jugs are broken, the sand will pour out and the stones fall down into place, setting off a chain reaction until the whole structure, except for the inner chamber, is solid stone. Because only Hamar and Vashtar are familiar with the design of the labyrinth, Vashtar knows that, upon Khufu’s death, he will be executed to keep the maze’s secret intact. Hamar will be entombed with his ruler and childhood friend to assist him in his next life. Thousands of willing laborers, recruited by Khufu with promises of an afterlife, joyfully begin the building of the tomb, singing as they work, despite the difficulties of quarrying and cutting the stone, dragging it to the site and then securing it on the rising pyramid. After fifteen years, the quarries are depleted and the men, now exhausted, are beaten if they stumble under the heat of the sun. Meanwhile, Khufu has grown less tolerant and more obsessed with the tomb. Needing funds to feed the laborers, Khufu claims tributes from his conquered countries. Only Princess Nellifer from Cypress refuses his demands, telling Khufu that he must choose between possessing her or his tribute. She is whipped because of her insolence, but her pride impresses Khufu and before long, he makes her his second wife, unaware that she has seduced Treneh, the captain of the guards, into aiding her in seizing Khufu’s power and wealth for herself. Nellifer gives Nailla’s son, Prince Zanin, a flute and while he plays it, secretly releases into his room a cobra trained to respond to music. Seeing the cobra poised to strike her son, Nailla throws herself upon it and dies from its venom. Over the years, Vashtar’s sight has diminished, so his son Senta learns the way through the labyrinth to help his father. Although he tries to keep his knowledge secret, one day Senta and Khufu are alone in the sepulchre when a stone falls and injures the pharaoh. To prevent the pharaoh’s death, and therefore, his father’s, Senta carries Khufu through the maze to seek medical help, knowing that he will later be put to death because of his familiarity with the labyrinth. In gratitude, Khufu offers Senta a reward of anything but long life, and Senta asks for the slave Kyra, who has been mistreated by Nellifer, and soon the two slaves fall in love. When Khufu survives an assassination attempt that she planned, Nellifer frames Treneh for the attack and tricks Khufu into fighting him. Although he kills Treneh, Khufu is mortally wounded and before dying, realizes that Nellifer, who wears a necklace stolen from his burial treasure, has betrayed him. Hamar realizes that when the tomb is sealed, the knowledge of the labyrinth will no longer present a threat and orders that Vashtar and Senta be released with their people after the burial. During the burial ritual, Hamar tricks Nellifer into entering the sepulchre to pay the pharaoh last respects. He seals the tomb, and after the new queen realizes that she is trapped inside with him, Hamar tells her that this is the kingdom for which she schemed and murdered. Outside, Vashtar, Senta and Kyra watch the tomb’s stones fall into place and then begin their journey home.
 

Production Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
  Continental Co., Ltd.  
Production Text: A Continental Co. Ltd. Production
A Continental Company Ltd. Production
Distribution Company: Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc.  
Director: Howard Hawks (Dir)
  Paul Helmick (Asst dir)
  Noel Howard (2d unit dir)
Producer: Howard Hawks (Prod)
  Arthur Siteman (Assoc prod)
Writer: William Faulkner (Wrt)
  Harry Kurnitz (Wrt)
  Harold Jack Bloom (Wrt)
Photography: Lee Garmes (Photog)
  Russell Harlan (Photog)
Art Direction: Alexandre Trauner (Art dir)
Film Editor: Rudi Fehr (Supv ed)
  V. Sagovsky (Film ed)
Costumes: Mayo (Cost des)
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin (Mus comp and cond)
  Jester Hairston (Choir coord)
Sound: Oliver S. Garretson (Sd)
  Bob Lane (Sd ed)
  Stanley Martin (Sd ed)
  Ed Scheid (Sd ed)
Special Effects: Don Steward (Spec eff)
  ronald Chiniqui (Spec eff)
Make Up: Ann Locker (Hairstylist)
  Emile LaVigne (Makeup artist)
Production Misc: Chuck Hansen (Unit mgr)
  Maisie Kelly (Scr continuity)
Country: United States
Language: English

Music:
Songs:
Source Text:

Copyright Claimant Copyright Date Copyright Number
Continental Co., Ltd. 2/7/1955 dd/mm/yyyy LP6831

PCA NO: 16995
Physical Properties: Sd: RCA Sound System
  col: WarnerColor
  Widescreen/ratio: CinemaScope

 
Genre: Epic
Sub-Genre: Historical
 
Subjects (Major): Architects
  Egypt
  Khufu of Cheops
  Obsession
  Pharaohs
  Pyramids
 
Subjects (Minor): Accidents
  Blindness
  Cobras
  Duplicity
  Fathers and sons
  Femmes fatales
  Funerals
  Greed
  Infidelity
  Laborers
  Live burial
  Looting
  Luxor (Egypt)
  Mazes
  Mothers and sons
  Murder
  Mutes
  Priests
  Princesses
  Quarries and quarrying
  Queens
  Religion
  Romance
  Self-sacrifice
  Slaves
  Taxation
  Treasure
  Whips and whippings
  Wives
  Wounds and injuries

Note: The opening title credit reads "Warner Bros. Pictures Presents Howard Hawks' Land of the Pharaohs ." Voice-over narration by Alexis Minotis as “Hamar” is heard intermittently thoughout the film.
       As depicted in the film, Khufu, who was known by the Greeks as Cheops, was the second ruler of Egypt’s fourth dynasty and the builder of the Great Pyramid of Ghiza, in the necropolis of ancient Memphis, not far from Cairo. The pyramid, which took over twenty years to build, originally reached a height of 481 feet and, until the 19th century, was the tallest manmade structure on earth. Named one of the Seven Wonders of the World, it is the only one of those wonders still in existence. Although some modern sources suggest that the pyramid was built by slave labor, others theorize that workers were paid to build it during the flood season when flood water could be used to move the stones over great distances. Because the pyramid’s contents had been looted before archaeologists discovered it, the genesis and purpose of the structure has been open to speculation. However, the generally accepted belief, based on hieroglyphics found on its walls, is that it was built to be Khufu’s tomb. Solar boats, which were discovered in 1954, may have been used to carry Khufu’s body to the burial site or, as the film suggests, placed there for Khufu’s use in the afterlife.
       In a Sep 1954 NYT article, producer-director Howard Hawks said that he vacationed in Europe after completing the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and was trying to develop a story idea “about manpower” that would “prove an ideal subject for CinemaScope.” While yachting near the south of France, he met an Egyptian archeologist who told him stories about Cheops. After hearing how the pharaoh demanded the work of 100,000 men for twenty years to build his tomb, Hawks interested Jack L. Warner, whom he encountered on the Riviera, with his idea for a film about the building of the Ghiza pyramid. Although Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning novelist William Faulkner, Harry Kurnitz and Harold Jack Bloom are credited onscreen with the screenplay, a Jun 1955 Sat Rev article reported that Faulkner, Kurnitz and Hawks worked together on the script. Faulkner claimed that he had “merely sketched scenes in his dialogue, expecting Hawks and the actors to work it around to their liking on the set." A Jan 1954 DV news item noted that “in a reversal of the pix-to-tv trend,” Hawks hired the entire television camera crew from Meridian Pictures, headed by co-director of photography Russell Harlan, all of whom were granted a leave of absence for several months so they could shoot Land of the Pharaohs overseas.
       A Jun 1954 HR news item stated that portions of the film were shot in Rome. According to various articles and HR production charts, the majority of the film was shot in Egypt, in the area around the real Pyramid of Ghiza, which appears at the end of the film as itself, in the scenes showing the completed tomb. A Jun 1955 HCN article describes how special effects man Ronald Chiniqui supervised a crew of ninety-seven Egyptian laborers, who scrubbed the western face of the pyramid to make it appear new. The crew also plastered and painted framework to hide broken and missing stones that were lost to looters over the past centuries. For scenes showing the pyramid under construction, the film crew dug a ninety-foot deep pit at the site of an unfinished excavation. Elsewhere they built a ramp and foundation the size of the original pyramid, where thousands of extras were filmed pulling huge stone blocks, according to a NYT article.
       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, according to the NYT and Var reviews, 9,787 actors were filmed in one scene. The NYT article stated that Hawks had between 3,000 and 10,000 extras working each day during the fifty-plus day shooting schedule. The government supplied the extras, half of whom were soldiers in the Egyptian Army, according to a Dec 1954 LAT article.
       Several reviews noted that the cast was mostly unknown to the American public. Of the leads, only Dewey Martin and Sidney Chaplin were from the United States. Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, James Robertson Justice and James Hayter were British. Luisa Boni was Italian, Kerima was French Arabian, according to the NYT article, and Alexis Minotis was a star of the Greek National Theatre. HR news items add David Muss, Paul Steffan, Valerie Camille and Bud Thompson to the cast, although their appearance in the film has not been confirmed.
       The HR review praised Dimitri Tiomkin’s score by stating, “…it is doubtful if this Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc. CinemaScope epic would be nearly as exciting without the tremendous symphonic background…it is almost impossible to separate the story from the music.” According to a Dec 1954 HR news item, Tiomkin included reproductions of musical instruments used in the era of the Pharaohs, but in an article in Film Music , he stated that he did not try to recreate the music of that time. The orchestra was augmented with a chorus of eighty singers, who were individually handpicked by Jester Hairston, the noted Los Angeles choir director.
 

Bibliographic Sources:   Date   Page
Box Office   25 Jun 1955.   
Daily Variety   15 Jan 1954.   
Daily Variety   21 Jun 55   p. 3.
Film Daily   22 Jun 55   p. 6.
Film Music   May-Jun 1955.   
Hollywood Citizen-News   27 Jun 1955.   
Hollywood Reporter   2 Apr 1954   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   3 May 1954   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   29 Jun 1954   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   30 Jul 1954   p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter   27 Aug 1954   p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter   14 Sep 1954   p. 1, 8.
Hollywood Reporter   3 Dec 1954   p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter   31 Dec 1954   p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter   21 Jun 55   p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter   18 Jul 1955   p. 6.
Los Angeles Times   26 Dec 1954   p. 8, 9.
Los Angeles Times   23 Jun 1955.   
Motion Picture Herald Product Digest   25 Jun 55   p. 489.
New York Times   5 Sep 1954.   
New York Times   27 Jul 55   p. 15.
Saturday Review   25 Jun 1955.   
Variety   22 Jun 55   p. 6.

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.
 
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