Land of the Pharaohs

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
Land of the Pharaohs - poster.jpg
Directed byHoward Hawks
Produced byHoward Hawks
Written byHarold Jack Bloom
William Faulkner
Harry Kurnitz
StarringJack Hawkins
Joan Collins
Dewey Martin
Alex Minotis
Music byDimitri Tiomkin
CinematographyLee 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 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.


In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins) is obsessed with preparing his tomb for the "second life". Dissatisfied with his own architects' offerings, he enlists Vashtar (James Robertson Justice), an ingenious man whose devices nearly saved his own people from being conquered and enslaved by Khufu. Khufu offers to free Vashtar's people if he will build Khufu a robber-proof tomb - although Vashtar will have to die when the pyramid-tomb is completed, to guard its secrets. During the years that the pyramid is being built, Pharaoh demands tribute and labor from all his territories, amassing a great wealth of gold and treasures that will be interred with him.

Home Video VHS cover

Princess Nellifer (Joan Collins) comes as the ambassador of the tributary province of Cyprus. Claiming her province is poor and cannot afford to pay the assigned tribute, she offers herself to Pharaoh instead. She becomes Khufu's second wife.

Nellifer questions whether Khufu really had as much gold as he says, so she is shown an enormous hoard of fine gold artifacts and jewels, and more in an inner vault that Khufu is saving for his "second life." She puts on an ornate, jewel encrusted necklace which Khufu angrily demands she remove. After he leaves, she puts it on again, and dares Treneh (Sydney Chaplin), the captain of the guard, to take it from her, which he does gently. Later, Nellifer starts an affair with Treneh, who has become besotted with her.

One day on the construction site Vashtar's son, Senta (Dewey Martin), saves Khufu from being crushed to death by a runaway stone block. In order to get the injured Khufu out of the pyramid to help, Senta reveals that he too knows the tomb's secrets, knowing that he must now share his father's fate. A grateful Pharaoh offers him anything else within his power; Senta chooses Nellifer's slave Kyra to save her from being whipped for her fierce independence.

Using a cobra obtained from a snake charmer with the help of Treneh, Nellifer plots to assassinate first Queen Nailla and her son Zanin, then Khufu, leaving her to rule Egypt. First, Treneh persuades Khufu that there is a rich hoard of treasure in a tomb far to the north, in order to draw him away from the palace. Then Nellifer gives Zanin a flute to practice and teaches him a tune the snake will be attracted to. Queen Nailla sees the snake approaching Zanin and throws herself on it to save her son.

Hearing of the queen's death, Khufu sends out investigators to look for snake charmers. Panicking, Nellifer dispatches her servant Mabuna to kill Khufu at the oasis, but Mabuna only manages to wound Khufu before being killed. Suspecting Nellifer, Khufu rushes back to the city. In her chambers he overhears her and Treneh plotting; he kills Treneh in a sword fight, but is himself fatally wounded. The Pharaoh, before dying, sees Nellifer wearing the necklace that he deliberately took from her earlier, and then dies while calling out for his High Priest and lifelong friend Hamar (Alexis Minotis, billed as Alex Minotis).

After Khufu's death, Hamar, suspecting what Nellifer did and deeming the tomb truly robber-proof, even for Vashtar and Senta, releases them from their death sentences, allowing them to leave Egypt and return to their homeland with their people as part of a plan to deal with Nellifer.

During Pharaoh's funeral, Hamar has Nellifer accompany him into the burial chamber because she "must give the order" to seal the sarcophagus. When her order is obeyed, it releases a large stone in a lower chamber, triggering Vashtar's mechanism to seal the tomb. Nellifer goes into hysterics when told the tomb is being sealed, realizing she is trapped. "There's no way out," Hamar tells her, adding: "This is what you lied and schemed and murdered to achieve. This is your kingdom."


Dewey Martin and Luisella Boni


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.

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]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Schallert, Edwin (June 23, 1955). "'Land of Pharaohs' Colossus of Films". Los Angeles Times. Part III, p. 11.
  2. ^ a b 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. ^ a b 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.

External linksEdit