The first Cinemascope movies of the early 1950s, starting with The Robe, were mainly sword-and-sandal epics with prestigious casts lined up in a row and declaiming stodgy dialogue. Because the widescreen was not used very imaginatively by many of these film’s directors, you could be excused for thinking that the process was invented just so that torches could be seen burning to the extreme right or extreme left of the actors in the center of the frame. Most of these projects, made to compete with TV, are dutiful and enervated and lack any redeeming sense of fun. Warner Bros. gathers three of them for this fourth volume of their Cult Camp Classics collection.
Howard Hawks, of all people, had a go at one of these Cinemascope spectaculars, Land of the Pharaohs, in the mid-‘50s. By all accounts, it was an unhappy experience for the director. Set in Egypt, it is mainly a wearying parade of extras marching and building pyramids. The constant spectacle starts to feel contemptuous after a while, as if Hawks were saying, “Is this what you want? Well, fine…here’s some more camels.” Hawks was dependent on bringing out distinctive star personalities in his best movies, and he is stymied here by a wooden Jack Hawkins and an amateurish Joan Collins. It’s probably Hawks’s worst effort, and sent him into semi-retirement for a few years.
The next film in the set, The Prodigal, is incredibly boring stuff, MGM gloss at its thin-blooded end, with Lana Turner sleepwalking through her role as a barely-dressed high priestess who worships pagan gods. The third film, The Colossus of Rhodes, was the first directorial credit for Sergio Leone, and thus has a built-in curiosity factor. It’s well shot and exciting, with many prolonged fights and derring-do; no one takes the material seriously, least of all its beefcake star, Rory Calhoun, who amiably grins his way through it. These three films are not really cult material, and they aren’t campy either, but Hawks and Leone fans might want to check out their entries.
The color is quite dark on Land of the Pharaohs and The Prodigal, and grainy on The Colossus of Rhodes. The soundtracks are generally thin and unimpressive, even on the English 2.0 surround tracks lavished on Land of the Pharaohs and The Prodigal.
It's much more interesting to watch these films with their commentary tracks. Peter Bogdanovich does a game job of giving context for Land of the Pharaohs, with Hawks's own grumblings about the film interpolated in. The inimitable Dr. Drew Casper tells some Miss Lana Turner anecdotes and provides other niceties for Prodigal, and Christopher Frayling, a Leone biographer, does a witty, informative job on The Colossus of Rhodes.
A disappointing set. If you want real camp, look to other volumes in the series.