While on holiday in Spain I had one of those really pleasant serendipitous TV experiences that mark out my TV-watching career. My second or third post on this blog was about the films 633 Squadron and the original Wicker Man, both shown back to back just before New Year’s Day. While I didn’t anticipate these, I often do find myself wishing for films and then, sure enough, within days, they appear on TV.
I had just returned from the beach, had a sleep, had a pizza and loads of chocolate (as you do on holiday), put my feet up on the sofa and started scanning the channels for something to watch. It was about 9.55pm and Telecinco news ends then and most films start around about then. I flicked the channels and saw what looked like a parade in ancient Egypt. I thought, ‘Hmm, dodgy Spanish history programme’ because the colour was like Cinerama or something but no! It actually was the 1955 film Land of the Pharoahs. Only days before, just after I had arrived in Spain, I had laid on the bed and remembered this film. I thought, ‘What I really fancy right now is watching that old Pharoah film. Been a long time since I saw it’. And now here it was.
It has been a long time since I last saw it -probably 10 years or more, and several things struck me about it. The first thing was all these crowds of people singing joyfully as Pharoah did his annual whatevercelebration. Nobody does serene chanting like Hollywood and you have to smile, and the naivety of it is just so endearing. Its like the 60s before the 60s – perhaps a nascent sense of ‘what would it be like to be in a world of peace and love.’ Of course none of the chants mean anything and the slaves are well hidden (I am sure they weren’t chanting) but its all in good fun.
Then there are these Big Boots. Well actually they aren’t boots but coffers to be placed in sarcophagi. The first time we see them, five generals have died in battle and there is Pharoah (played brilliantly, if a little stiffly by Jack Hawkins) saying they will have nice tombs and a good afterlife. The crowd lift up the coffers and they really were so badly made – probably from papier mache, that they looked just like giant boots. The foot ends were way-too-big. It made me smile. But then later in the film, near the end actually (don’t want to give it away for anyone who hasn’t seen this marvelous film) Pharoah himself has a coffer and of course is a really BIG coffer, a F— O– coffer in fact. That made me laugh. It all looked like some strange ancient game of football, where the foot was the ball and size was everything. There is no doubt who the winner here was.
Of course the story is pure bunkum but very enjoyable bunkum, with a point. Pharoah is building his tomb inside the pyramid and really wants it to be impossible to break into. He captures an army and a guy (Played by James Roberson-Justice in one of his more fluid roles) who is a wizard architect and who designs him the ultimate unbreakinable tomb. Pharoah says ok, I will release your people a few at a time until its finished as long as you stay here and are entombed with me, because you know the secret. But then along comes steaming Joan Collins as the sultry Princess of Cyprus. She seduces Pharoah and gets her hands on his treasure. The rest is a moral play and very capably handled by all but with Jack Hawkins taking full honours for portraying a vulnerable Pharoah, trying to live up to expectations and showing a degree of shrewdness and sadness as Pharoah’s life becomes more chaotic.
Now, the film is actually a piece of history itself but I still love to watch these old films. The directors knew they were going for three things: Grandeur, fun and a good moral element and this film at least, largely pulls it off. Anthony and Cleopatra did too, although with far more complexity and a much bigger budget. Ben Hur was another one, which although it appears wooden now, as seen from a distance, nevertheless has some fantastic scenes and lines. The scene where Messala (played by Stephen Boyd), mortally wounded, grips Judah Ben-Hur’s arm from his deathbed and growls at him vitriolically, “It’s not over yet!” and gives Judah a clue as to the depths of Messala’s cruelty and spitefulness, is a classic and I have recently seen it copied in another film. The baddie, about to die, who reveals some awful fact to the winner, out of spite, has been done over and over, but never better, I think.
I miss these old films.