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Warner Home Video presents
Cult Camp Classics Vol. 4: Historical Epics (Land of the Pharaohs, The Colossus of Rhodes, The Prodigal) (1955/1961)

"Let pharaoh now, the living god of Egypt, speak and in the name of the gods, listen."
- Hamar (Alexis Minotis) in Land of the Pharaohs

Review By: Mark Zimmer   
Published: July 12, 2007

Stars: Rory Calhoun, Jack Hawkins, Joan Collins, Lana Turner, Edmund Purdom
Other Stars: Lea Massari, Georges Marchal, Conrado San Martin, Angel Aranda, Dewey Martin, Alexis Minotis, Sydney Chaplin, Louis Calhern, Audrey Dalton, Neville Brand, Taina Elg, Joseph Wiseman, James Mitchell, Walter Hampden, Francis L. Sullivan, Sandra Descher, John Dehner
Director: Sergio Leone, Howard Hawks, Richard Thorpe

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (violence, torture, graven images)
Run Time: 05h:44m:45s
Release Date: June 26, 2007
UPC: 085391145240
Genre: epic

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BB+B B+

DVD Review

If you're looking for high camp and cult, it's hard to not have an interest in the cheesy historical epic. Not the big budget extravaganzas like Ben-Hur, but the medium budget pictures that have to take some shortcuts, and can't really quite manage A-list actors. Nonetheless, there are still some interesting moments amongst the cheese, and often one can spot some major names either slumming or on their way up. This set collects three such movies (also available separately) that were released by MGM and Warner in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

The Colossus of Rhodes (1961) 02h:08m:23s

"People of Rhodes! The Colossus you built is now a nest for traitors!"
-Dario (Rory Calhoun)

In 280 BC on the island of Rhodes, the giant Colossus astride the harbor has just been built. Athenian prince Dario (cowboy star Rory Calhoun) is visiting the island for the unveiling and to dally with sinister princess Dalia (Lea Massari). But he is contacted by Rhodian rebels that mean to overthrow the wicked government of the island led by Prime Minister Thar (Conrado San Martin), who is in cahoots with Phoenician pirates. Fearing he has stumbled onto the plot, the Thar forbids departure from the island, leading in succession to torture, sword fights atop the Colossus, and combat in the arena to fulfill all of the requirements of the peplum.

While he had years of experience, this was the first director credit for Sergio Leone, some years before he became known for the Spaghetti Western. A fair amount of his visual flair is on display here, as is his taste for sadism (the torture chamber sequence would gratify Albert Gonzales in its devious cruelty). Calhoun often has a blank expression as if not knowing what he's supposed to do (though once he manages to get on horseback he looks a lot more comfortable). The effects work isn't convincing at all, with the models looking cheesy and adding to the campiness, though there is a nifty sequence where the Colossus dumps flaming oil onto a galley below. The cheese factor is hugely increased by the dubbing, which features Paul Frees as nearly every male character other than Calhoun, even though it makes sorting the many characters out rather difficult. And of course, lacking an ending, the entire island blows up for no apparent reason. It's somewhat nonsensical storytelling, moving from set piece to set piece in clumsy fashion, but it's still a hoot. The unfortunate side effect of being part of the Cult Camp Classics series is that we get only the cut American version, rather than the Italian original, running 14 minutes longer.

The Land of the Pharaohs (1955) 01h:44m:01s

"On the sands of the desert, you will raise a pyramid, a structure greater than any other in the world."
--Khufu (Jack Hawkins)

Howard Hawks and William Faulkner aren't exactly names that one generally associates with a de Mille-style historical epic, but here they are in ancient Egypt, a long way from Yoknapatawpha County. The story centers on the pharaoh Khufu (Jack Hawkins), a conquering man-god who obsesses about his proper tomb and keeping it secure from robbers long after his death. When he captures architect Vashtar (James Robertson Justice) in battle, he enlists his aid in designing the Great Pyramid, with promises that his people will be allowed their freedom when the tomb is completed. Meanwhile, princess Nellifer of Cyprus (a young Joan Collins in her first leading role) offers herself as a bride to the pharaoh in lieu of the island's required tribute. Khufu falls for her charms, but she has larger and grander plans up her sleeves, including eliminating the other wives and seizing the pharaoh's treasures for herself.

Hawks' main interest in the picture was as an engineering problem, with plenty of detail given to theories as to how the pyramids were constructed. The human element gets shunted aside quite often in favor of this and similar spectacles, with a literal cast of thousands laboring, dancing and marching. There's plenty of pageantry, but Khufu's obsession with the next life isn't given the attention that it ought to be accorded to make the story work. Collins is bodacious indeed as the scheming sexpot, but her character is so thinly drawn it's hard to tell if she has any talent at this point in her career. She's certainly easy on the eyes, though. It doesn't have the fun aspects that Colossus manages to create, but between Hawks' visual skills and a throbbing score from Dmitri Tiomkin, there's a fair amount of amusement value here.

The Prodigal (1955)

"Asham, I've drunk deep of every wine from here to Petra, and I've had my full share of women. Yet I'm behaving like a beardless boy, panting for the first forbidden fruit that he sees. A priestess who worships a painted graven image."
--Micah (Edmund Purdom)

The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is a well-known story, but lacking a bit in detail. Just what was the prodigal son up to when he was off living the high life? And what was wrong with his home life in the first place? The Prodigal attempts to answer those questions. Younger son Micah (Edmund Purdom) is a faithful follower of Jehovah in the town of Joppa in 70 B.C. Faithful, that is, until he sets his eyes on the blonde high priestess of Astarte, Samarra (Lana Turner) on her way through town. Obsessed, he pulls up stakes along with his mute slave Asham (James Mitchell) and follows her to Damascus. Although he enjoys the good living there, including prostitution, slavery, and random violence, he eventually has compunctions, leading to rioting in the streets and the familiar conclusion.

Obviously, a lot is made up out of whole cloth here, but director Richard Thorpe doesn't spare the spectacle in the process. In particular, the orgiastic celebrations of Damascus are well reenacted, with plenty of action and threatening characters lurking in the background. The central romance is an unlikely pairing, with a scantily-clad Turner behaving rather haughtily (as if she is too good to be appearing in the picture at all). They don't quite have chemistry, though Micah's fixation keeps any sort of relationship on an oddball footing to begin with. It doesn't help that Turner just seems far too modern-looking to be in ancient Damascus. There are some interesting subplots, such as Micah's refusal to shave off his beard in order to fit into Damascene society, an indication that he hasn't fully renounced the faith of his father. Although it's an early Cinemascope picture, Thorpe uses the frame well, using horizontal pans that emphasize the width factor and make the most of the format. The script and the players, unfortunately, are only mediocre, so that the visuals can't support the edifice. The main interest will of course be the naughtiness; the actual parable doesn't take more than a couple minutes of the running time.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio2.35:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Despite the age and goofiness of these pictures, they generally look pretty good. Colossus has colors that seem a little washed out, but there's little source print damage beyond occasional speckling. Pharaohs has a similarly subdued and even more sun-drenched appearance, though Collins' makeup looks a shade greenish at times. Edge enhancement is visible at times, and grain shimmer is a frequent issue. Detail is reasonably good, however. The Prodigal is the best looking picture in the set, with plenty of detail and texture. There are some problematic patterns that give rise to shimmer, but the grain structure generally looks natural enough.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The music on Colossus seems a bit distorted, though whether that's a side-effect of the Italian production limitations or in the transfer is unclear. Range is limited and bass generally absent, but the dubbing is quite clear. Pharaohs is similarly limited, although the score comes across without significant problems. There is some surround activity in the score. The Prodigal also offers a Dolby Surround track that includes some wide spread effects and music, while keeping the dialogue center-oriented. All three are quite clean tracks, with only nominal hiss or noise present.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 86 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French with remote access
3 Original Trailer(s)
3 Feature/Episode commentaries by 1) film historian Christopher Frayling 2) Peter Bogdanovich and Howard Hawks; 3) Dr. Drew Casper
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: Each disc features the theatrical trailer (oddly, nonanamorphic widescreen presentations) and a commentary. Leone biographer Frayling's commentary on Colossus doesn't take the picture too seriously, but he does provide plenty of information regarding Leone's style and links to Ben-Hur and Cabiria (1914). Director Peter Bogdanovich offers his own remarks on Land of the Pharaohs along with his own long-ago interviews with Howard Hawks himself, talking about the picture and his general philosophies of filmmaking. Even if you don't care for Bogdanovich's commentaries (I rather like them), the Hawks content is worth listening to. It does tend to get a bit repetitive since Bogdanovich doesn't have enough material to fill the entire running time and there are frequent silences. Dr. Drew Casper of USC offers a commentary on The Prodigal that sounds like he's reading, but he has plenty to say, with little dead air. It's a good set of commentaries for movies that one might not expect would get this kind of respect, so kudos are due on that front.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

An uneven set of spectacles, with Colossus of Rhodes providing the cheesiest fun of the bunch. The transfers are decent, and the commentaries are all quite good.


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