' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Valley of the Kings (1954)

Friday, July 14, 2017

Friday's Old Fashioned: Valley of the Kings (1954)

“Valley of the Kings” opens with Ann Mercedes (Eleanor Parker), daughter of a renowned archaeologist, entering an archaeological excavation site overseen by dashing Mark Brandon (Robert Taylor), seeking his help in finishing her father’s lifelong quest to prove the Old Testament account of Joseph is true by finding an undiscovered tomb which connects to the pharaoh Ra-Hotep and antiquities in his name. That Mark acquiesces is initially due to Ann’s obligatory comeliness, though he and we learn fairly quick she is, in fact, married, to Philip played by Carlos Thompson from the get-go with a sinewy anti-charm that allows for Mark, and us, to distrust him instantly. Why Ann ever loved him in the first place, considering she is written and played by Parker with a hardy level-headedness, who knows, because the movie doesn’t really seem to and doesn’t care to know either. But whatever, Philip is out to get them, and so Ann and Mark will fall in love, though their love, despite the apparent real life off screen fling between Parker and Taylor, is conspicuously short on palpable ardor. What’s more, the film’s through line of Ann’s affirmation of faith continually gets lost along the way.


This narrative muddle can likely be traced back to “Valley of the Kings’” production which, based on several accounts, seems to have been a tad tumultuous. Parker laid blame at the feet of director Robert Pirosh, going so far as to say he didn’t know what he was doing. Pirosh, on the other hand, laid blame at the feet of the studio for operating on behalf of the movie’s stars, demanding changes that he didn’t want to make. With everyone feuding, it is tempting to speculate that legendary cinematographer Robert Sirtees, who shot “Ben Hur” amongst many others, became as much a director as Pirosh, and this speculation is enhanced by the film’s photography being the primary selling point.

In titling their movie MGM was not being flip; they up and went to the Valley of the Kings, the swath of tombs bearing ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. That wasn’t as easy over half a century ago, of course, and “Valley of the Kings” earned the distinction of being the first major Hollywood production to film in Egypt. They revel in it straight away, the opening shot an expansive one of innumerable extras set before the Pyramid of Giza. And while that might seem quaint now, what with Instagram inundated by shots of the most ancient of The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as seen from inside the adjacent McDonald’s, back then seeing such exotic sights on the silver screen would have been novel. And Sirtees ensures that we see the landscape, no matter what may be going on in the foreground.

One of the film’s most spectacularly photographed scenes is the climactic tete-a-tete between Mark and Philip atop Ra-Hotep’s tomb, which is pieced together without music, accentuating the rawness of the legit locales, and it includes many wide angles to reinforce the idea that, yes, they are really there. That authenticiy is rendered just as acutely, if differently, in another fight scene in which Mark is made to battle with Salah, leader of a Tuareg tribe that rescues he and Ann from a brutal sandstorm, but who questions whether they are mere grave robbers or true believers. That is an interesting question and one the film really could have wrestled with, not only to make Ann’s ultimate affirmation of faith come home but to unpack its own intentions, whether the production was there for any higher purpose other than showing off the scenery to a public that might never get to see it. In the end, I am not sure it was.

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