Judge Dylan Charles went to cult camp one summer. He didn't like the white robes and hours spent making flower chains, but the free love and interesting snacks made up for it.
The Barbarous Love that Left Egypt's Great Pyramid as Its Wondrous Landmark!
I have a…problem. When I see a movie labeled as, say, "bad" or "camp" or "cult," I go out of my way to see it. This is why I own copies of Nukie, Bats, and Rocky Jones, Space Ranger: Crash of the Space Moons. So seeing a collection of Cult Camp Classics gave me a case of the vapors and I needed some smelling salts to recover.
Unfortunately I picked Volume Four in the series, the Historical Epics. Now, I love history. I love bad movies. What's the worst that could happen if you combined these two great loves into one package?
Joan Collins steeped in bronzer for starters.
Facts of the Case
Land of the Pharaohs
The Colossus of Rhodes
I was expecting to have a good ol' time, either because Warner Brothers accidentally stuck three excellent movies in the Cult Camp Classics collection or because the movies would be so bad that they're funny (something akin to Hercules Unchained). Instead, I got three dull, plodding flicks that lost my interest in a myriad of ways.
The three films share one problem in common: they're in love with spectacle. Grand armies put together from casts of thousands. Beautifully elaborate soundstages. Themes of love set on a backdrop of sweeping historical change. Land of the Pharaohs has some of the most impressive crowd shots I've ever seen, with literally thousands of extras in full costume cheering their Pharaoh. The back of the box boasts that 9,787 extras were used for one scene. The Prodigal creates a version of Damascus that may not be historically accurate, but is still a damn fine thing to look at. And The Colossus of Rhodes (my favorite of the lot) has fight scene after fight scene, each one trying to outdo the last in terms of size and participants, culminating in the grand, climactic battle.
But spectacle is all there is; a beautiful extravagance covering up the fact that there's nothing even remotely interesting underneath. These movies are as if someone placed a fantastic serving dish in front of you, an ornate creation that Faberge might have designed. A serving dish that might have come from Tiffany's. Finally wrought metals with intricate patterns grace the surface of the lid, while various precious stones line the platter. You lift the lid of this gold plated, diamond encrusted dish and find nothing but five pounds of boiled potatoes underneath. And you have to eat every last one of those potatoes.
The Land of the Pharaohs managed to populate itself with characters that don't have a single interesting quality. It was a constant battle for me to try and figure out who I was supposed to be interested in. Was it the Pharaoh, a cold and cruel man who wanted to take it all with him? Was it the bland slave, who was acted with such flair that sometimes various pieces of the scenery outshone him? The self-righteous architect? The manipulative, scheming Nellifer? And then, to further disconnect the audience from the characters, Mr. Hawks graciously threw in criminally long montages of slaves building pyramids. There's only so many times you can watch limestone being cut before you lose any and all interest.
As for The Prodigal, Richard Thorpe took a fairly thin Biblical parable to begin with (son takes money, son spends it all on hookers, son asks for forgiveness, father gives it) and then stretches it into a 112-minute movie. The son is actually given a name in the movie, Micah, and a personality, too. Unfortunately, it's the personality of a spoiled brat. He does what he wants to do and then ends up in huge trouble because of his actions. His greatest heroic moment is less because of his own noble ambitions and more because it'll get him what he wants. There are some fun moments to be found, such as Micah's valiant struggle against a vulture on strings (a struggle he just barely manages to win), but these moments are buried beneath a slow plot dealing with a fairly unlikable man.
While The Colossus of Rhodes suffers from the same pacing problems as the other two films, Leone pulled off an overall better flick. This is more the kind of movie I was expecting when I first saw the Cult Camp Classics set. It's fun, lively, and filled with large scale action set pieces. Watching Rory Calhoun fighting armed guards on the Colossus itself is worth seeing, as is the destruction of Rhodes via earthquake.
There is one silver lining to these rather dank clouds, and that's the treatment Warner Brothers have given the films. They're all beautifully transferred, clean and clear. And the commentary gives you all the background you could possibly want to know about the films. Each commentary is given by a film historian. The commentary for Land of the Pharaohs has excerpts from an interview with Howard Hawks inserted in it. The excerpts vary in quality, and some of them can be difficult to make out, but it's interesting to hear the opinions of a director who doesn't like his own film. Christopher Frayling even gives background information on the real Colossus itself and he often has dryly funny comments about the flick. The commentary for The Prodigal is the driest, but still has its own interesting nuggets.
All I wanted was a couple hours of some fun, lively action films with a historical flavor. Instead I got Joan Collins overacting in Egyptian bronzeface. And wearing bright red lipstick. That's not an image easy to remove from your brain.
If you're looking for campy fun, rent The Colossus of Rhodes and one of the Steve Reeves' Hercules pictures. If you wish to experience the actual length of time it takes to build a pyramid, check out Land of the Pharaohs and The Prodigal.
Cult Camp Classics 4: Historical Epics is guilty of playing out the entirety of human history in real time.
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Scales of Justice, Land Of The Pharaohs
Perp Profile, Land Of The Pharaohs
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Land Of The Pharaohs
• Commentary by Filmmaker/Historian Peter Bogdanovich with Interview Excerpts of Director Howard Hawks
Scales of Justice, The Prodigal
Perp Profile, The Prodigal
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Prodigal
• Commentary by Film Historian Dr. Drew Casper
Scales of Justice, The Colossus Of Rhodes
Perp Profile, The Colossus Of Rhodes
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, The Colossus Of Rhodes
• Commentary by Film Historian Christopher Frayling
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