Ramses is a headstrong, impatient, impulsive, hunky young son of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Sarah is a charming, somewhat silly, sincere and musically gifted Jewish girl from the other side of the Pyramids. Can this unlikely couple find romance in the midst of wartime rumbling from the neighboring nasties in Assyria, the growing debt in the royal treasury and the various scheming from the bad ol’ baldies who rule the Egyptian priesthood?
Such is the emotional core of “Pharaoh,” one of the more curious sword-and-sandal flicks of the 1960s. This film was actually a Polish production and it was also an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film, although for its American DVD release the English dubbed edition is being used (and the dubbing is quite good, by the way).
Most films approach ancient Egyptian with pomp and circumstance and plenty of camp. Consider the various tales of Cleopatra or “Land of the Pharaohs” or “The Ten Commandments”–not much in the way of hard intellectual consideration, but lots of spectacle tied to good looking folks in revealing costumes clearly having the times of their lives.
“Pharaoh” does have plenty of spectacle, and Jerzy Zelnik’s Ramses spends most of the movie revealing a physique that will make the girls swoon. But unlike the American spins on pyramid power, “Pharaoh” does not have a speck of camp in its body. The film plays the various political, economic and theological rumblings with such solemn and stoic seriousness that watching the film is about as laborious as building a Sphinx on a hot Egyptian afternoon. Based on a novel by Boleslaw Prus, the film tries so hard to recreate the daily protocol and practices of ancient times that it provides very little in the way of genuine entertainment. At times, “Pharaoh” feels like a live-action recreation of a plodding documentary; all that is missing are the tweedy talking heads explaining what was going on and why we should give a hoot.
In fairness, the film is a beautifully conceived and produced undertaking. Jerzy Wojcik’s widescreen cinematography brilliantly captures the vast desert landscapes and the film’s production is so intricate that it is a tribute to the research and design skills of everyone involved in its creation. The one anachronism are the songs sung by Sarah and the high priests: for some reason, the original lyrics from the Polish-language version were kept for the English release, making it seem the old Egyptians took a left turn at Krakow on their way to Alexandria.
But in putting so much emphasis on historic accuracy, filmmaker Jerzy Kawalerowicz forgot to put a diverting story at the heart of the epic. What results is a massive production with a minuscule soul. The Ramses-loves-Sarah love story is not very interesting, nor can any fun be found in the various machinations erupting around them. Everyone plods through the film with such grim faces that it would seem the ancient Egyptians were a bunch of sourpusses. And we won’t even get started on an evil Jewish character named Hiram, whose exaggerated physiognomy and crude behavior goes way over the border into offensive territory.
Die-hard Egyptologists may find this film utterly fascinating as a massive anthropological exercise, but the average moviegoer who prefers entertainment to edification will do better to spin a 45-rpm of “Walk Like an Egyptian” than to pay tribute to “Pharaoh.”
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