Pharaoh/Faraon (1966) ****

I had been familiar with Polish film Pharoah (1966) from a striking cover of British movie magazine Films and Filming and surprised at coming across the film while browsing YouTube I began watching without realizing there were no subtitles. I was so mesmerized by the visuals and the stunning camerawork that I could not stop watching.

There are as many versions of the Jerzy Kawalerowicz picture as director’s cuts of Blade Runner. The original clocked in at three hours. The version given limited showings in European countries was hacked down to under two hours. The DVD released in 2000 is limited to two hours, although the most recent DVD is 25 minutes longer. I suspect it was the latter that had ended up on YouTube since that version runs two hours and twenty-four minutes.  

Advert in Variety (May 4, 1966). Although little seen outside Poland it did well in Rome where it was a “smash” at the box office on the strength of a “sex-baiting campaign promising filmgoers a full dish of screen nudity approved exceptionally by the censors in the name of art” (“Shrew Paces Rome Box Office,” Variety, April 19, 1967, p64).

The story is relatively straightforward. The theme is power. Egypt is in decline when a fictional Rameses XIII (in reality only eleven bore that name) in ascending to power clashes with priests who seek to usurp his rule. That religion dominates Egypt is seen in the opening sequence where, rather than disturb two holy scarabs rolling a ball of clay, the priests take the army en route to battle out of their way. That leads to the destruction of a newly-built and much-needed canal, and the suicide of one of the loin-cloth-clad laborers working on the channel.

But that opening image and the director’s stunning use of the camera as well as the brilliance of the actors in depicting emotion through their eyes and facial expressions makes the film more than accessible despite the lack of sub-titles. This is a different Egypt to that conjured up by Hollywood and such desert-worshippers as David Lean. There is no beauty in a desert. Viewed as a waste, but one in which people have to live, through which foot soldiers have to trudge (rather than gloriously charge on camels), it is a lived-in reality, a great emptiness, devoid of mystery or splendor. The desert is a dead weight. Water is such a visual delight that in a brief scene on the river, the screen is at once bright and wonderful.

Barbara Brylska as the priestess-dancer who seduces Rameses. It is she who appears on the cover of “Films and Filming.”

Glory – temples, pyramids, jewellery – is man-made. But the whole enterprise is naturalistic. Men are bare chested, many clad only in loin cloths, priests are bald while the wealthy are attired in in heavy wigs.   What is not lacking is genuine historical detail. Hollywood had a habit of cherry-picking history for the items that would show up best on camera, but that is not the case here.  

What elevates the film is visual mastery and cinematic flair. Just opening an epic film with two dung beetles having a scrap on an arid plain and holding that image for the best part of a minute suggests a director of considerable talent. He follows this with over a minute of a reverse tracking shot following a soldier running who reveals a waiting army. There are a host of terrific visual scenes – a wild horse is impaled with spears as if in a Spanish bullring, the corpse of the suicidal laborer swings from a noose, cumbersome battles see soldiers surmount arduous dunes, golden doors open one after the other in the palace. 

Even in simple emotional scenes, Kawalerowicz knows where to place the camera and how to use it. The camera follows a woman as she enters a scene. She crouches down to the prostate Rameses. The camera remains on her as she retreats and he comes up to stop her and he remains out of shot as she moves away to the wall where, with her back to him, she begins to wail and then kneels down, hands raised in supplication. Another scene is shot in darkness except for Rameses in a white tunic and a seductress in a transparent dress.

The acting is uniformly good and even though the style is somewhat stilted Jerzy Zelnik as Rameses and the two women in his life, who bear the film’s emotional brunt, Krystyna Mikolajewska as his Jewish mistress and Barbara Brylska as a seductive priestess, are excellent.  Kawalerowicz was best known for Mother Joan of the Angels (1961). Pharaoh was the official Polish entry for the Cannes Film Festival and nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, up against the far more commercially viable A Man and a Woman from Claude Lelouche (the winner), Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Milos Forman’s Loves of a Blonde.

Treat the Youtube version as a sampler and if you are impressed you will find below a link to the DVD with Polish voices dubbed into English.

Book into Film – Elleston Trevor’s “The Flight of the Phoenix”

British novelist Elleston’s Trevor’s The Flight of the Phoenix (published in 1964) was a lean 80,000 words, a far cry from the blockbuster airport reads like Exodus by Leon Uris and James Michener’s Hawaii. But its length made it an ideal subject for a film, the shorter novel tending to stick close to the main story. The author’s speciality was authentic detail, an early career as a racing driver and flight engineer inspiring in him a love for all things mechanical. He knew what made things work and gaps in his knowledge were filled by assiduous research. He was an assiduous man, with 36 books since 1943 under ten pseudonyms, one being Adam Hall whose bestselling spy tale The Berlin Memorandum would be filmed as The Quiller Memorandum (1966). He had tackled aviation before, most prominently in Squadron Airborne (1955). But it’s worth comparing how this book was translated to the screen compared to The Berlin Memorandum, which, as discussed in a previous review, owed much of its screen personality to intervention by playwright Harold Pinter.

The film follows the book’s structure with only a couple of deviations. The main one was changing the nationality of the aircraft designer from British to German. Originally named Stringer he was a testy young individual prone to taking offence and going off in big sulks. There was a German in the Trevor version, Kepel, a young man who is injured in the crash. But there was no handy doctor on board and fewer different nationalities. To build up James Stewart as the heroic pilot and as a consequence to add meat to his clash with German designer Hardy Kruger, in the film he bravely goes out into the desert to find one of the passengers, but that does not occur in the book. Other changes were minor – in the book the passengers are occasionally able to supplement their drinking rations by scraping night frost off  the plane and at a later point in the book they drain the blood from a dead camel in order to dilute their drinking water. While there is an encounter with Arab nomads in both book and film, the movie’s approach to this incident is much more straightforward, ignoring some of the detail supplied in the book.  

Of course, a novel allows for the inclusion of far greater detail. And while that provides the skeleton for story development, Trevor gives greater insight into the characters than can be achieved on screen. The author allows each character an internal monologue, through which device we discover their motivations, history and fears. This approach combines the present with the past, presenting a more rounded cast of characters. While the inherent tension of the situation drives the story along, the author switches between characters to keep the reader fully engaged. The cowardly sergeant (played by Ronald Fraser in the film) is the biggest beneficiary, portrayed as a more sympathetic person than in the film. The book is a stand-alone enjoyment, Trevor’s writing skills, his grasp of character, creation of tension and his  engineering knowledge (bear in mind he invented the idea of building another plane out of the wrecked one) make the novel every bit as enthralling as the film.  

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) ****

Take twelve condemned men, drop them in the desert hundreds of miles from safety with only enough water to last two weeks, and nothing to eat but dates, and make them work together to effect salvation from their predicament. Not exactly the premise for The Dirty Dozen (1967) but not far off. Flight of the Phoenix appears a dummy run for director Robert Aldrich’s more ambitious war picture, not least because in terms of structure it is only eight minutes shorter. There are no women in the picture (except those appearing in a mirage) and the men, of all different types, must come together or die in the savage heat.

You might argue that the audience for this kind of picture no longer exists. In the 1960s there was a big market for the Nevil Shute/Hammond Innes/Elleston Trevor type of novel which contained a lot of practical detail at a time when heavy industry – mining, shipbuilding, oil, car manufacture – was a massive employer and the ordinary man had an easy understanding of – and was often fascinated by – the principles of engineering. Bear in mind that this was the era of space rockets and there was excitement about man’s planned flight to the moon.

During a sandstorm a small twin-engined plane carrying passengers from an oil field crash lands in the Sahara. James Stewart as the pilot was a casting trick. In a previous aerial adventure No Highway (1951), Stewart was the ordinary joe challenging authority. Here he is the authority figure challenged and part of the film’s guile is the way he has to concede that authority to the one person on board everyone hates, arrogant German aircraft designer  Hardy Kruger. The global job lot of passengers includes: two soldiers, martinet officer Peter Finch and his mutinous sergeant Ronald Fraser; Richard Attenborough as an alcoholic navigator; oil worker Ernest Borgnine on the brink of insanity; Scotsman Ian Bannen reprising the sarcastic troublemaker of previous desert drama Station Six Sahara (1963); Frenchman Christian Marquand as a doctor; veteran Dan Duryea as the company accountant; Italian Gabriele Tinti; George Kennedy and Alex Montoya; plus a monkey of no fixed abode. The monkey, incidentally, is cleverly utilised. He’s not a sentimental or cute device, there to soften a hard guy or for comic relief, but Aldrich often cuts to his squeals or his face when there is imminent danger.

Two passengers are already dead, one is seriously injured. They have been blown so far off-course they will be impossible to locate. There is only enough water for ten or eleven days. It is a given in such circumstances that tempers will explode and hidden secrets surface. Were they guaranteed rescue those two pegs would be enough to hang a movie on.  Since there is no such guarantee, this becomes a picture about survival. The obvious manoeuvre comes into play on the fifth day. Finch determines to walk to safety, over 100 miles in deadly heat. But it’s not a trek picture either, the engineers present know the risks. Mountains will cause false compass readings and those going will walk around in circles.

What? I can get that magnetism in the mountains can affect a compass but where does the walking round in circles enter the equation? Because, explains Attenborough patiently, a person does not automatically walk in a straight line if there is no actual road. If right-handed then you’ll walk in a left-hand direction because the right leg is more developed than the other and takes a longer stride and there’s nothing you can do about it. This doesn’t matter if you are walking along an actual path but in the desert with no road markings it’s lethal. And this is the beginning of a bag of what would otherwise be deemed trivia except that such facts are a matter of life and death. This is a movie about reality in a way that no other realistic or authentic picture has or will be. Physics is the dominant force, not imagination.

Finch’s sergeant fakes an injury to avoid going. The mad Borgnine, originally prevented from leaving, sneaks away in the night. James Stewart, in courageous mode, goes after him. While he is away, Kruger carries out a character assassination. And continues on his return – “the only thing outstanding about you is your stupidity.” By now though, Attenborough has warmed to Kruger’s insane idea of building a single-engined plane out of the wreck of the twin-engined one. And that becomes the crux of the story. Can they build this weird contraption? Will they manage it before they die of thirst? Will rising tensions prevent completion? Are they fit enough after days in the boiling heat to manage the herculean tasks involved?

Aldrich keeps psychological tension at fever pitch, helped along by the pessimistic Stewart and the wildly pessimistic Bannen, needling everyone in sight, who delivers lines like “how I stopped smoking in three days.” Stewart and Attenborough have to come to terms with the parts they played in the plane crashing, Fraser with his cowardice. Issues arise over leadership and water theft.

I won’t spoil it for you by mentioning the incident that threatens to demolish the entire project. But the finale is truly thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff and the skeletal monstrosity being constructed looks hardly capable of carrying the monkey let alone a full complement of passengers. Aldrich is a master of the group shot with unerring composition and often movement within the frame or just a simple bit of business by an actor, for example George Kennedy at one point tapping his hand against his leg, ensuring that the film does not solely focus on a couple of characters. Sometimes all Aldrich needs to make his points are reaction shots.

Aldrich called on Lukas Heller for the screenplay, having worked with him on Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964). Aldrich’s son William and son-in-law Peter Bravos had bit parts, killed off during the crash.

Flight of the Phoenix virtually invented the self-help rescue genre that relied on ingenious mechanical ideas – rather than more simplistic notions – such as later absorbed in movies like Apollo 13 (1995) and The Martian  (2015). Aldrich’s mastery of group dynamics would stand in him in good stead for The Dirty Dozen. A terrific movie and well worth seeing.

See also also the companion piece – Book into Filmwhich is posted tomorrow.

Station Six Sahara (1963) ***

David Lean spent months in Jordan capturing his vision of the desert for Lawrence of Arabia. Seth Holt was granted no such luxury, a few weeks at Shepperton Studios in England to make this British-German co-production.  

It is a surprisingly tight and effective drama made on a low budget excepting whatever fee induced Hollywood star Carroll Baker to join. Five men trapped on an oil pipeline maintenance unit drive each other to distraction. Loud Scot Ian Bannen constantly needles stiff upper-class Denholm Elliott while overbearing German boss Peter Van Eyck cheats at poker. The arrival of steely-eyed German Hansjorg Felmy alters the status quo as he refuses in his own quiet way to knuckle down to authority.

There is a wonderful psychological battle going on between Bannen and Elliott. Extremely envious of the number of letters Elliott receives, Bannen offers a month’s pay for just one. When the offer is accepted, Elliott cannot stop fretting about what he might have given away and what secrets it revealed about himself.

The arrival of Carroll Baker upsets the equilibrium further as the men attempt to win her affections. While apparently promiscuous, she is steelier than the lot of them, and tensions climb high when she begins to spread around her favors. Interestingly, she does no wooing but waits for men to come to her.

Given the budget restraints, or possibly because of them, it is surprisingly well directed. Two scenes stand out in directorial terms. In one featuring Bannen and Elliott, the Scot is only partly visible behind a piece of furniture but his dialogue continues even when out of sight. In the other, one of Baker’s suitors finds her door locked and as she is about to reply a hand appears (not in aggressive fashion) to cover her mouth, indicating she already has chosen her bedmate. Naturally, this can only lead to a grim end.

The cast of male unknowns are uniformly good but Baker steals the show as you would expect. Given the times, there was no nudity, but the overt sexuality certainly skirted the bounds of what passed as decency and Baker is alluring however little or much she wears. But her sexuality takes second place to her individuality. Her independence will not be surrendered to a man. Despite the budget restrictions it stands up very well.  

it’s available on Blu-Ray on the first link and – for the moment at least – on Amazon Prime on the second link.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Station-Sahara-Blu-ray-Carroll-Baker/dp/B082BWZJBS/ref=sr_1_1?crid=1LW9ORGYKB9FT&dchild=1&keywords=station+six+sahara+blu-ray&qid=1594809012&s=dvd&sprefix=station+six+sahara%2Cdvd%2C153&sr=1-1