Friday, April 21, 2017

Valley of the Kings (1954)

A square-jawed action hero who is also an archaeologist, and he’s searching for the fabled tomb of the Pharaoh Ra-Hotep but can he stay alive long enough to find it? This might sound like the plot of a lost Indiana Jones movie but in fact it predates Indy by more than twenty years. The movie is MGM’s big-budget 1954 adventure romp Valley of the Kings and it’s great stuff.

Mark Brandon (Robert Taylor) is a tough guy who worked as a labourer in some very rough places until he found employment on the Suez Canal project, which indirectly led to his discovery of his hitherto unsuspected passion for unearthing the treasures of the past. He transformed himself from a macho hardbitten labourer into a macho hardbitten archaeologist.

The year is 1900 and a meeting with Ann Barclay Mercedes (Eleanor Parker) is about to change Mark Brandon’s life forever. Ann is the daughter of a legendary archaeologist, now deceased. Her father believed that if the tomb of Ra-Hotep could be found it would contain evidence that support the Old Testament story of Joseph in Egypt and might possibly provide evidence that the Pharaoh in question was a secret monotheist.

For Ann it’s an opportunity to prove that her father’s theory wasn’t a crackpot idea and as she’s a devout Christian it’s also a way to promote her faith. For Mark Brandon there’s the remote chance that the tomb might actually be found, plus he’ll go along with most ideas if they’re likely to bring him into close contact with a beautiful young woman, although he cools a little on the scheme when he finds out that she’s married.

Her husband is Philip Mercedes (Carlos Thompson), a handsome but idle cosmopolitan dandy to whom Brandon takes an immediate dislike.

Ann’s father had come across some kind of clue to the location of the tomb and the plan adopted by our ill-matched threesome of treasure-seekers is to retrace the old man’s footsteps in his final journeyings before he died. This plan leads them to a remote Christian monastery, and to an important clue.

It soon becomes evident that people who take a keen interest in the location of Ra-Hotep’s  tomb have a habit of disappearing or turning up dead. In this instance it’s not some kind of course associated with the tomb - it seems far more likely to be a case of modern tomb-robbers wanting to keep a source of wealth to themselves. In any case it’s obvious that the search for the tomb is going to be hazardous in the extreme. Ann Mercedes and Mark Brandon are both immensely stubborn in their own very different ways and the dangers are not going to deter therm.

Adventures movies of the 50s have a reputation for leisurely placing (by modern standards) but that accusation can’t really be leveled at this movie. There’s plenty of action  and it doesn’t take long for that action to get going.

MGM spent a lot of money on this film, with a good deal of location shooting in Egypt. It was worth the trouble and the expense. The movie has a feeling of grandeur and majesty to it that fits in well with the themes of the story.

By 1954 Robert Taylor was no longer the young pretty-boy leading man of the 30s and 40s. He was starting to play darker more hardboiled roles in movies like Rogue Cop and his acting had improved markedly. Here he is ideally cast a fundamentally decent guy who is still rather rough around the edges. Eleanor Parker is excellent also. Ann is a strong woman but in a mostly very traditional way - she has genuine depth and strength of character rather than being a stereotypical movie tough cookie. The two leads have the right chemistry as well and that always helps.

Carlos Thompson was a very underrated Argentinian actor best known for the whimsical British 1963 action-adventure TV series The Sentimental Agent. As Philip Mercedes he’s all charm but perhaps not the sort of man to be wholly trusted.

This movie is available in the Warner Archive series. The print is acceptable but it’s far from pristine. In an ideal world a fine movie like this would get a full-scale restoration but alas we live in a far from perfect world. It’s a pity because the film was shot widescreen and in colour and with the wonderful Egyptian settings a restoration would pay spectacular dividends.

Valley of the Kings is a lavish and handsome production with well-executed action sequences and effective suspense. The standard of acting is rather better than is usual in 1950s Hollywood adventure flicks and the lead characters are at least somewhat three-dimensional. This movie is just great fun. Highly recommended.

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