Valley of the Kings (1954) DVD Review: The Other Precursor to Indiana Jones

The history of biblical epics in Hollywood, especially once filmmakers began to broaden their horizons and film on location (to say nothing of widening their aspect ratios to compete with television), is almost as unique as that chapter of history itself. Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 version of The Ten Commandments starring Charlton Heston‒ a film he had previously made 33 years earlier in Southern California ‒ was one of the first movies to actually shoot on location in Egypt. It was not, however, the first. Rather, that important footnote from cinematic history goes to MGM’s big budgeted international 1954 production Valley of the Kings, released more than two full years before DeMille’s most awe-inspiring epic hit the screen and made people see God.

Unfortunately, like the great ruins of Egypt such movies are commonly set around, Valley of the Kings and its equally unique history were buried by the sands of time not too terribly long after more “imaginative” titles were constructed and erected for audiences. For though it is technically carved from the same vein as the bona fide biblical epics of the same period, Valley of the Kings is about as rooted in religion (be it Christian or otherwise) as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ most famous collaboration, Raiders of the Lost Ark. In fact, were you to take Valley of the Kings, mash it with Charlton Heston’s 1954 adventure Secret of the Incas, and then toss in Raiders‘ “supernatural” element, you’d have a definite precursor on your hands.

Here, Robert Taylor ‒ looking like the American version of a very tired Peter Sellers ‒ plays Mark Brandon: a cynical womanizing archaeologist who knows how to handle not only his fists, but his rye, too. Out of the blue one day, a beautiful redheaded woman named Ann Barclay Mercedes (Eleanor Parker), daughter of one of the archaeological profession’s most distinguished names. Ann is eager to hire Mark to search for the legendary lost tomb of an ancient pharaoh ‒ not so they may plunder whatever treasure he may have been buried with, but to instead attempt to prove the existence of Joseph, who is not only in the Bible, but the Quran, as well.

Convinced she is in for a disappointment, Mr. Brandon accepts the challenge so he can spend some time with the alluring lass, only to have his own devilish grin wiped away once Ann’s chisler (heh) of a European husband Philip (Argentinean actor Carlos Thompson, during his very brief stint in US films) shows up to spoil all the fun. From the crowded markets of Cairo to the original location of the Abu Simbel temples, Taylor and Co. pursue rumors, shadows, and information that cost several people (including a sleazy Leon Askin) a lot more than their time. Several well done action sequences highlight this fun adventure, co-starring Kurt Kasznar and a faceless Victor Jory (who had previously concealed his face in Columbia’s 1940 serial, The Shadow).

Though a fun romp through ancient relics the movie may be, the Warner Archive transfer of Valley of the Kings is a grave (ha-ha, I’m on a roll here) disappointment overall, and is sadly comparable to the defiled tomb of King Rahotep itself. The actual image quality notwithstanding, Valley of the Kings is presented in a 1.78:1 transfer that has been zoomed in and has had the lefthand side of the picture cropped off entirely, to the point where things people are reacting to remain unseen (or only partly seen). I’m not sure why Valley of the Kings is presented in this way, especially seeing as how the credits and opening scroll are perfectly centered, so I can only speculate there had been some substantial print damage elsewhere (did I miss a disclaimer or something?).

While credited in some spots of the Interwebs as being a CinemaScope production, Valley of the Kings was apparently filmed in open matte and, more than likely, exhibited in a slightly matted form. A recent (well, by the timeline of this feature, at least) airing of the classic film on TCM presented the film in a 1.37:1 ratio, and even the original theatrical trailer included with this Warner Archive Collection DVD displays the same Academy ratio. The differences are very noticeable if you compare the two. Again, I have no idea why the movie is presented in this fashion (it’s better than VCI’s godawful cropped, non-telecined transfer of an already matted print of that Euro turkey Supersonic Man, although that’s a comparison few will be able to relate to).

Not to cast further stones at this print as if it accidentally muttered the name Jehovah, but even the European DVDs of this film are presented in 1.37:1. It’s annoying, yes, but whatever was done must have been done for a reason, so I’ll invoke Yul Brynner’s immortal words from The Ten Commandments ‒ “So it is written, so it shall be done!” ‒ and let it go now. Long story short, Robert Pirosh’s Valley of the Kings is an important motion picture (it even holds the record for being the first American film to premiere in Egypt!) which has finally been given a DVD release in the US. And although said release is certainly not what the film deserves, I recommended the movie itself just the same.

It’s certainly a dead king’s untouched tomb’s worth better than most of the “actual” biblical epics from the ’50s (or even today) any ol’ day, cropped or not.

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Luigi Bastardo

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