Why are most of today’s costume dramas so freaking dull? In the days before Star Wars, no screen genre was a more reliable source of action-packed popcorn entertainment. Representing the field’s three chief subcategories—biblical (1955’s The Prodigal), Greco-Roman (The Colossus of Rhodes, Sergio Leone’s 1961 directorial debut) and “other” (Howard Hawks’s 1955 Land of the Pharaohs)—the films in this box set don’t quite fit in with Attack of the 50 Foot Woman and the other entries in Warner’s “Cult Camp Classics Collection.” Sure, they’d elicit plenty of snickering from a revival audience at Film Forum or MoMA, but in the living room they come off as breezy pulp melodramas rather than heaping platters of cheese.
The main attraction is unquestionably Pharaohs, a lavish curiosity sandwiched between Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Rio Bravo on Hawks’s résumé. Though William Faulkner is one of three credited screenwriters, the film is as accessible as Light in August is obtuse. Hinging on the ancient Egyptians’ unshakable faith in the afterlife, Pharaohs allows the young Joan Collins to deliver a career-defining femme fatale performance as a Sudanese princess scheming to relieve Egypt’s ruler (Jack Hawkins) of the dazzling jewelry he plans to take to the grave. Its production values are as sumptuous as those in Colossus are hokey—yet while the Leone film is the most Mystery Science Theater 3000–worthy of the the three, the spaghetti-Western auteur’s visual imagination (and an engaging, trivia-laden commentary track by Leone biographer Christopher Frayling) more than compensates for the cornball performances. The films are available individually, but the buy-two-get-one-free pricing of the box justifies a look at The Prodigal, which stretches Luke 15:11-32—a 508-word parable—into a 112-minute soap that lets Lana Turner show acres of skin.