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Legend OF THE Lost

Legend of the Lost
MGM Home Entertainment
1957 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 108 min. / Timbuctù / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $19.98
Starring John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Rossano Brazzi, Kurt Kasznar
Cinematography Jack Cardiff
Art Direction Alfred Ybarra
Film Editor Bert Bates
Original Music Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Written by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell Jr.
Produced & Directed by Henry Hathaway

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

An okay adventure that's short on thrills and long on scenery, Legend of the Lost is mostly interesting just for the ability to see its stunning Technirama visuals, shot by the legendary Jack Cardiff. Exec producer John Wayne wisely chose to film this so-so story on real Libyan locations, augmenting his own appeal with the new Italian star attraction, Sophia Loren.


Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi) arrives in the Sahara, throwing money in all directions to get a personal safari going. On pack mules, adventurer Joe January (John Wayne) takes Paul on a long trek into the center of Saharan nothingness, eventually accompanied by prostitute Dita (Sophia Loren). It turns out that Paul is an idealist following a trail blazed by his philanthropist father, who claimed to have found the lost city of Ophir, and its fabled treasure. But the new trio of fortune hunters don't realize they're retracing the steps of the earlier expedition, which ended in jealousy and murder.

Basically a picture about a long walk through the desert, Legend of the Lost's very dusty script is enlivened by some good performances. Starting in the cleanest French-African desert town one can imagine, we see a bit of everything - the jail, a nightclub, a private dance, a brothel - all of it looking completely spotless. Wayne's Joe January (no more foolish-sounding than Indiana Jones, when it comes down to it) is a typical worldly-wise Yank adventurer in debt to a sneaky French colonial policeman (Kurt Kasnar), who agrees to take a mysterious European on a journey to an undisclosed spot in the Sahara. Sophia Loren tags along, a head-turning beauty whose presence can only be excused through accepted movie convention. She's clearly the most dazzling thing on the equator, but the script has Wayne treating her like she's nothing, even calling her a chippie ("I like my chippies in a room!").

The elemental story allows Wayne's character to stay rock solid until the end, when he softens a bit, an unusual event in a film with the Duke. But the noble explorer and the whore travel a story arc that transforms each of them, revealing their base natures. The desert 'purifies' all who voyage on it, so they say. At least that's how the script reads. Sophia is supposed to be the sexual catalyst who makes all this happen, but her attraction is too obvious for the slow reveal of the script. Bonnard has a disillusioning crisis when he finds out his father wasn't the saint he thought he was. He falls apart completely, literally restaging the betrayals and violence of the the first expedition. There should be a chill of foreboding when the trio find three skeletons, whose positions and wounds tell the story of a fight over a woman that ended in murder, but it's all just too pat. Jam three super-attractive stars into a script like this, and what should be predictable, is sometimes tedious.

Under the circumstances, we pay a lot of attention to the physical details. Bonnard and Joe take just enough food and water for two, but when Dita joins up, there's no apparent problem in the rations department. One of the six pack animals must be the bar mule, for we count three fifths of whiskey, and two or three flasks, that keep appearing whenever somebody wants to get emotional or have a good time - Joe's immediate thought when chasing Dita's skirt, is to bring a bottle with him. The booze is mostly thrown away or broken in fights, but the water situation is even weirder. When the H20 runs out, these shortsighted adventurers do what movie types always do - a canteen runs dry, you toss it. At one point Joe empties his last flask of whiskey, to supplant it with water. When that runs out, they toss that too. Obviously, giving Wayne 'business' to perform (he flings things away from him in his dramatic and effective personal style) was more important than logic. When they find the obligatory water hole in the last scene, they have nothing to put it in. Wayne tosses so much stuff out-of-frame in this show, it needs a Parental Guidance Cautionary Litterbug Warning.

What was meant to be a King Solomon's Mines in the desert is nowhere near as compelling as it should be. The lost city is indeed impressive, but not in the mysterious way the suggestive Angeleo Lavagnino score would have us believe. It's more of a National Geographic marvel, seen in a widescreen splendor that does give us pause - thousands of ancient people lived here, ages ago, carrying on prosperous lives. The Romans thought enough of the place to put in impressive statues, and haul all those stone columns across the desert ... that's more interesting than the film's attempt to reduce the drama to a mystery of an expedition just 20 years or so previous.

The star of Legend of the Lost is Jack Cardiff, that amazing Technicolor cameraman who specialized in shooting in tough locations. The variety of desert moods is limited, but he makes it look a lot more than just pretty - some of the soft pastel mountains in the background start to look like painted backdrops, they're so perfect. Even when using the occasional interior set for a night camp, Cardiff's judgment and taste prevail. And the principals are always evenly lit and attractive, without the tell-tale giveaway of multiple shadows from studio lights. An early example of a Technirama (squeezed VistaVision) film, just keeping the exotic cameras running properly way out in Africa must have been a major expense for this picture.

As in his not-very-accomplished Garden of Evil, producer-director Henry Hathaway makes Legend of the Lost a trek movie that drags. We've had our fill of desert by the time we reach the lost city, and the final couple of reels is even more generic action under the hot sun. The klunky script is told straight, but not improved upon with any specific director's vision. As Wayne became more in charge of his own films, Hathaway would be his frequent collaborator, a strong man who told stories straight and didn't hog the limelight.

Given all the script's punchlines, Wayne comes off rock-solid. Rossano Brazzi has an impossible character, yet is almost convincing. We're going to like Loren no matter what she does, and her bathing scene (behind a strategically placed donkey) and her peek-a-boo torn shirt do the work for her while she gets acting experience. How does one play a prostitute in the 1950s? Loren does just fine for what the film requires.

MGM's DVD of Legend of the Lost does for this picture what we wish would be done for all older movies - give it a dazzling transfer. Even if you just laugh along with old Duke, tossing his canteens away with his familiar gestures, the way this disc looks is no joke. The elements must have been sitting in a time warp, they look so good. After this DVD and The Vikings, I'm ready to see any film shot by Jack Cardiff, good or bad. The only extra is a trailer that squeezes every shot of action or confrontation from the film.

Note: It's interesting to see that Wayne's Batjac company is listed as a Panamanian entity (perhaps for this one film?). Some patriot, avoiding his taxes by taking his profits offshore. 1

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Legend of the Lost rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 1, 2002


1. (A note from author Avie Hern, 12.6.02:)
Glenn: Thank you for bringing up the matter of John Wayne's conspicuously offshore incorporation. It brings to mind a letter that was published in Newsweek magazine, oh, about twenty-two years ago, after they'd run a cover story about the dearth of heroes in modern American culture. Part of the spread was devoted, predictably, to heroes of the cinematic variety, centering on Mr. Wayne.

The letter, which was printed about two weeks later, went something like this (I can't remember the precise wording):

"Wayne spent the war (World War II) playing fictional military men on Hollywood soundstages, being menaced by phony Germans and Japanese firing fake bullets. Now that's real heroism."

The above is notable, and more than mere from-the-hinterlands grousing, because the correspondence was signed "William Wyler, Beverly Hills, Calif." As you probably know, Wyler spent much of the war in B-17s over Europe filming his War Dept. docu Memphis Belle, enduring the same lethal perils as any member of a high-altitude bomber crew, and lost much of his hearing as a memento of the experience (he also bounced all over the front lines with advancing U.S. troops in a jeep driven by Ernest Hemingway's kid brother, Leicester. Wyler had a right to criticize someone he saw as a slacker, like Wayne, and he also didn't fail to use his wartime credentials to humiliate the likes of director Al Rogell, one the Directors Guild board members who, in 1950, conspired with Cecil B. DeMille to force an anti-Communist loyalty oath on the Guild's membership over the objections of its president, Joseph L. Mankiewicz (who DeMille had nominated for the post only a few months earlier). Rogell hemmed, hawed and, ultimately, declined when asked by the Dept. of Defense to go to Korea to make a documentary about the American forces there. Avie Hern


DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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