America’s top box office star John Wayne sneaks away to a remote corner of the Sahara Desert with the top Italian sex symbol Sophia Loren … and foolishly brings an entire camera crew with him. Henry Hathaway’s impressive desert adventure boasts a fairly amazing, bona fide Lost City, made even more impressive through the Technirama cinematography of the legendary Jack Cardiff. Rossano Brazzi co-stars as a treasure hunter, who can’t handle the truth about his explorer-father.
Legend of the Lost
KL Studio Classics
1957 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 108 min. / Street Date December 12, 2017 / available through Kino Lorber / 29.95
Starring: John Wayne, Sophia Loren, Rossano Brazzi, Kurt Kasznar.
Cinematography: Jack Cardiff
Film Editor: Bert Bates
Art Direction: Alfred Ybarra
Original Music: Angelo Francesco Lavagnino
Written by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell Jr.
Produced & Directed by Henry Hathaway
Not enough color in your life? Perhaps this movie will perk up your retinas — cameraman Jack Cardiff gives us nearly two hours of beautiful images of Sophia Loren, John Wayne, and a breathtakingly real Sahara desert. As I believe this picture gives us Ms. Loren pre- her late-1950s facial makeover, she retains her original, more feral look, the one that made her one of Europe’s biggest sex symbols.
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 that of the new Italian star attraction, Sophia Loren.
There’s nothing particularly complicated about the story. Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi) arrives in the Central Sahara, throwing money in all directions to launch a personal safari. Adventurer Joe January (John Wayne) takes Paul on a long trek into the center of Saharan nothingness. They’re soon 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. A fabled treasure is associated with the fabled lost citadel. The 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 the serviceable performances of competent stars. The story opens in the cleanest French-African desert town one can imagine, with a jail, a nightclub and a brothel all looking spotlessly clean. Wayne’s given name Joe January is no more foolish-sounding than Indiana Jones. In debt to a sneaky French colonial policeman (Kurt Kasnar), Joe’s worldly-wise Yank adventurer agrees to take the mysterious European on a journey to an undisclosed spot in the Sahara. Sophia Loren tags along, and her presence can only be excused through accepted movie convention. A head-turning beauty, Dita is clearly the most dazzling thing on the equator, yet 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. The noble explorer and the whore share 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 that makes all this happen, but her attraction is too obvious for the slow reveal of the script. When he finds out his father wasn’t the saint he thought he was, Bonnard suffers a crisis of disillusion. He falls apart mentally, literally re-staging the betrayals and violence of the the first expedition. There should be a chill of foreboding when three skeletons are found, lying in positions that tell the story of how they died. The weapons and wounds point to a fight over a woman that ended in murder. Director Henry Hathaway frequently made good adventure movies, but he wasn’t the best at fixing awkward scripts in the shooting phase. Even with its three super-attractive stars, the script is just too pat. What should feel mysteriously inevitable, is instead just obvious.
With the relationships so easy to read we find ourselves paying more attention to physical details. Bonnard and Joe take just enough food and water for two, yet when Dita joins up no apparent problems arise in the rations department. One of the six pack animals must be the bar mule, for we count three fifths of whiskey, plus two or three. Hip flasks, that keep appearing whenever somebody needs to get emotional or have a good time. When chasing Dita’s skirt, Joe’s immediate thought is to bring a bottle with him. The booze is there to be thrown away, and the bottles provide good props when a fight breaks out.
The water situation is even more predictable. When a water canteen runs dry, these shortsighted adventurers do what movie types do in ‘B’ movies — they throw it away. What good is finding water if one has nothing to put it in? At one point Joe empties his last flask of whiskey, to supplant it with water. When that runs out, he tosses the bottle too. The answer is that the temptation is too great to use objects like canteens to underscore dialogue. John Wayne often punctuates his performances with physical flourishes, as when he tosses a flammable whisky drink into a kitchen hearth in The Searchers, causing a sudden flareup of fire. It’s true — Wayne ‘flings things away’ dramatically. Joe January tosses so much stuff out-of-frame that the show 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, considering how far the filmmakers went to find an exotic locale. The lost city is indeed impressive, but not in the mysterious way the suggestive Angelo Lavagnino music score tries to suggest. It’s more of a National Geographic marvel, airless and static. Seen in widescreen splendor, the vistas of Roman-era stone do give us pause: perhaps hundreds of thousands of ancients lived here, carrying on prosperous lives. The Romans thought enough of the place to haul impressive statues and enormous stone columns across the desert. Contemplating the ancient city is more interesting than the film’s mystery about an expedition just 20 years in the past.
The unsung star of Legend of the Lost is cinematographer Jack Cardiff, the amazing Technicolor cameraman who specialized in shooting in tough locations. His images lend the arid wasteland delicate moods; some of the soft pastel-colored mountains in the background begin to look like painted backdrops. Even when using an 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. Legend of the Lost is an early Technirama (squeezed VistaVision) film, the second after a picture called Escapade in Japan. Exotic movie cameras and lenses don’t do well in the fine dust of the desert. Just keeping them running properly must have been a major technical headache.
Helped by a screenplay that gives his character all the best 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, as she’s totally complicit in her use as visual decoration. There are no revealing images to match tabloid the tabloid-sensation photos that adorned Loren’s Boy on a Dolphin made the same year. A standard bathing scene (behind a strategically placed donkey) and her peek-a-boo torn shirt do Loren’s work for her while she gets acting experience in English. Ms. Loren does just fine for what the film requires.
As John Wayne produced more and bigger pictures Henry Hathaway would become a frequent collaborator. A no-nonsense director known for losing his temper, the dependable Hathaway didn’t hog the limelight, which is good policy when working with a star. Legend of the Lost feels slower than Hathaway’s other ‘trek’ movie, the visually powerful but dramatically stunted Garden of Evil. Perhaps the problem is a lack of variety — Cardiff’s desert is beautiful, but by the time we reach the lost city we’d just like to get out of the sun for a while. Lavagnino’s eerie music also begins to put us to sleep, unlike Bernard Herrmann’s nervous, driving music in Evil, which compensates for missing dramatic values.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of Legend of the Lost really pops in this dazzling transfer. From the very first scenes we’re impressed by the sharper than normal image and the saturated hues — Jack Cardiff gave the color timers plenty to work with. He isn’t stingy with the gorgeous close-ups of Sophia Loren, which must have made her very happy. In his autobiography, Cardiff claimed to have had ‘a thing’ going with Loren during the filming, which caused her lover Carlo Ponti to visit the remote set to (cough) check up on things.
I noticed a couple of scenes where the sound sync sounded a little rubbery; it might have been my player’s doing, or something in the original audio mix.
The extras are a stack of trailers for John Wayne films and other adventures. The trailer for Legend of the Lost is odd. It begins with some voice narration and a text title so it can’t be a textless item. But it also has some random generic shots that would seem to need more narration to make sense. Kino uses some original ad art, a sketch of John Wayne, is not so hot, but the film’s original poster wasn’t very pretty either.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Legend of the Lost
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 2, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson