If you’re craving adventure, excitement, dusty battles, and dark dungeons, MGM’s Valley of the Kings is your kind of movie. There’s some pretty strong evidence to suggest that a few guys named Lucas, Spielberg, and Kasdan dug it, too, because it looks like they borrowed big chunks of it for their own Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It’s the dawn of the 20th century, and American archaeologist and all-around tough guy Mark Brandon (Robert Taylor) is on a dig in Egypt where he’s approached by Ann Mercedes (Eleanor Parker), the daughter of Brandon’s old mentor. Ann tells our archaeologist that her dad was on the trail of something big, and was close to finding proof that the Old Testament account of Joseph—from the book of Genesis, see—was historical fact and not a mere story. Unfortunately, her father is now dead, and evidence soon comes to light that there are other people looking for the same thing they are. To find the truth, they have to trek across the desert and try to find the undisturbed tomb of the Egyptian Pharoah Ra-Hotep. The race to the tomb begins, as does the search for evidence that will change written history forever.
By the time the story reaches its conclusion, we’ve seen massive monuments—including the Sphinx itself—and walked among the ruins of ancient Egypt. We’ve seen horse chases, camel stampedes, dust storms, sword fights, and death traps as our heroes attempt to escape each scrape on their quest for the ancient artifact.
Sounds kind of familiar, right? Kasdan clearly tapped into several of the themes and plot points when he was writing Raiders: we have a heroic archaeologist reuniting with the daughter of a former mentor (Abner and Marion Ravenwood) for an adventure set in Egypt, a biblical MacGuffin, and a shady European who’s in it for all the wrong reasons (Belloq). The tonal similarities are too numerous to list.
The greatest, most defining asset that Valley of the Kings has going for it is the location shooting in Egypt. When you see the characters ride past the Great Sphinx or the Pyramids at Giza, they’re really there, meaning there’s a HUGE “whoa!” factor because that’s not something we get to see very often. The film knows this, and goes to great lengths to utilize the locations by setting scenes right in the middle of all that history. There’s a pretty notable fist fight that occurs on top of one of the actual 65-foot tall statues of Ramesses II that guard Abu Simbel, a three-thousand-year-old temple in Nubia. Can you imagine that happening these days? They not only filmed AMONG the structures, but literally ON TOP of them, too. Shortly after the film was made, Abu Simbel was moved from the spot it had stood on for three millennia to make way for the construction of a dam; this movie is one of the last places you can see something as it existed for 3,000 years before it was irrevocably altered.
Watching Valley of the Kings today can prove to be something of a challenge, and not for any reasons associated with the plot or with the film being dated; I actually think it holds up really well. No, watching it can be hard because it’s become really, really rare, and that totally sucks. It was never released on DVD in the US; there’s a VHS of the film floating around, but seems to be in scarce supply and commands ridonkulous prices. HOWEVER, the film is thankfully in rotation on TCM, which is where I managed to catch it. You would think a movie like this would be a prime candidate for one of TCM’s collector’s series or some “from the vault” box set, but Warner Brothers is holding on to this classic just like so many other great movies from their catalog. I never know if these old movies don’t sell well because they rarely get distribution or if they don’t get distribution because they don’t sell well.