Legend of the Lost (1957)
Sometimes it's all too easy to listen to the general critical consensus and avoid a movie that has a reputation of being bad or a bit of a misfire. Often times, where there's smoke, there's fire, and the movie lives down to its bad reviews. But occasionally I watch a film and am surprised by the negative reaction. Case in point is Legend of the Lost, a visually sumptuous adventure film that kept me captivated throughout. Despite my lifelong love of John Wayne movies, I had relegated this one, sight unseen, to the Duke's small pile of "duds," along with things like The Conqueror and Jet Pilot. I should have known better.
It was only after recently acquiring the DVD from friend and film scholar, Stuart Galbraith IV, that I decided to give it a "what the hell" spin, and I'm very glad I did. Contrary to what seems to be the generally-held opinion, it's actually quite a good film, and gives Wayne an edgier than usual role, while still allowing him to stay true to the sort of rugged, manly character type he did so well.
It's a simple story, straightforwardly told: wealthy Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi) comes to Timbuktu in West Africa, following the trail of his father, who wrote of a wonderful treasure and a fabled lost city in the Sahara. Bonnard has pluck, determination and blind faith on his side, but he needs an experienced guide. Enter rough-and-ready American, Joe January (Wayne), who has serious doubts about Bonnard's enterprise but cheerfully agrees to guide him when Bonnard ponies up enough cash to get Joe out of hock to the corrupt local prefect (Kurt Kazner). Joe is a carouser and frequenter of the seedier side of Timbuktu, and has spent some time in the company of a gorgeous gypsy prostitute, Dita (Sophia Loren). Dita despises Joe and other men like him but, after spending a chaste night talking to the gentlemanly, spiritual Bonnard, is moved enough to change her life to the straight and narrow. Here is a man who seemingly wants nothing from her, someone more interested in her soul than her body.
Fascinated by the righteous Bonnard, she follows the two men into the desert. Joe wants to send her back to Timbuktu, reckoning she's nothing but trouble and having no wish to drag her along, but Bonnard agrees to take Dita with them, and since he's paying the bills, Joe reluctantly acquiesces. He's skeptical of Bonnard's piety and do-gooder ways (he plans to use the treasure to open a hospital for the poor and needy), but Joe grows to grudgingly respect the man's courage and tenacity. Similarly, he begins to look at Dita in a new light. The rest of the film is taken up with pure desert survival adventure, intermingled with the drama of a burgeoning romantic triangle. The trio eventually do make it to an ancient Roman city, find the promised treasure, and learn the fate of Bonnard's missing father...but will they manage to make it back to civilization alive?
Above all else, Legend of the Lost is stunning to look at. Henry Hathaway, always a sure hand at capturing action and landscape on film, directs with more artistry than usual, and, greatly abetted by famed Technicolor cinematographer Jack Cardiff, brings a painterly eye to the film's use of light, shadow and composition. I enjoy all kinds of adventure films, even ones done on the studio backlot, but nothing does the trick like real, honest-to-goodness, feel the scorching heat on the sand dunes, outdoor filmmaking. Legend of the Lost knocks it out of the park on this score; the production made the most of extensive location filming in Libya, some of it in the real ruined city of Leptis Magna, in Khoms. And the ethereal score, by A.F. Lavagnino, adds an eerie, mystical quality that matches the empty, panoramic desert vistas.
Robert Presnell's original script was reportedly hashed over to such an extent (by many hands, but only Ben Hecht was credited) that the final film bore little resemblance to it; what ended up on screen isn't outstandingly witty or deep, but it gets the job done well enough, and the actors have sufficient skill to paper over any cracks. This is basically a three-hander, and the leads all do fine work. The Italian Brazzi (one year away from a flirtation with Hollywood stardom in South Pacific) manages to make his saintly character sympathetic and interesting. Loren was 23 at the time of filming, and at the peak of her exotic, voluptuous beauty, appropriately earthy and fiery here. At 50, Wayne is weathered but otherwise fit as a fiddle, looking lean and mean and ready to wrestle a lion to the sand. Though he's playing a more jaded and coarse character than normal, his natural decency and strength shine through and his unique brand of brusque charm holds everything together, clearly navigating the film over its occasional bumps into melodramatic territory.
According to Scott Eyman's recent biography, John Wayne: The Life and Legend, the shoot in Libya was hellish. Wayne hinted at some of the difficulties in a letter to the Hollywood Reporter:
"We are working at an oasis in the middle of the Sahara desert, 400 air miles from Tripoli. This little village is completely isolated from the rest of the world; no radio, no telephone; no modern facilities. We bunk in tents. In the day it's sunburn hot, at sundown the temperature drops to around 30 degrees.
Making the film was hard on everybody, including Wayne, who also seriously injured his foot in a fall during the shoot. Legendary himself as one tough SOB, Henry Hathaway was one of those directors fond of screaming at everyone to get his way, though Wayne must have got along with him well enough, as they made plenty of movies together throughout his career. Wayne's company, Batjac, partially financed the film, and he was sure that Sophia Loren's sex appeal would translate to big box office, but:
"...according to Henry Hathaway, Loren was a 'one dimensional actress. It's just the beauty. She has no depth. Never did have, never will have.' Wayne had little to do with her during the shooting. Loren was engaged to Carlo Ponti at the time, but Duke suspected her of having an affair with Rossano Brazzi, a married man. The two were inseparable off camera. Guided by the prevailing double standard, Wayne got along well with Brazzi, but he had little use for two-timing women, and he kept his distance from Loren." (2)
Most of those involved with the picture, including Wayne and Hathaway - the latter dubbed the film "a fiasco" (3) - must have wondered whether all the behind-the-scenes travails were worth it. While it didn't set the box office on fire, or earn much critical praise upon release, time has been kind to Legend of the Lost, and I think it's a fine film, of the kind they couldn't, and wouldn't, make anymore. It's no lost classic, but it's a beautifully-shot, sturdy adventure movie...and hey, it's John Wayne in Indiana Jones mode, discovering a lost city in the African desert! That's something you don't see every day, and it's more than good enough for me.
DVD Note: MGM put Legend of the Lost on DVD back in 2002, and it's a handsome 2:35: 1 transfer. That disc is pretty expensive now, and it's such a good-looking movie that it certainly deserves a proper Blu-Ray release, but its status as a "lesser" Wayne film probably makes that unlikely.
Source Note: (1) excerpted from John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman, published by Simon & Schuster, 2014.
(2) and (3) excerpted from John Wayne: American, by Randy Roberts and James S. Olson, also published by Simon and Schuster, 1995.
Ha! I think it's usually "where there's smoke, there's pedantic, sheeplike morons". Especially in cases like these, where people miss out on having their own experience with a movie on it's own terms.
5/14/2014 07:55:09 am
Hey there, Clayton! Yep, this is a good reminder to not listen to the supposed gospel about a given movie's worth.
5/12/2014 12:22:38 pm
I agree 'Legend of the Lost' is a good adventure flick that's beautifully filmed and offers solid escapism to while away the time. Not the greatest film ever made but like you said is better than the wrap it gets. Great stills and as always great review!
5/14/2014 07:57:46 am
Thank you, Alyssa! I appreciate you stopping by. Good to hear from another who agrees that this movie is better than its reputation suggests.
5/13/2014 01:22:17 am
I like this one too. Remember reading the capsule review in Maltin's guide that was very negative but watched it anyway and enjoyed it. I like the desert setting and the lost city idea. Not a fan of Brazzi in this movie though.
5/14/2014 08:01:10 am
Thanks for the comment, Patrick! I didn't mind Brazzi myself but can see where you're coming from. I think they probably could have cast his part better, with an actor better at depicting the kind of psychological breakdown that occurs near the end of the film. That said, Brazzi is an interesting presence and is an interesting casting choice.
5/13/2014 02:05:41 am
Unspurprisingly as this was an Italian co-production, this is one of those films that turns up a lot on Italian TV and I have probably seen it half a dozen times over the decades. As you say, the score and the look of the film (Cardiff really was a master) really help turn a rather thin and ordinary story into something that feels much more exotic. The images from your DVD look great Jeff - certainly makes me want to watch it again! By the way, it has been released on Blu-ray, in Germany, but I haven't seen it. Here it is: http://amzn.to/1gzZDSN
5/15/2014 09:01:11 pm
Hey there, Sergio...cheers for the comment! Interesting to hear about this being shown on Italian TV often. I agree that the technical side of the production, as well as some good work by the Duke especially, give a big boost to the proceedings. Thanks for the heads-up re: the German Blu-Ray as well. I'm pretty happy with the DVD at the moment, but maybe sometime down the road. I'll think about an upgrade.
That's a great, spirited defense of the film, Jeff. I haven't seen this in years, despite owning the DVD, and can't say whether I felt the as bad as it's supposed to be. I think the negative comments that usually follow it around did influence me in that respect. I need to see it again now after reading your rebuttal.
5/15/2014 09:07:24 pm
Thanks very much, Colin! I'll be curious to hear what you think of this flick whenever you decide to give it a spin.
It's ages since I watched NIAGARA, Jeff. It is an excellent noir though, and a great example of the color variety. It's not always easy to capture the noir mood in a color movie but I reckon Hathaway managed it very well in this case.
5/24/2014 01:25:15 am
I like "NIAGARA" very much. I agree with Colin that it's not easy to catch that "noir" feel with colour but I think it works here. Also like another, slightly earlier, colour noir "LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN".
5/24/2014 10:45:47 am
I actually enjoyed NIAGARA quite a bit. Marylin was actually acting in it (not doing her usual surreal, drag-queen-like "sex kitten" shtick), and very well, I might add, with Cotton working at his best. It was a real left-fielder for me...not anywhere near my usual thing.
5/23/2014 05:25:56 am
I had a similar experience with this film. Ignoring it for years, watching it when nothing else one on. I wasn't overly impressed, but I certainly wasn't bored. I did get the sense of it having been a difficult shoot.
5/25/2014 01:59:20 pm
Hi, Caftan Woman! Sounds like your judgment on LEGEND OF THE LOST is a fair one, and probably the consensus of most who actually watch the film all the way through. Thanks for the comment!
5/25/2014 02:07:25 pm
Thanks for the responses on NIAGARA, Colin, Jerry and Clayton! Seems like we're all of a similar mind here. It's a good movie, with a pretty convincing depiction of a noir type floozy/femme fatale by Marilyn, and I agree with Clayton that Monroe's career might have been better served by more work in "bad girl" type roles.
Jeff, I think INFERNO does qualify as a noir. Visually, it doesn't have the look but it checks most of the boxes thematically. Ryan is first class, as always, and his character grows nicely as the film progresses.
5/26/2014 02:20:40 am
Jeff, may I recommend you give that watch to "LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN" soonest! I think you would like it. The brilliant Technicolor photography almost manages to emphasise the extreme evil that emerges!
7/21/2015 09:25:05 am
i am from this city Leptis magna the one that named in this film the lost city .i am work as tour guide until now 2015..
7/22/2015 09:27:19 pm
A tour guide for Leptis Magna - how cool is that? Hope you enjoy your job! I'd love to visit there someday, it looks like an amazing place.
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