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.
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