Valley of the Kings 1954
Valley of the Kings was a difficult shoot for several reasons: Robert Taylor and director Robert Pirosh had differences; Eleanor Parker and Robert Taylor were having an affair; the physical conditions in Egypt were harsh. Normally Robert Taylor was one of the easiest stars to work with. He was professional, prepared and cooperative. Many of his directors spoke highly of Mr. Taylor. For instance, William Wellman said:
“I was crazy about Bob Taylor…..I think Bob Taylor’s probably one of the finest men I’ve known in my whole life. And he was an actor. And he was probably the handsomest one of them all. He did everything I asked him to. He was wonderful.” William A. Wellman by Frank Thompson.)
Let’s look at each problem separately.
Robert Pirosh was in trouble with the executives in Hollywood. This was his first major film and he was afraid of being replaced. Dore Schary and his assistant Charles Schnee demanded changes to the script after seeing the rushes. Pirosh largely ignored their demands.. They increased the pressure on Pirosh. The director later recalled:
“One day Charlie Schnee showed up in Egypt. He said, ‘I have instructions from Dore that you either make the changes that I want made or he’s sending over another director.’ So I made the changes. They were not too hard to make, but they changed the character relationships in a way that I didn’t like, and there was a certain amount of friction with the actors.
He went on to say:
“I was not good at handling the Robert Taylors in the business,” Pirosh continued. “If the actor is more powerful with the studio than the director, it’s serious trouble for the director. Then the director has to make tremendous compromises and go through all sorts of agony and develops ulcers. I knew that sooner or later I was going to drop out of directing.” (1)
Dore Schary said in a letter:
“I do want Bob Taylor satisfied with some of the things he objects to [in the script]; and I want my own point of view accommodated in connection with some of the scenes.” (2)
Secondly, Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker were almost certainly lovers. The two of them made a united front against Pirosh. Both were divorced. At home, Mr. Taylor was seeing German actress Ursula Thiess. However, he had a record of location romances:
“Bob admitted to ‘location romances.’ His trysts resulted from basic sexual need, but as important for him was female companionship. He was rarely without intimate female relationships, though they weren’t always sexual. Whether the woman was his mother, or Ivy (Mooring, his personal assistant), or Barbara, or Liz, or Ludmilla [ballerina Ludmilla Tcherina] or Ursula, or any of his “location romances,” he made sure he had women around him.” (3)
Ms. Parker strenuously denied this, saying only:
“There isn’t one of my leading men that I haven gotten a kick out of, but Bob’s my favorite! Such a completely nice, sweet guy. To use a quaint old term–such a gentleman. I felt real good working with him.” (4)
Robert Taylor, of course, said nothing. He did write, in a letter to his assistant Ivy Mooring:
“Actually I’ve missed Ursula more on this trip than I ever have before. And that’s not because I’ve not been ‘taken care of’ in the romantic way while I’ve been gone. A little ‘location romance’ has developed which will end the minute I get home and the only result therefrom has been that I realize how much I miss Ursula.” (5)
In the long run, Eleanor Parker was too much like Barbara Stanwyck to attract Mr. Taylor seriously. She was talented, extremely attractive and dedicated to her career. Robert Taylor was looking for an entirely different kind of woman. The two, however, did appear in public together, notably at the Golden Globe Awards for 1953, where Mr. Taylor won an award.
Thirdly, conditions in Egypt were harsh. According to a Good Housekeeping article from the time, the cast and crew traveled 300 difficult miles from Cairo, including a final portion by camel, and lived for a week with the 19 monks who resided there.
“They slept on wooden cots in the cells provided for pilgrims and joined the holy men in their meager daily rations. The brothers, members of the Greek Orthodox Church, showed little interest in the film making but were willing hosts and did not object to playing themselves.” (6)
To make things worse, Robert Taylor was injured. His knees were damaged jumping from a camel. In a letter to Ivy Mooring, he said:
“It all started, very subtly while I was hunting up in Canada–then went away and didn’t start up again until the first time I worked here and had to jump off a camel several times.” (7)
In another to Ms. Mooring, Mr. Taylor recounted:
“The picture, so far, has been a rough one for me. [He had a bronchial infection which he attributed to] badly heated rooms, poor food, and terribly dry and dirty air…the Doc gave me a gallon or two of penicillin.” (8)
The eventual diagnosis was a form of arthritis combined with an activity-related injury. There was a painful calcium deposit in one knee.(9)
Robert Taylor’s health had begun to deteriorate mostly because of his nicotine addiction. Deep lines appeared in his face and he suffered from numerous infections.
Despite all this, the picture came out well.
This is a fun film to watch today for modern audiences, being one of the obvious precursors to Indiana Jones, but merely seeing it as an inspiration for another film diminishes its own value as entertainment. MGM pulled out all the stops on this movie, filming most of it on location in Egypt. The film is filled to the brim with beautiful footage of every major Egyptian pyramid, ruin, cityscape, and landscape, including the Valley of the Kings.
The story is also extremely entertaining. Brandon and Mercedes wander through bazaars in Cairo, trek into the desert on camels while braving sandstorms and Bedouin brigands, visit the catacombs of ancient monasteries, and piece together lost clues while trying to stay one step ahead of their mysterious enemies. The movie is filled with action and Taylor’s Brandon is no slouch. The plot finds the two-fisted archeologist in swordfights with Arab nomads, cart chases in Cairo, surviving an impressive aforementioned sandstorm, braving the dangers of lost tombs, deciphering the hieroglyphics of ancient stone tablets, and even getting into a dangerous fistfight on the top of one of the massive statues at the famous Egyptian temple of Abu Simbel.
Valley of the Kings is definitely worth watching. A great adventure movie with everything modern audiences like in their cliffhanging treasure hunts (10)
(01) Jeremy Arnold, Valley of the Kings, 1954, Turner Classic Movies website.
(02)Charles Tranberg, Robert Taylor: a Biography. Bear Media, 2011, p. 262.
(03)Linda J. Alexander, Reluctant Witness: Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism, Tease Publishing,2008 pp. 278-9.
(04)Doug McClleland, Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces, Scarecrow Press, 2003, p. 14.
(05)Alexander, pp. 283-284.
(06)Good Housekeeping Magazine, May, 1954.
(07)Alexander, p. 285.
(08)Alexander, p. 286.
(09)Alexander, p. 285.