As curses go, the one on King Tut's tomb was apparently a pip. It certainly led to a sumptuous and engaging TV movie, however: "The Curse of King Tut's Tomb," which airs in two one-hour halves tonight and tomorrow night at 10 on Channel 4.
The NBC film, coproduced by Hunt Stromberg Jr. and Joe Kerby, may have an awfully cryptic script, but it benefits tremendously from location shooting not only in photogenic Egyptian ruins but also at Highclere Castle in England, home of the ill-fated Lord Carnovan who financed the expedition that uncovered "the most valuable treasure in history."
Of course a terrible price was paid. Terrible prices are always being paid for finds like this. Come to think of it, terrible prices are being paid for everything nowadays. These prices are terrible! But in this case, the price was an uncanny strain of bad luck, from the prick of a thornless rose at its mildest to grisly and nasty deathby-facefull-of-scorpions at its most severe.
Nearly everyone involved in the project seems to have suffered some degree of catastrophe or premature demise. Some of the characters have been invented by the writer, Herb Meadow, however; Stromberg has said he wants this to be thought of as a "glamorized documentary." With the emphasis on the former.
Robin ("Poldark") Ellis plays Howard Carter, who unearths the treasures and nosedives into depressive compulsive obsession as a result. Eva Marie Saint plays a woman reporter who is among those covering the story, and Raymond Burr, looking as imposing as the Sphinx and nearly as large, plays the evil and fictional collector Sabastian who, when it comes to securing what he wants, will in point of fact literally and figuratively STOP AT NOTHING!
Paul Scofield, as the unseen narrator, at one point lumps "sensation-seeking journalists" with "thieves and vultures" who descended upon the sight. And the best line of all goes to Wendy Hiller as a semi-psychic princess who warns, "There are some things one knows in the very depth of one's being." Maria Ouspenskaya would have liked that one.
The big question that keep coming up in the film are, who will be the next to die and by what dreadful means? And, what color of designer sheets will Raymond Bur next appear in? Bathed in what must have been gallons of swarthy pancake, his hugh face looks like an aging baseball glove; he's the only spectacle on the premises who can really threaten to upstage the scenery.
The scenery -- and the term scarely suffices -- is magnificnetly photographed and generously flaunted, and it's been integrated into the story much better than in the overly precious threatrical film "Death on the Nile," from an Agatha Christie mystery.
Director Phillip Leacock, given very handsome support by the producers, does as far more wizardly job of sustaining as sense of place and period than he does in nudging along the story, but the pace is by no means irritatingly slow -- just the usual TV lope. The thin line between arresting hokum, and ludicrous spookiness is very deftly treaded.
Lord Carnovan himself, played by the infallibly crusty Harry Andrews, is dispatched to the hereafter in part two of the film, when he is bitten on the cheek by an insect and a scene later tumbles down the stairs. When Carnovan died, the legend goes, the lights went out all over Cairo.
And, lest ye still be skeptical, several decades later, on July 13, 1977, when NBC threw a party to celebrate the beginning of production on the film, the affair was interrupted by a blackout that plunged New York into darkness and momentarily knocked all three TV networks off the air.And -- boogie boogie boogie -- NBC has been in third place ever since! Whoooooo!