“Do you want to die chasing a mirage?”
Legend of the Lost, produced and directed by Henry Hathaway, has a prime foundation for action-packed drama. An idealistic treasure hunter teams with a seasoned guide, tough as nails, seeking out a rumored fortune deep in the Sahara. Adding sultry spice to the macho expedition is a gypsy girl—inevitably coming between the men—and contributing to the danger is a band of potentially aggressive locals and the inherent inhospitality of the desert terrain. Yet for all its genre promise, this 1957 feature struggles to fortify itself as a sustained adventure. The building blocks are there, and each is reasonably sturdy in its own respective form, but in the end, they fail to fit as a unified whole.
Launching from Timbuktu (actually locations in Libya, with some interior work at Cinecitta Studios in Rome), Legend of the Lost follows the fervent path of Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi), an Englishman spurred on by the fanciful tales of his deceased father. As his guide, he enlists hard-edged, hard-drinking Joe January (John Wayne). The two are then joined by the disreputable Dita (Sophia Loren), a spitfire pickpocket and possibly more (the seedy settlement is known for its “children of the city”). Writers Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell, among others left uncredited, commence the predicted love triangle, threatening the quest in an obvious parallel to what struck down Paul’s father, and cue the imposing hazards, like a native band of Tauregs and the hostile regional elements: dehydration, the heat, and an appropriately-named Tarantula Canyon. Simply put by seen-it-all-before Joe, in a line that teases more conflict than there really is, “Nothing’s friendly out here.”
At one point appearing like a shrouded goddess on a mound of sand, Loren performs in accordance with her standard screen persona, which, when left undeveloped (as opposed to something like 1960’s Two Women), consisted primarily of saucy sexuality. In that regard, Legend of the Lost doesn’t disappoint, with nude bathing—strategically positioned donkey in place—simmering erotic tension, growing heated and more volatile as the film progresses, and a sassy whack with frying pan. For his part, Wayne essentially transposes his iconic Western demeanor to a different sort of desert setting, playing a character who is down on his luck, depleted by debt and drink, but is, above all else, as manly as a man can be. More at home in the wilderness than either Paul or Dita (“It’s mine,” he says of the desert. “It’s all I own”), Joe scoffs at the notion of treasure hunting and decries Dita’s presence—he’s stuck with a “lost city and a batty dame.” But Paul is paying good money, so Joe has a job to do. Just as Loren fits a certain Loren type with Legend of the Lost, so too does Wayne stay true to form: rough and tumble, pragmatic, professional, and fond of imparting words of wisdom like “You flop and get up again.”
Paul may be the catalyst for the drama and the quest that brings everyone together, but his monetary/familial motivation is considerably less interesting than the existential drive of Joe and Dita, two salvation seekers united by lives that have left them hardened and cynical. (To his credit, though, the book-smart if not exactly sand-smart Paul does receive one of the finer compliments bestowed by a John Wayne character: “He’s got guts.”) Hathaway worked with Wayne six times over the course of their careers, concluding with True Grit in 1969, the role for which Wayne finally received an acting Oscar, but this was the only film Wayne and Loren made together. And despite their differences in behavior and appearance (an age gap of more than 25 years doesn’t help), their joint star stature far outshines that of Brazzi; no matter their degree of incompatibility—with each other in the frame or as characters in the film itself—such is the intrinsic nature of these silver screen luminaries, that one would be hard-pressed to find two more watchable performers, even in a lesser film like this. The slight sheen isn’t entirely convincing, but by the end of the film, Loren’s charm almost manages to polish some of Wayne’s strained coarseness.
The biggest surprise about Legend of the Lost is just how severe the tension between Joe and Paul becomes. For a film that otherwise follows a straightforward, timeworn path, the escalation of vengeance is notably startling. What isn’t surprising about the picture is how good it looks. Shot in Technirama by ace cinematographer Jack—Black–Narcissus–The–Red–Shoes—Cardiff, the visuals are rich and clean, an attractive composite of color and harmonized exoticism. In this regard, making the most of the authentic locales (including a ruined Roman city dating back to 7th century B.C., a setting enriched by A.F. Lavagnino’s ethereal score), Cardiff and Hathaway develop an impeccably-crafted production, just foreign enough to fit the film’s fantasy projection and just realistic enough to convince and satisfy. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for other aspects of the film.