This melodrama looks spectacular, but is pretty much a misfire – suffering from a trio of miscast stars (virtually the only characters onscreen for 90% of the movie) and a Ben Hecht-Robert Presnell script which is at once overfamiliar (yet again, Treasure of the Sierra Madre is plundered) and ponderous. Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi, bizarrely typecast as French after South Pacific) arrives in Timbuktu, looking for a guide to take him into the Sahara desert – following a route taken by his long-missing humanitarian father. In a tour of the souks conducted by a corrupt policeman (Kurt Kasznar, whose ham suggests a more lighthearted adventure romp than this turns out to be), Bonnard is pickpocketed by Arab girl Dita (Sophia Loren), who is as tactfully as possible established as at least a part-time hooker, and introduced to American drunk Joe January (John Wayne, whose company produced), supposedly the best guide in town. Bonnard forgives Dita her pilfering, and stays up all night with her before setting out on his trip, and manages to talk her out of her dangerous and unwholesome life with his spiritual values. This is a tall order to swallow, and the fact that we don’t get to hear Bonnard’s inspirational speech suggests that even the writers thought it would be impossible to sell.
Bonnard and Joe set out on donkeys, and Dita insists on coming along, catching up with them at a water-hole. After some routine desert business (a mirage marginally less silly than the one in Road to Morocco), Bonnard reveals that his father spent his life searching for the lost city of Ophir and its fabulous treasures, which he now intends to find so he can spend them on establishing an institute of good works in the family name. Joe sneers at the dupe for embarking on a treasure hunt in trackless sands, but they do find a lost city – only it’s not Ophir, but a different place built and abandoned by Trajan’s legions (a truly spectacular, presumably Italian location is used). In the city, Bonnard is shocked to find his father’s skeleton, along with those of a guide and an Arab girl, and to realise they have all killed each other, and that he has always known his father was not an idealist but a sensualist treasure hunter. Following an inscription in the dead father’s Bible, Joe lowers Bonnard into a cave full of ‘dirty bats’ and they find the treasure buried in a thousand years of guano. Bonnard, of course, goes mad – coming close to raping Dita, convinced that the others are out to rob and kill him (repeating his father’s tragedy), and heading off into the desert with all their supplies. Joe mirrors Bonnard’s arc by giving up his drunken, cynical ways and helps Dita trudge along in Bonnard’s tracks, until they catch up with him for a final confrontation and a desperate dig for water.
Henry Hathaway went on to become one of Wayne’s favoured directors (North to Alaska, The Sons of Katie Elder, True Grit, etc), which shows the Duke had a measure of loyalty – since this, their first team-up, was not a roaring success (it’s similar in plot to Hathaway’s much better Gary Cooper Western Garden of Evil, which might be why he got the gig). Wayne stretches a little by playing a Robert Mitchum kind of role – a cynical drunken reprobate who comes through in the end – but isn’t convincing in his boozy bastard scenes; Brazzi is all over the place as the saint who becomes a sociopath, and impresses in neither incarnation (plus there’s no sense he could ever be a threat to John Wayne); and Loren looks unutterably lovely in Technicolor but is ludicrous as an Arab girl, and has no chemistry at all with either of the leads (like a lot of sex bomb stars, Loren tended to be mismatched with her leading men). To be fair to the actors, they get terrible lines and unplayable scenes – and the attempt to do ‘Italian’-style sensuality within the rigid conventions of 1950s American cinema was completely doomed, as Loren plays her big nude scene with a vast donkey standing between her and the oglers in the audienceas she pours water over herself . If the film is watchable, it’s for Jack Cardiff’s desert vistas, with winds riffling sands in Techniscope, and the eerie views of the abandoned Roman city in the middle of ‘three thousand years of sand’.