Lost in a Lost City

A pious philanthropist is looking for a legendary lost city in the middle of the Sahara and only a guy named Joe January can get him there, if it exists. 1957's Legend of the Lost is an adventure film beautifully shot by Jack Cardiff with a great lead cast and intriguing dialogue by Ben Hecht and Robert Presnell. A beautiful prostitute who decides to tag along with the men completes the three points of tension driving the film’s contemplation of morality.

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Bland Italian actor Rossano Brazzi plays Paul, the philanthropist, who makes a nuisance of himself for the French authorities in Timbuktu when he starts handing out money freely in the streets. He even allows a woman named Dita to keep his pocket watch when she steals it—in gratitude, she returns his wallet, which he hadn’t yet noticed missing.

Dita’s played by Sophia Loren. I’m not sure what ethnicity she’s supposed to be—when I google the name “Dita” results tell me it’s an Albanian or a Spanish name. She also doesn’t dress like any of the other women in the city. Maybe she’s meant to be Italian? Anyway, Dita turns out to be one of the city’s premier prostitutes, that is until Paul sits down and talks to her over a long night and convinces her to change her ways. Among those unconvinced of Paul’s transformative powers is the guide he hires, a world weary American called Joe January played by John Wayne.

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He’s introduced making himself comfortable in a prison cell despite an open door and the fact that a shady Prefect (Kurt Kasznar) has already paid his bail. He wants no more “favours” from the Prefect since he’s already two thousand in debt to him for prior arrests ordered by the same Prefect. This is just one of the amusing and effective ways Joe’s canniness is established. When Paul finally lets him in on the true nature of their quest it’s not ‘til they’ve been travelling for some time in the desert—all Paul had told Joe before that point was that he was looking for his lost father’s remains. Needless to say, Joe’s faith in the city’s existence isn’t quite as firm as Paul’s, but a job’s a job and Joe continues so long as provisions hold out.

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Trouble arises again when Dita shows up so the provisions for two now have to be split three ways. But along with the physical strain, a subtle ideological conflict starts to take hold. Dita has faith in Paul as her saviour, she unquestionably believes in the lost city. Joe only seems to have faith in food and water. What does Paul have faith in? Why is this already wealthy philanthropist seeking a city with gems as big as a fist?

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I think the movie might have been stronger if we’d known exactly what it was Paul said to Dita to make her reassess her life and develop an admiration for him. But nonetheless the story is a thoughtful one about the usefulness of faith and why an incorporeal God may be a better subject for one’s faith than a human being, even a dead human being like Paul’s father. Which is not to say they don’t find the city but naturally there are some action scenes in the climax.

Directed by Henry Hathaway and shot in Libya by Jack Cardiff, there are some splendid visuals, mostly actual location footage. But Cardiff’s creative use of colour light makes even the soundstage stuff look fascinating. Legend of the Lost is available on Amazon Prime.

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A gadget glow induced a question time.
The passing cars inquire late of wheels.
A heavy glass supports a severed lime.
A flour forms a turning plate of meals.
A dusty space impounds the rusty ship.
For taxes paid a scrap of wood returned.
As faith in clustered pates does stead’ly dip.
A melted candle’s ends yet firmly burned.
A crossing cat was fortune found in black.
Elusive floors began in cleaner states.
Entire trains retired ‘long the track.
A flashing bar became the engine gates.
Roulette reclaimed the clock for plastic cash.
Inverted spheres revoked the dollar bash.

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