Thebes, 1301 B.C., and a band of thieves are staging a raid on the tomb of Tutankhamun. But while they are able to break in, one of their number protests that he just wanted one precious artefact to take away to pay for his parents' embalming, and is not happy about his cohorts helping themselves to the rest of the treasure which earns him a clonk on the head knocking him out cold. However, once the thieves emerge into the night with their takings, the authorities are waiting for them and the next day they are all staked to the ground awaiting a sorry fate. The protesting burglar is tied between four horses, but as he prepares to die, he gives the head of the tomb's security an idea...
An American-Dutch co-production filmed in Egypt and Hungary and starring an Englishwoman, with the international flavour of Sphinx - behind the scenes, if nothing else - it really should have been a lot more interesting than it turned out to be. It had been based on the novel by Robin Cook, a rare excursion away from the medical thrillers he penned to the field of archaeology, but as many were wont to point out, just because the background had changed didn't mean you were going to be watching anything more than Coma in Egypt. The adaptation of Cook's most celebrated book had been a sizeable hit a few years before, so perhaps lightning would strike twice?
Not in this case, as there was a certain other movie which arrived in 1981 that had an archaeological setting which decisively cleaned up at the box office instead, and that was Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark. Compared to that, and it was difficult not to compare the two, Sphinx looked decidedly anaemic, that in spite of occasional horror movie inflections where for example we did indeed see the thief at the beginning torn apart by horses in a scene of gory special effects which appeared to bode well for what was to follow, a bloodthirsty romp through the Egyptian underworld of securing artefacts on the black market. Yet somehow the results strayed very far from what would have been a lot more diverting than what was in store.
Our leading lady was English rose Lesley-Anne Down who had spent the previous decade in fairly high profile but not overwhelmingly high impact roles, though she was enough of a "name" by this point that she was able to carry a movie. Here she was frankly too ineffectual as her archaeologist character Erica Baron was written, tending to be running around or more likely running away, hiding, crying, screaming and swooning when she met the initially distant Akmed Khazzan, a top official in Egypt, since he was played by heartthrob Frank Langella. It is he who brings viewers back to Sphinx since his followers are so taken with him and his brooding good looks, but he was too reserved in this part to be impressive unless you had been impressed by him before.
Also along for the ride - or the paycheque - was John Gielgud, billed as "Sir" which should set alarm bells ringing as to what was in store, basically a production propping up some shaky plotting and uncertain tone by hitching its wagon to a Shakespearean thesp. As it was, dear, dear Johnny appeared for about ten minutes near the start before Erica witnesses his collector getting his throat gashed open with a sabre, which should offer you some idea of the lack of class of the enterprise, no matter how much it tried to give the appearance that the opposite was true. He is dispatched not long after showing Erica an authentic statue of Seti the First, whose tomb is mysteriously missing from the maps, and this sets her on a chase around North Africa in search of the tomb, all the while helped and hindered by Akmed, Maurice Ronet as a journalist who saves her life, and John Rhys-Davies, also in Raiders, as a heavy. Needless to say, there were a few twists in store, but this was too straightforward for its own good, plodding along listlessly, though the tomb's location was fairly silly. Music by Michael J. Lewis.