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Western Animation / Pyramid

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Pyramid is a 1988 PBS documentary with fully-animated docudrama sequences, adapted from the book of the same name by David Macaulay. It was produced by Unicorn Productions and presented by WHYY Philadelphia.

The film is essentially an animated dramatization of the construction of the real-life Great Pyramids of Giza for Pharaoh Khufu (voice of John Hurt). His son, Prince Hordedef (voice of Derek Jacobi), is honoured with the assignment of chronicling the construction of the pyramids as the royal scribe, and the pyramids are planned and constructed under the auspices of his half-brother, Grand Vizier Ankhaf (voice of BRIAN BLESSED). During the construction process, crisis strikes as the grand order of Egyptian religion, Maat, is threatened by grave robbers and a treacherous offspring (voice of Tim Pigott-Smith) of the Pharaoh. In the live-action wrap-around sequences, Macaulay explores the Great Pyramids of Giza and their surroundings and discusses the ancient Egyptians' obsession with death.


Major funding was provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Additional funding was provided by the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Public Television Stations, the American Architectural Foundation of the American Institute of Architects, and the National Concrete Masonry Association.

Useless trivia: the original 1988 broadcast was followed by the A&E documentary The Amish: Not to Be Modern and the concert program Horowitz Plays Mozart, and the 1994 rebroadcast was followed by the newer documentaries Valley of the Kings and Bosnia: We Are All Neighbors.

Not to be confused with the game show of the same name.


You can take these tropes with you:

  • Ambition Is Evil: Djedefre, egged on by his mother, schemes to take the throne of Pharaoh Khufu for himself.
  • Big "NO!": Pharaoh Khufu, when he learns that Sneferu's tomb had been vandalized by grave robbers.
  • Casting Gag: A queen advising her son on patience and long-term scheming so he can inherit the throne instead of his rivals? In a series with I, Claudius stars Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi, and John Hurt? Of course the role goes to Siân Phillips.
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Khafra first appears as a youth being told the story of Osiris. At the end of the special, it's revealed that he was the more successful of Khufu's two successors, as prophesied by Dedi, and even got his own monument in the form of the Great Sphinx of Giza.
  • Darker and Edgier: Even Cathedral had its moments of levity. This special has none. It deals directly with the subject of death, and whereas the antagonists of the first two adaptations of David Macaulay's books were respectively freedom fighters and a corrupt clergyman, here the antagonist is a schemer who plots to usurp the throne by offing the other heirs and doesn't get any comeuppance for it. Underscored by the cinematography and music, and the fact that this time around Macaulay isn't assisted by a local actress. Even the 1994 rebroadcast emphasizes this, with its original, darker, more austere logo being retained where the previous two specials had their logos updated and replaced with the then-current, brighter, more upbeat logo.
  • Dated History: Several years after the original broadcast of this program, certain information regarding Djedefre was rendered inaccurate by archaeological studies at Abu Rawash around the turn of the millennium.
  • Due to the Dead: The whole point of the construction of the pyramids, discussed at length by David Macaulay during the live-action segments.
  • Explain, Explain... Oh, Crap!: Ankhaf realizes that the robbers who had looted Sneferu's tomb must have very likely destroyed his body, since they had been caught and most of the treasures recovered. In light of the Serious Business accorded to the preservation of the body in Egypt's religion, he and his assistant Nebka agree to take this to their own graves.
  • God Save Us from the Queen!: Djedefre's mother, the engineer of his treachery.
  • Gratuitous French: When the Napoleonic explorers appear at the end of the animated story.
  • It's Personal: When the rebellious Nubians eliminate Kawab, the heir to Egypt's throne, Khufu loudly swears vengeance.
  • Karma Houdini: Djedefre becomes the new Pharaoh at the end and never receives any punishment for his treachery; however, if Dedi's prophecy to Khufu is anything to go by, his rule will not be very successful in the long run.
  • Lady Macbeth: Djedefre's mother, who eggs him on to remove obstacles to succession.
  • Mood Whiplash: Averted in the 1994 rebroadcast. As this is the darkest adaptation of any of David Macaulay's books, the original closing PBS logo isn't updated even though those on Castle and Cathedral were.
  • Skyward Scream: Khufu's Big "NO!" upon learning of the attack on Sneferu's tomb.
  • Spare to the Throne: Khufu managed to spawn several heirs, only two of whom make it to the throne. Two of them are killed, one in a Nubian ambush and the other by men working with his ambitious younger brother, and the other surviving heir, Hordedef, feels so unsure about his own leadership capabilities and content with his current scholarly role that he removes himself from the line of succession and has Ankhaf inform his father of his decision.
  • Tempting Fate: Kawab really wasn't doing himself any favors when proclaiming his family unkillable by mere mortals just before marching straight into a Nubian ambush.
  • Whole-Plot Reference: The story has a lot of similarities to I, Claudius. Given that most of the voice actors got famous on that show, it's not likely to be a coincidence:
    • A queen (Livia, the third queen) plotting to put her son (Tiberius, Djedefre) on the throne through a combination of patience and murder
    • That son ultimately winning the throne through his treachery, but having an unpopular, unsuccessful reign
    • A royal son who feels himself unfit for rule and takes up scholarly pursuits instead, voiced by Jacobi. Unlike Claudius, Hordedef manages to avoid being forced onto the throne.