THE EGYPTIAN is a shiny relic of value that deserves dusting off to be re-appreciated. Made in 1954, it was an expensive production set in ancient times. That sort of thing, requiring crowd scenes, big sets, exotic costumes and music scores, calls forth pomp (“and so pomp was called forth upon the land…”). Pomp and extravagance are provocative, lending themselves to hyperbole and then inevitable clucks of dismay from spoilsports. Let’s chariot with the cheerleaders and link the dusty relic idea to those glittering Nileside treasures of B.C. : a big deal in their day, buried by the sands of time and forgotten until dug up by archaeologists/anthropologists (movie buffs/faux historians) and re-examined (DVD & BluRay), clearing up misconceptions and putting together one more piece of a collective cultural puzzle. Too much? “Oh, lighten up, thou smuggish couchists: it’s a matinée!”
“”I, Sinuhe, The Egyptian, have committed every crime against man, woman and the Gods…”
The giant box-office triumvirate of Samson And Delilah (1949), Quo Vadis (1951) and The Robe (1953) opened the gates for the Spectacle Film Era that lasted until the late 60s. Postwar budgets surged to afford masses of extras and location shooting. Cinema-scope and Vista-Vision broadened the stage to visually encompass the grandeur. The new pleasures of stereo added sonic allure.
Prolific Finnish writer Mika Waltari * scored an international success with his 1945 novel, and 20th Century Fox ringmaster Darryl F. Zanuck was shrewd enough to see its potential. He put veteran screenwriters Philip Dunne and Casey Robinson onto the conversion of Waltari’s thoughtful theme—humanistic values corrupted by materialism— to the dramatic pace and emotional texture of film. Hard-driving, genre-adaptive director Michael Curtiz was given a hefty $5,000,000 to put the period and philosophizing into 139 minutes.
Story: circa 1350 B.C., in the reign of Pharoah Aknathon (Michael Wilding), skilled and sensitive physician ‘Sinuhe'(Edmund Purdom) becomes friend to robust soldier ‘Horemheb’ (Victor Mature). He is adored by tavern servant ‘Merit’ (Jean Simmons) but falls prey to the wiles of courtesan ‘Nefer’ (Bella Darvi). Scheming princess ‘Baketemon’ (Gene Tierney) stirs trouble, wily servant ‘Kaptah’ (Peter Ustinov) tries to keep Sinuhe ahead of his self-induced follies. Wandering through the region, rising and falling from rags to riches, discovering religion, battling conscience and duty against lust and cynicism, Sinuhe has quite a journey.
With few action scenes, lacking the usual battle spectacle, the production is eye-filling but not overboard, and the script is intelligent, with thoughtful ruminations on love, desire, spirituality and honor, crafted in decent dialogue (far better than the awful cheese samples like The Prodigal, The Ten Commandments, The Silver Chalice, Solomon And Sheba) with some welcome bits of humor (Ustinov’s character) to leaven the mostly tragic drama.
A huge amount of research went into making everything look good: 20 museums contributed countless items to festoon the 67 sets, and Leon Shamroy’s fine cinematography was Oscar-nominated. Ignored by the Academy was the rich music score which was a smooth split-duty assignment for Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, a treat for fans of those supremely gifted composers.
The film made money, but not enough to cover its outlay. Studios don’t take kindly to investment without return and the disappointment, along with publicized casting backlash gave the movie an undeserved bad rap. That ball started rolling when Marlon Btando bailed on playing the lead, right before production was slated to begin, his agent telling Zanuck “he doesn’t like the director, he doesn’t like the role. And he can’t stand Bella Darvi!” Darvi was Zanuck’s 26-year old Polish protégée/mistress and he was giving her a big shot at stardom, first with Richard Widmark, earlier that year in Hell And High Water, then picking her over Marilyn Monroe for this part of the heartless hooker Nefer. Her acting skills were limited, her diction problematic and the professionals resented her (Simmons laughing out loud during script-read throughs, calling her “an actress who nefer was”—screech, claw, hiss).
Purdom had small roles in Julius Caesar and Titanic, then Fox had shuffled him into The Student Prince, lip-syncing to a fired Mario Lanza. Word on that ’54 project was hopeful, so the 29-year old Englishman was dropped into the role rejected by Brando, even though, despite playing the lead he was billed sixth in the cast.***
Nefer: “Look Sinuhe. A cat’s paws are soft. But they hide claws. A cat takes pleasure in tormenting its victim. Not until the creature is nearly dead does it show pity… and put an end to it.”
Jealousy, gossip and blame-gaming to the side, all the actors are quite good here, and Curtiz’ film is consistently entertaining, great to look and scored to a tee. While not in the league of Quo Vadis, Ben-Hur or Spartacus, it’s a strong entry in the genre. Purdom has a tough role to tackle in terms of capturing audience approval, as his hero is quiet and adaptive rather than a conventional sword swinger. Sinuhe is similar to Omar Sharif’s put- upon poet in Doctor Zhivago, buffeted by stronger events and dicey choices. Simmons and Mature had both recently handled The Robe. She has somewhat less to do here, even though accorded top billing; he has more play with his no-nonsense warrior. Tierney looks lethal (neat costuming), Wilding makes an inquisitive pharaoh and Ustinov’s droll rascal contrasts neatly with his maniacal Nero from Quo Vadis. The maligned Darvi is fine, and perfectly suitable to her character: erotically enticing, coldly calculating and ethically frigid.
With Judith Evelyn, Henry Daniell, John Carradine (a great cameo), Carl Benton Reid, Tommy Rettig, Anitra Stevens, Michael Ansara, Leo Gordon and Mike Mazurki. 11-year-old future funnyman Harry Shearer has a bit part.
*Mika Waltari, a Finnish national icon, was best known internationally for this book, first published in Europe in 1945, then America in 1949. He wrote 29 novels, 15 novellas, 6 poetry collections, 6 short-story collections, 26 plays, plus hundreds of articles, radio plays, reviews, translations and several screenplays. His big novels were of a similar stripe as The Egyptian, having protagonists who traveled through large sections of the ancient world. They include “The Adventurer”, “The Wanderer”, The Etruscan” and “The Roman”.
** Brando was sued $2,000,000 for pulling out, settled by agreeing to another 1954 Fox costume picture with Jean Simmons, Desiree, playing Napoleon. As it was, he goofed, as it’s boring as hell. Simmons would go on to support Kirk in Spartacus, where Ustinov copped an Oscar for another humorous supporting role. Mature nailed a huge hit a few months before this was released with Demetrius And The Gladiators, the violent sequel to The Robe. He busily cranked out decent action films, 17 of them, until 1962’s The Tartars, when he decided to hang up the swords. “It wasn’t fun anymore,” said Mature. “I was okay financially so I thought what the hell – -I’ll become a professional loafer.” After two more films, Tierney’s personal demons bested her and she stayed off-screen for seven years. The affable Wilding, married at the time to Liz Taylor, also worked less over the years as he was beset with epilepsy (eventually dying from a fall during a seizure). Purdom went on to the laughably bad epic The Prodigal, where he was bumped up 1,280 years to 70 B.C., over some desert miles to Damascus and into the further venomous temptations of a skimpily clad Lana Turner, which lost MGM $771,000 (he does get to wrestle with a giant fake buzzard). Along with duds Athena and The King’s Thief, his brief Hollywood storm passed and he paid bills with a slew of lesser epics in Europe, titles such as Herod The Great, Sulieman The Conqueror and Nefertiti, Queen Of The Nile.
The ill-fated Darvi was given one more chance, in The Racers, with Kirk Douglas leading and Henry Hathaway directing. Caught between Kirk’s notorious ego and Hathaway’s legendary screaming, it must have been a miserable experience. It flopped and the whirling Darvi was out, too, back to Europe, drinking, gambling, scandals and suicide attempts. The one-time survivor of concentration camps finally succeeded with the last in 1971, age 42.