Thundering across the Cinemascope screen with all the pomp and glory of an epic by Cecil B. DeMille, director Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954) was a $5 million dollar gamble into antiquity, 3 years in research and development and 2 years in the making. Regrettably, all this effort emerged with a disquieting thud at the box office. The film's failure left 20th Century-Fox's Darryl F. Zanuck remotely disappointed. After all, he had invested a great deal of time and money mounting this super production - conceived as a valiant successor (if not in theme, then certainly, in spirit) to The Robe (1953); a titanic hit for the studio.
And Zanuck had also laid more intimate cards on the table by casting mistress, Bella Darvi in the plum role of Nefer. There are many stories as to how Darvi (whose real name was Bayla Wegier) found her way to a plush contract at one of Hollywood's most lavish production houses. The obvious one is that her exotic looks appealed to Zanuck on a carnal level. For the old time mogul, a notorious womanizer in his day, it was lust at first sight. But the bisexual Darvi might also have had interests in Zanuck's wife and vice versa.
It was, after all, Virginia Zanuck who coaxed something more out of her husband after their chance meeting with Darvi at a Paris cafe. Without much of an introduction the Zanucks arranged for Darvi's U.S. Visa, moved her into their Beverly Hills home (and into their daughter's bedroom), then, just as miraculously began to handcraft a career for this self-professed 'party girl' to rival the one MGM gave Garbo's arrival in Hollywood. That Darvi proved to be a terrible actress was just the Zanucks' dumb luck. That she would also become the reason for the couple's split and eventual divorce was equally lamentable.
By the time The Egyptian went into production Darryl Zanuck was facing a considerable dilemma that threatened to push the already expensive film into overdraft. His first choice for the starring role of Sinuhe was Marlon Brando. Although signed for the part, Brando backed out at the last minute, citing a considerable contempt of Darvi as his reason. The role was next offered to Dirk Bogarde and then Farley Granger, before coming to Edmund Purdon third best (the only available actor who said 'yes'). Purdon had made a success of subbing in for Mario Lanza in MGM's The Student Prince (1954) and, unlike Darvi, had proven to audiences that he could act.
Undaunted by these preliminary setbacks Zanuck forged ahead. In point of fact, he had already committed himself to a Christmas release date and had to deliver the film on time, if not under budget. To this end, he hired Philip Dunne and Casey Robinson to co-write the screenplay (just as Zanuck would hedge his bets by employing Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman to collaborate on the lush and evocative score). These behind the scenes talents represent the film's 'artistic success'. The tale begins in the present, with an aged Sinuhe (Purdon) living in exile away from the city of Thebes - the scene of so much bittersweet heartbreak and overwhelming tragedy yet to unfold on the screen. In flashback, Sinuhe is a struggling surgeon in 14th century B.C. Egypt. At the School of Life he procures a friendship with Horemheb (Victor Mature); the son of a cheese maker who desires to elevate his status in the pharaoh's guard. After graduation the men indulge in a night of drunken caterwauling. They meet barmaid, Merit (Jean Simmons), who takes an instant liking to Sinuhe. The next day, Horemheb suggests that he and Sinuhe go lion hunting. Inadvertently, they save the life of Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding), and after some confusion, are granted requests by the mighty ruler.
Horemheb is made a captain of the Royal Guard and Sinuhe is encouraged to serve pharaoh as his private physician. Sinuhe accepts this order, but only if Akhnaton allows him to continue to administer his medicines to the poor. The compassionate, and highly progressive Akhnaton willingly agrees. He has recently 'discovered' a new religion that embraces one God - Aten - as the supreme ruler of the world. During his trek through the city, Sinuhe meets the beggar, Kaptah (Peter Ustinov) whom he accepts as his servant. But court life disagrees with Sinuhe, particularly after he meets the unrepentant Babylonian courtesan, Nefer (Darvi) who willingly reveals that she is a destructive force in men's lives and will surely bring his own to ruin.
Disbelieving her prophecy, Sinuhe surrenders his worldly goods to Nefer, and then those of his parents to satisfy his own desire. But Nefer rejects him anyway. Distraught, Sinuhe returns home to discover that his parents have committed suicide to spare themselves from his shame. Realizing the scope of his effrontery, yet still believing that Nefer is to blame, Sinuhe returns to her bed chamber intent on committing murder. Instead, he is apprehended and exiled from court. Sinuhe has his parents bodies embalmed so that they may pass into the afterlife. Unable to pay for this service, he commits himself to work off his debt at the embalming house, then buries his parents in the Valley of the Kings.
Merit arrives with even more disheartening news. While Sinuhe was working at the embalming house one of pharaoh's daughters has died. As punishment for his absence, Akhnaton has condemned Sinuhe to death. Merit and Sinuhe share a moment of passion. She loves him still, despite the mess he has made of his life. Afterward, Sinuhe and Kaptah embark on a long journey spanning many years across foreign lands. Sinuhe plies his craft as a physician. But as his reputation for healing grows, his heart hardens. He agrees to treat only those who are able to pay him and sets about steadily amassing a personal wealth. Ten long years pass. Sinuhe returns to Egypt a very rich man and barters for clemency by revealing to Horemheb that the Hittites are planning an attack on Egypt with superior iron weapons. This knowledge he has gleaned while treating a Hittite commander (Michael Ansara) of a brain illness. Believing in the power of forgiveness, Akhnaton shows mercy to Sinuhe who once more gains favour in his court.
If so far the film has run fairly par for the course of a typical epic, then the third act of The Egyptian is positively brimming with unexpected surprises. Sinuhe learns that Merit bore him a son, Thoth (Tommy Rettig) who shares his interests in medicine. Nefer returns to Sinuhe at his palace clinic where she reveals to him that she is suffering from leprosy. Sinuhe explains that while he can save her life, her beauty has been irreversibly sacrificed to this disease. Later, summoned to an audience with the devious Princess Baketamun (Gene Tierney), Sinuhe learns the true origins of his birth; that he is actually the son of the previous pharaoh and his concubine. Manish and driven by a powerful greed to possess the throne for herself, Baketamun suggests that Sinuhe use his skills to concoct a poison and murder Akhnaton and Horemheb - who has already been scheming to take over the throne for himself.
As the high priests, fronted by Mekere (Henry Daniell) have been plotting Akhnaton's downfall for some time, the crime of murder can be blamed on them. At this point the Egyptian armies mount a full scale attack on Akhnaton's court and the worshipers of his God, Aten. Sinuhe rushes to save Merit from the slaughter but is too late. He hurries through the mayhem to Thoth and instructs Kaptah to usher the boy to safety via a ship that is leaving port. Now Sinuhe returns to court, intent on fulfilling Baketamun's murderous plot - only, not entirely as she has planned. He administers a poison to Akhnaton to spare him the imminent and much more brutal death Horemheb has in store, then reveals to Horemheb that Baketamun had also been plotting for his own demise. Grateful, but nevertheless intent on ruling Egypt, Horemheb banishes Sinuhe to the shores of the Red Sea where he grows old in isolation. But he remains hopeful that his son has gone on to a better life abroad.
The Egyptian is remarkable on so many levels that its shortcomings seem miniscule by comparison. And yet, these were enough to discourage audiences from buying into the tale and, perhaps more importantly, from buying tickets to pay for the cost of producing this landmark epic. The Egyptian's failure at the box office caused Zanuck and Fox to quietly disown and bury the movie for decades. It has remained an obscure title, rarely seen on television and infrequently reissued on home video. Yet, this is a film deserving of our renewed respect. One viewing is not enough. The script is densely packed with spiritual subtexts that never seem heavy handed or preachy. Leon Shamroy's superb cinematography (with improved Cinemascope lenses from Bausch & Lomb) is staggeringly sumptuous.
Apart from Bella Darvi's pathetically inadequate exercise in the absurd, the rest of the performances are uniformly solid to phenomenal, with Gene Tierney, Michael Wilding and Peter Ustinov arguably being the standouts. Although he may not have been first choice, Edmund Purdom proves he can sustain himself amidst a cast of thousands. His Sinuhe begins as a novice in both his chosen profession and in life, but emerges as a true master in the art and craft of both by the final fade out. Three years of research and preproduction have yielded a rich reconstruction of the ancient Egyptian world as no movie before or since has been able to - and all of it full scale, without the 'luxury' of gimmicky special effects or computer generated graphics. DeMille's The Ten Commandments would benefit immensely from renting many of these sets, costumes and props two years later.
Perhaps The Egyptian plays better to our contemporary postmodern age because unlike most epics from its vintage, it presents an extremely dark view of humankind in general, and of these godless creatures in particular, thirteen centuries removed from the birth of Jesus Christ. Everyone is out for what they can claim for themselves. Baketamun's quest for the throne is predicated on a bloodthirsty contempt for not being born a man herself. Kaptah's desire to serve Sinuhe is self-serving at its core, planning to exploit his naive master, then settling into privilege when Sinuhe manages to accrue a small fortune for them both.
Even Sinuhe is a deeply troubled hero. His passion for Nefer is spurred by an obsessive desire to ravage her sexually. He betrays the only family he's ever known for this woman who openly tells him she is out to destroy his happiness. And he willingly allows his own morality to be repeatedly corrupted thereafter, to deny the poor and the sick his services, and to seriously contemplate the murder and betrayal of trusted friends. In all, the characters that populate this city of Thebes are hardly beautiful people, and yet they are alive with a fiery, if utterly flawed, genetic predisposition to destroy themselves.
The Egyptian comes to Blu-ray via Twilight Time; an online boutique distribution apparatus from Screen Archives that has licensed the film from Fox for this release. The results are fairly impressive. The 1080p hi-def transfer accurately captures the strengths and weaknesses inherent in vintage Cinemascope. The original elements are in good shape. When the image is sharp, fine details are nicely realized, especially in medium shots and close ups. Long shots are more problematic with the image appearing softer than expected.
Colors occasionally fluctuate but are mostly accurate. Flesh tones look natural. Transitions and process shots contain more visible grain, but still within reason. Again, these 'complaints' are minimal. Overall, this is another very fine visual presentation of a very deep - obscure - catalogue title. The remastered 5.1 audio (from Cinemascope's six track elements) is impressive with Twilight Time offering an impeccably mastered isolated music track, and an extremely informative audio commentary hosted by Alain Silver and James Ursini.
The Egyptian was Twilight Time's foray into Blu-ray and they precede the feature with some truly awful and awful looking trailers to other films they currently own the distribution rights. There are also NO chapter stops on this disc (at least none noted in the awkward to navigate menus). But, given Twilight Time's infancy in the new medium of 1080p these shortcomings are entirely forgivable. Bottom line: recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)