Twilight Time’s Blu-ray and DVD ought to correct a long-held misinterpretation that The Egyptian, then one of Twentieth Century-Fox’s most expensive films (over $4 million in 1954), was a great big, laughable dud. Chastised by critics during its original release as being plodding, meandering, and ‘as exciting as a Spanish funeral,’ the studio effectively buried their sandy drama from broad circulation, focusing instead on its more popular antecedents – The Robe [M] (1953), and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators [M] (1954) – in reissues, retrospectives, and deluxe home video presentations.
Indeed, Fox Home Video released an anniversary special edition of The Robe on DVD and BR in 2009, but for whatever reason the studio never followed through with The Egyptian; they had prepared a digital master with an exclusive commentary track in 2005, but shelved the project.
It’s unlikely the film’s absence was due to a sense of embarrassment in 2005, but it was never a high priority when better-known films existed, and if people really wanted the film, they could import the Region 2 DVD from countries like (where else?) Spain.
That said, someone cared enough at Fox to commission a second HD transfer, supervised by the same team involved with The Robe BR, and it’s the 2010 transfer that’s used for TT’s release, bundled with James Ursini and Alain Silver’s unused commentary track.
Right from the title sequence, it’s clear this production – the film, and the BR – are top-notch, and if one’s never seen The Egyptian, certainly for connoisseurs of the genre, you’re in for a treat.
Presenting: The Egyptian(s)
Based on a best-selling novel by Finnish writer Mika Waltari, an author better-known for detective and crime writings, The Egyptian has the skeletal elements of a noir, with a femme fatal, former friends turned foes, power struggles, murder, highly dramatic lighting, and scenes steeped in dourness.
It’s also a Biblical epic, but not overtly. Fox ported over stars and creative crew from The Robe to feign some kind of cosmetic continuity, and according to the BR’s commentary track, Waltari’s novel (Sinuhe: The Egyptian) was ostensibly a memoir of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a gifted surgeon, who lost his grace after falling for a manipulative Babylonian whore named Nefer (Bella Darvi), then traveled the known world in search of spiritual meaning, and returned to Egypt with a gift for the court of Akhnaton / Akhenaton (Michael Wilding), with whom he had fallen out of favour during his masochistic pursuit of Nefer.
Sinuhe's gift is a Hittite sword made of iron, which he presents to Akhnaton’s general Horemheb (Victor Mature) in the hope of bestowing a superior technology to his country in order to defend themselves against a looming invasion, but Sinuhe finds himself embroiled in nasty court intrigue: after centuries of worshiping multiple gods, Akhnaton’s forced Egyptians to cow-tow to a single lord – Aten, a sun god. The old priests dislike the revisionist, hippy theology, and the generals aren’t spirited by Akhtanon’s blatant mismanagement of the empire, particularly when the nation could be ravaged by invaders, so it’s just a matter of time before the power struggles between the ruler, his sister Baketamon (Gene Tierney), and Horemheb yield a victim, a successor, a new rule of law and a return to the old religion.
The followers of Aten and their inevitable persecution & slaughter are played up by the filmmakers to parallel the suffering of early Christians, and the film’s final quote tries to set up a link between the doomed Akhnaton and Jesus Christ, making the former a Christ-like figure who died similarly before his visionary philosophy was able to fully germinate, but there’s a firm, cynical undercurrent that makes The Egyptian oddly contemporary.
Screenwriters Philip Dunne (David and Bathsheba) and Casey Robinson (Casablanca) may have included the character of an atheistic grave digger (John Carradine) to add contrast towards the various flowing philosophies within the film, but the wily digger’s arguably one of the few sobering voices in a monotheistic world eventually brought down by quibbles and seething jealousies. The disintegration of Akhnaton’s power and his eventual death were more complex, but certainly his rejection of age-old beliefs sowed the seeds of his doom.
The entire drama takes place 1300 years before Christ, but perhaps to shore up a link towards the Biblical genre, Fox made sure to goose the Christ-like elements to make up for a lack of overt Christian iconography and the usual portentous chatter of a holy child. In Fox’ eyes, as well as certain historians, Akhnaton’s monotheistic beliefs either influenced Jesus Christ, or they marked the first advancement in religious developments where a confusing multitude of holy figures were folded into a simplified icon for mass consumption, and population control.
As with the best Biblical epics, the filmmakers also ran with Cecil B. DeMille’s Law: if you base characters’ prurient behaviour on historical fact, the censors can’t touch it. Ergo, with few exceptions (such as Nefer’s comeuppance), the evil Breen office let some shocking behaviour and circumstances pass.
SOME KEY SPOILERS
Akhnaton's mother is an alcoholic (she drinks ancient Egyptian beer), and sister Baketamon is already getting used to the sauce by the film's final reel. The slaughter of the proto-Christians is surprisingly graphic, and Baketamon's plot to rule with her half-brother is clearly an acceptance of incestuous relations for the betterment of the family dynasty.
END OF SPOILER ALERT
Commentators Silver and Ursini examine every facet of the production, such as where the screenwriters remained faithful to the novel, major character changes, and compressing time-lines (the gap between Akhnaton’s death and Horemheb’s succession wasn’t immediate, but 18 years, and included the reign of King Tut).
Kaptah (Peter Ustinov), the former thief who befriends and becomes Sinuhe’s loyal assistant and companion, was never in the novel; and Nefer’s comeuppance was designed to appease the Breen office since a happy whore had to receive some form of punishment before the End Credits. (Nefer’s life in the novel was much more colourful; her resourcefulness managed to save her from several prickly circumstances.)
The audio commentary is heavy – the pair maintain a steady discussion which mandates a few pauses – but the film is presented in context within the Biblical genre; as an early CinemaScope production; a rival Egyptian epic to Warner Bros.’ Land of the Pharoahs (1955) and MGM’s Valley of the Kings (1954); and as a sort of precursor to Fox’s other lavish production a decade later - Cleopatra (1963). Fans of that monster will undoubtedly see a few similarities: both films are intimate yet multi-layered narratives whose heroes aren’t always proactive nor always up front in their respective dramatic strands.
Sinuhe is regularly cited by the commentators as a chief reason why the film flopped at the box office: 1954 audiences had trouble with his wishy-washy persona, and his scenes sometimes tended to meander and have longer end points - aspects that also contributed to the film’s running time.
Perhaps the scenes with Darvi are the worst offenders – they feel contrived to showcase producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s new ‘discovery’ – but their pacing does deepen the debasement that masochistic Sinuhe voluntarily creates for himself. Those increasingly dour scenes between the good surgeon and the upsacle whore feel weirdly modern today, but '54 audiences wanting an emerging, uncynical hero were out of luck. As Horemheb, Mature is the lone masculine lead, but like Akhnaton, his character drifts in and out of the narrative, and similar to a TV soap opera, not every story thread yields juicy material prior to the penultimate convergence in the final (and lengthy) act.
The fact The Egyptian doesn’t fully adhere to genre rules and deliver the goods according to the Cinematic Biblical Playbook 101 makes it much more interesting than its precursors because it’s less hampered by clichés and familiar tropes, as well as archetypes who follow set courses to destruction or valour.
It’s also a smartly designed production, with several years of research paying off in rich costumes, sets, décor, and designs heavily derived from surviving artifacts. The character of Sinuhe is based on a real wandering Egyptian ex-patriot, and the Aten theme (credited to Bernard Herrmann in the audio commentary, but actually composed by co-composer Alfred Newman) makes use of chorals derived from lyrics used by Akhnaton’s followers to salute their one true God.
Leon Shamroy, who also photographed The Robe, lensed one of his most beautiful works, and as an early colour CinemaScope film, The Egyptian may be the best. Scenes are graded with delicate colour pools and colour veils for mood and character subtext, and the HD transfer captures the colour density with maximum clarity; one can only imagine how the film looks theatrically, and Shamroy’s use of colour may have been one of the key works that influenced a young Mario Bava, who played with layers & pools of colour in mini-epics such as Hercules in the Haunted World (1961).
For example, when the camera slowly tracks towards Nefer’s coven of debauchery, the exteriors are draped in deep fifties turquoise blue, but inside, as seen through a naked doorway, is a dancer, spiraling with her veil in a swirl of neon yellow. Shamroy’s moving camera reveals further colour pools, and by the time we’re inside the house (via cutaways), Nefer is established as the scene’s central colour figure – which remains consistent in her subsequent scenes of corruption, wearing blue and blazing red wigs to grab Sinuhe’s attention from everything else moving and gyrating about the room.
The race to beat MGM and Warner’s own Egyptian epics meant brining in a second composer to finish the score, and The Egyptian is noted for the collaboration between two film music giants: lead composer and Fox music head Newman, and Herrmann. Their work is discussed several times in the commentary, and in spite of the composers’ distinct styles, there is an effective balance between the themes, the instrumentation, and the attempt to impart a sense of history without musical clichés. TT’s BR and DVD includes an isolated score track which is just as robust and dynamic as the film’s 5.1 mix. (Varese Sarabande also released a 2-disc set in 2011, featuring several alternate cues.)
Zanuck wanted CinemaScope to succeed, and no expense was spared to create a rich visual and aural experience; elements from this marginalized gem have survived so well that this may be the best sounding ‘scope transfer around. The music booms with depth, clarity, and bass-friendly resonance, and the sound design is surprisingly rich for an early surround sound production.
TT has adopted a Criterion-style price point for the BR ($39.99), which is SRP’d for about twice the price of the standatd DVD ($19.99). The premium-priced HD edition is likely designed to offset the fees associated with licensing Fox’ 2010 transfer and upcoming BR releases, but it is a bit steep. Most Criterions sell for a fraction above their DVDs, and in some cases they're on par with DVDs, but TT’s pricing gap will probably narrow over coming releases as they figure out more cost-effective measures, and as each BR sells out.
Limited to 3000 copies in each format, the title should enjoy brisk sales simply because there’s been a paucity of vintage CinemaScope releases from Fox who seem more content reissuing remastered special editions or SE’s marginally expanded with an extra featurette. The so-called death of DVD isn’t here yet, and indie labels such as TT are proving there’s a niche market of collectors and connoisseurs wanting catalogue titles that have never appeared on BR. Streaming and HD broadcasts can’t replace the pleasure of owning a gem or guilty pleasure in all its finery, nor watching it piped through a digital 5.1 home theatre system without buffering artifacts.
Only qualms: a main chapter menu. All DVDs and BRs must have one, particularly if the film runs close to 2.5 hours.
Film historian Julie Kirgo, who also collaborated on The Robe commentary track, penned the lengthy booklet notes and provides a good overview of the cast within The Egyptian, plus the various figures who vied for roles, such as Marilyn Monroe who wanted to play Nefer (which would’ve been frankly quite bizarre).
Marlon Brando was initially cast, but according to the various stories, his departure was either one or a combination of loathing the script, disliking Darvi on sight, not getting along with director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), or thinking the rewrites and tight scheduling would’ve mucked up his own interpretation of Sinuhe. Brando soon fled the production, was threatened by Zanuck with a $2 million lawsuit, and eventually made peace by appearing with Jean Simmons in the melodrama Desirée [M] (1954).
Replacement actor Purdom actually suits his flawed, often weak-willed character, and Wilding is effective as the free-love, one God Akhnaton, dressed in costumes that are much more practical (and believable) than the designs in rival productions.
The film is also boosted by a fine supporting cast, including Peter Ustinov (Quo Vadis) as a thieving sidekick, similar to his role in Spartacus (which also co-starred Simmons); Tierney giving Baketamon an appropriate butch edge; and small roles filled by veterans such as Henry Daniell (a genius at playing nasal, scheming shits) and Carradine (beautiful in his lone scene). Fans will also recognize Michael Ansara (Star Trek), Leo Gordon (Hondo), and Mike Mazurki (Night and the City) in bit parts.
As for Bella Darvi, her sleek persona suited her seductive role, and while critics may have been piercingly unkind towards her acting chops, so-called cross-eyed gaze, and thick accent, she doesn’t gum it up. Her dialogue is simple, her movements often statuesque, and it’s only when she screams for aide at the murderous hands of Sinuhe that Darvi’s screeching voice and accent betray her limited character. (In other words, she’s not that bad.)
Although Zanuck tried to turn Bella Darvi into a star, neither Hell and High Water [M] (1954), The Egyptian (1954), nor The Racers (1955) helped, nor did having an affair with Darvi, which had her booted out of the Zanuck compound where she had been staying. The newbie actress returned to France where she made a handful of films (Rafles sur la ville, Le gorille vous salue bien) before gambling addiction, depression, and a dwindling acting career finally pushed her into managing a successful suicide attempt in 1971.
In their commentary, Silver and Ursini point out the peculiar irony in which Zanuck, like Sinuhe, sacrificed his marriage, his tenure as Fox's CEO (he would step down two years later to become an independent producer), and financial security to satisfy Darvi, in terms of building her career, paying off her debts, and moving to France in the hopes of maintaining a liaison that proved uterly futile.
Edmund Purdom never became a major star in Hollywood, in spite of co-starring with Lana Turner in MGM’s ‘scope production of The Prodigal (1955), and he soon evolved into journeyman, appearing various TV series and international productions, including Riccardo Freda’s Agguato a Tangeri (1957), and the budget epic Herod the Great (1959) before settling for whatever was in vogue in Italy during the late sixties and seventies.
Gene Tierney would co-star in two more ‘scope films for Fox – Black Widow (1954) and The Left Hand of God [M] (1955) – before stepping away from acting due to a bout with depression. When she returned to the celluloid stage almost a decade later, her remaining roles were small & sporadic.
© 2011 Mark R. Hasan