Thursday, January 31, 2019

The Egyptian ( 1954 )

"I feel the fever of Thebes in my blood, and I know that I was born to live in the sunset of the world and that nothing matters, nothing, but what I see in your eyes."

Sinuhe, a poor orphan in Egypt during the eighteenth-dynasty, rises to fame as a great physician and, along with his friend Horemheb ( Victor Mature ) is appointed to the service of the new Pharaoh ( Michael Wilding ). During the span of ten years, he learns dangerous secrets in the royal court, discovers enemies plotting against the pharaoh, learns who his true friends are, and has a life-changing encounter with the temptress, Nefer ( Bella Darvi ). Along the journey, Sinuhe seeks to find the answer to a question that has aroused his curiosity since his youth - Who Am I? and Who is My God? 

The Egyptian, a 20th Century Fox release, was beautifully filmed in Cinemascope and featured a magnificent score by Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. It should rank among the top epics of the 1950s but unfortunately, it has not yet shaken its reputation of being the first box-office flop shot in Cinemascope. 

Why did it fail at the box-office? That's difficult to fathom because the film really is entertaining and the production quality is top-notch. Michael Curtiz ( Casablanca, Mildred Pierce ) directed the picture, which was based on Mika Waltari's best-selling novel "The Egyptian". 
This book was first published in 1945 in Finnish and is still considered one of the greatest books in Finnish literary history. The unchanging nature of mankind is essentially the theme to the novel and this provides the basis of the film, too, but, it being a Hollywood production, Nefer's seduction of Sinuhe and how this leads to his downfall gets the spotlight attention. Bella Darvi entraps her man so cunningly that he is bewitched and does not know that he is sacrificing everything he worked so hard to earn. Or rather, he does know but is addicted to her love by that point. 

It is only Kaptah ( Peter Ustinov ) and Merit ( Jean Simmons ), his two dear friends from his days in poverty, that stay near him in his hour of peril. Merit has loved him since he was a boy but he is blind to it and instead, searches for a greater meaning to his life outside of his medical work. Merit is such a lovely character, so loyal to Sinuhe, which makes it especially difficult to watch him cast her aside. 

On the opposite scale is another romance, a much more animal relationship, between the Pharoah's sister ( Gene Tierney ) and Horemheb, who is seeking to use her to climb his way up to becoming the commander of the Egyptian army. 

The Egyptian has as much intrigue in its production history as it does in its plot. The film was originally planned as an epic vehicle for Marlon Brando. Kirk Douglas and Jean Peters were to be his co-stars, but just a week before filming was to begin, Brando backed out....hence, the role was given to MGM-star Edmund Purdum ( after Cameron Mitchell, Farley Granger and Dirk Bogarde were all first dismissed ). 

Peters was later replaced by Simmons, and Kirk Douglas went on to make 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea instead. Bella Darvi was a protege of producer Darryl Zanuck and his wife Virginia ( "Darvi" is a combination of their first names ) and, at the time of filming, Darryl was besotted with Bella, so the film really became a way for him to promote her career as well. 

The picture had an enormous budget of $3.5 million dollars. Many of the sets, costumes, and props were later loaned to Paramount for Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, which was released the same year. Peter Ustinov, when asked what it was like being involved in such an enormous production, said, "It was like being on a monstrously huge set of Aida and not being able to find the way out."

"I have spent my life in seeking knowledge. This is what I know. I have written this for you my son, wherever you are and for your children and your children's children. It's a poor legacy. But it's all I have."

The Egyptian has always been a personal favorite of mine because it mixes action and adventure with romance and the drama of Sinuhe's life, from his quick rise to becoming a physician to the pharaoh, to being a condemned criminal and an outcast in his homeland. The entire cast is excellent, especially Peter Ustinov, who provides some comic relief. Also in the cast is Henry Daniell, John Carradine, Judith Evelyn, Tommy Rettig, and Michael Ansara. 

This review is my contribution to the 90 Years of Jean Simmons Blogathon running today through January 31st. It is being hosted by The Wonderful World of Cinema and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies, so be sure to head over to either of these sites to read more Jean Simmons film reviews!


  1. I saw a bit of this once and made a note to check out the entire movie. Looks like I shall have to move it up on the old watch list.

    1. Yes, do that. It moves along slowly but if you catch it from the beginning you'll find it very engrossing. I thought Michael Wilding's performance was quite moving, too.

  2. Great article! I yet have to see this film but you make it sounds fabulous! Your article really made me wonder why it wasn't a better hit at the box office! Thanks again for your contribution to the blogathon!

  3. I have put off watching this for years. The only reason I wanted to see it is because of Gene Tierney. You've written such a glowing, and interesting review though, that I'm looking forward to watching it now. I had no idea the film was adapted from a Finnish novel. Thanks so much for sharing your passion for this film.

  4. THE EGYPTIAN has many virtues, which you describe well. However, I have always found Edmund Purdom to be dull. For me, he keeps the film from reaching its full potential. Now, if Dirk Bogarde had been cast in the lead, it would likely be a different story!

  5. Simmons and Ancient Egypt. Sign me up! Sounds like an interesting movie and epic in every sense. Thanks for bringing it to everyone's attention for this blogathon!

  6. Great post thank you