History & Film: The Egyptian
In high school, when I was out for the summer, I’d stay up late for marathon viewing of American Movie Classics (back when AMC actually showed classic movies; those were the days). During one such session, I flipped on the magical glowing rectangle to the sight of Gene Tierney, engaged in some sort of archery contest with Victor Mature, both of them costumed in 1950s Hollywood’s take on ancient Egyptian. From the moment I first saw her chilling performance in the lake scene in Leave Her to Heaven, I’ve loved Gene Tierney. At the time, I was also making a somewhat obsessive study of the Amarna period in fact and fiction. Having just finished Allen Drury’s novels, A God against the Gods and Return to Thebes, stumbling across Twentieth Century Fox’s The Egyptian (1954) seemed the loveliest kind of serendipity.
The Amarna period has fascinated Egyptologists since they first unearthed hints of the Heretic King and his city devoted to one god, the many-rayed sun disc, Aten. For those unfamiliar, the basics: Akhenaten (reigned c. 1353-1336 BC) was a pharaoh of the 18th dynasty who inherited a stable and prosperous Egypt that worshipped many different gods, chief amongst whom was Amun, the Hidden One. But Akhenaten was different, some even said mad, and he and his beautiful wife, Nefertiti, dismantled Egypt’s centuries-old traditions, smashed temples, and moved the capital from Thebes to the desert, all in an attempt to elevate the Aten and destroy the old gods, especially Amun and his powerful priesthood. The result was the epithet “Heretic King,” a country that collapsed from within and was beset from without, and successors who attempted to erase Akhenaten from the historical record.
The Egyptian approaches Akhenaten tangentially, through the story of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a young physician of mysterious origin, raised by loving foster parents. His heart is in the right place; he struggles to help the poor and is particularly adept at the art of “opening skulls” (aka trepanning). When out lion hunting with his super-macho BFF, Horemheb (Victor Mature), the two happen upon a man who turns out to be Pharaoh Akhnaton [sic] (Michael Wilding), out in the desert communing with his god. When Akhnaton suffers an epileptic seizure and Sinuhe manages to help him, Akhnaton elevates him to court physician and Horemheb to the Royal Guard.
Sinuhe is the object of devotion for a lowly tavern maid, Merit (Jean Simmons), but manages to throw happiness away with both hands by pursuing instead a gold-digging, literal whore of Babylon, Nefer (Bella Darvi), who warns him again and again not to fall in love with her. In an epic win of the Poor Judgment Award, Sinuhe elbows through the scores of men at Nefer’s palatial estate to creepily ogle her and give her gifts he cannot afford. Stroking her long-haired cat like a Bond villain, Nefer slowly bankrupts Sinuhe, and since he’s now given her not just all his worldly possessions, but also the deeds to his parents’ home and tombs (thus robbing them of eternal life), Sinuhe expects to finally be carnally rewarded. Instead, finished playing with her mouse, Nefer has Sinuhe thrown out into the gutter and barred from ever entering her home again. Meanwhile, his parents have died, collateral damage of Sinuhe’s own actions, and Pharaoh has had Sinuhe’s life declared forfeit, Pharaoh’s daughter having died while the court physician was too enthralled with a merciless Babylonian to provide medical attention to a sick little girl. Merit stands by her man, and they spend one night together before Sinuhe slips out of the country to try to rebuild his life.
He returns years later, rich and forgiven by Pharaoh, to an Egypt in a state of collapse. The Hittites threaten, there are riots in the streets, and even Nefertiti fears her husband has gone mad with his all-consuming devotion to the Aten. Encouraged by Pharaoh’s sister Baketamon (Gene Tierney) and Akhnaton’s coarse, hard-drinking mother, Taia (who conveniently happens to know mind-blowing secrets about Sinuhe’s origins), Horemheb and Sinuhe hatch a plan to poison Pharaoh in order to save Egypt.
Does all this sound a bit…convoluted? It is. And I haven’t really covered all the major characters or plot points (Merit is a follower of the Aten, a child becomes involved, there’s a wily eye-patched servant played by Peter Ustinov…). The Egyptian is a long movie (almost 2.5 hours), and the plotting was described by more than one reviewer with the adjective “ponderous.” As a matter of fact, a contemporary review from the 50s noted that the movie “glistens with archaeological scenery, rumbles deeply with a sense of human woe — and moves at the pace of a death march.”1 Yet this is not unexpected for a movie of this genre from Hollywood’s Golden Age: historical epics usually subordinated plot to lush cinematography and costuming, pageantry, crowd scenes and, it must be admitted, acting styles that can now seem overtly artificial. Purdom as Sinuhe is most often described as “earnest” in his role, and he’s certainly the most subdued of all the portrayals (one gentle blogger rated him a 7 out of 10 on the Soporific Scale). Nefer, whose thick French accent lends exoticism but makes about three words in five comprehensible, and bug-eyed lush Taia (Judith Evelyn) are caricatures more than characters; Victor Mature isn’t much more subtle. Marlon Brando was originally signed to play Sinuhe (though I’d see him more as a Horemheb), and I’ve wondered how that casting change would’ve affected the acting and dynamics in this film. Despite the ostentatious visual whirlwind going on in most historical epics, they still typically feature a dynamic lead – Kirk Douglas in Spartacus, Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. Purdom’s sedate portrayal gives rise to the question of whether a film can stand on its pageantry alone, with the help of some vibrant secondary characters (such as the aforementioned Gene Tierney). I think the answer The Egyptian provides is a qualified yes.
Like “reality” television today, The Egyptian isn’t meant to adhere to any kind of authenticity in its acting or its plotting (which we’ll be kind and call ahistorical); it’s a melodrama, plain and simple. In the same vein as The Robe and The Ten Commandments (which reused some of The Egyptian’s sets), The Egyptian is also a Christian epic, of sorts. I see you scratching your head – wait, I thought you said this was about the collapse of 18th-dynasty Egypt, and…wouldn’t that be at least 13 centuries before the birth of Christ? As Akhnaton sits dying upon his throne, he gazes at the Aten disc upon the wall, and has an epiphany: he’s been under a misapprehension all along about what his deity was trying to tell him – it isn’t the sun he should’ve been worshipping, but the Son of God. Cut to epilogue. Even as a teenager, I laughed (quietly, because I wasn’t supposed to be watching TV at 3 a.m.) at this “revelation.” But later reading led me to the awareness that it actually wasn’t just another example of Hollywood ignoring context in a clumsy attempt to relate two completely unrelated things. Akhenaten as the world’s first monotheist has given rise to more than one theory by scholars who paint him as possible precursor to, influence on, or even alter-ego of Moses himself (I’m not making this up – Freud advanced this theory in his work, Moses and Monotheism). And that, Dear Reader, is the path Akhnaton takes from Heretic Pharaoh to responsibility for the rise of Christianity in the film, because perhaps he was actually Moses. Or maybe Sinuhe was. (It turns out there are basket-boated babies plucked from the Nile in The Egyptian as well.) While most who can tell time, suffer periodic bursts of common sense, and parse basic facts into appropriate categories don’t subscribe to such creative theories, it’s worth noting that Hollywood didn’t come up with this whole Akenaten = Christian/Moses deal on its own. There is actually scholarly precedent.
In addition to capitalizing on the Christian epics popular at the time, The Egyptian was also meant to get out ahead of other Egyptian-themed films which Fox knew were in the works by its competitors, specifically The Valley of the Kings (MGM) and Land of the Pharaohs (Warner Bros.). A further, seemingly paradoxical, factor that may have influenced Fox’s choice of this particular property was its perceived ties to salaciousness. The film is based upon the book, The Egyptian (originally published in Finnish as Sinuhe Egyptiläinen), by Mika Waltari. Translated into English and first published in the United States in 1949, the book was rather histrionically labeled by many of the morality brigade as “obscene.” Just like everyone in 1949 (sales figures for the book were phenomenal), as soon as I saw that word “obscene,” I went to check it out from the library and give it a read. All I can say is, if I hadn’t already been convinced by news sites, flipping on the TV, and what I see people wearing/doing on the street…I’m pretty sure 1940s obscene and today’s obscene aren’t the same thing. There really isn’t a great deal of comparison that can be made between the book and movie. They share some plotting elements, but the book is an accomplished literary work concerned with historicity (the author availed himself of the archaeological research and scholarship available at the time it was written), and it’s much more imaginative and adept with its pacing than the “ponderous” film epic it spawned.
Yet most critics have been, in my opinion (take it for what it’s worth), unduly unkind to this film. As I mentioned, historical accuracy and swiftness of plot aren’t why audiences flocked to historical epics during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and these factors aren’t why historical epics still hold appeal today. To sum it up in one word, it’s spectacle. The Egyptian, like its fellows in this genre, is a visual feast with a swelling score, all presented in mile-wide CinemaScope and hyper-saturated DeLuxe color. The emphatic acting (the film’s “star” excepted) combined with the scale of the sets and the detail of the costumes (e.g., Nefer’s rainbow colored wigs, the swing and click of beaded braids as she moves) makes for a viewing experience at once panoramic and granular. Our modern spectacles are smaller, more tawdry and ludicrous (reality TV in particular, I’m looking at you), but both they and the historical epics from the 1950s share the appeal of melodrama. Where the historical epics differ most are in their pretentions and scale, their very grandness. The Egyptian is a grand film. I found it fascinating to rest my eyes on at age 15, and if I randomly tap the Turner Classic Movies app on my iPad and it happens to be on…I’ll still stay up past my bedtime to watch it today.
1. Crowther, Bosley. “The Screen in Review; The Egyptian at the Roxy Is Based on the Novel.” New York Times, 25 August 1954. Accessed via http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C04E2D91531E43ABC4D51DFBE66838F649EDE&
About the contributor: BETHANY LATHAM is a professor, librarian, and Managing Editor of HNR. She publishes in various scholarly and popular journals, as well as writing for EBSCO’s NoveList database, and she serves as a regular reviewer for Reference Reviews.
Published in Historical Novels Review | Issue 77, August 2016