The Egyptian (1954)

The Egyptian (Twilight Time)

Several years ago, the Seattle International Film Festival asked local critics to choose and present a favorite “guilty pleasure.” One chose the divinely silly Susan Slade, while another went for the historical comedy, Start the Revolution Without Me.

My pick was The Egyptian, Darryl F. Zanuck’s lush 1954 adaptation of Mika Waltari’s once-popular novel (the No. 1 best-seller of 1950) about the revolutionary reign of the “heretic pharaoh,” Akhenaten, who established a form of monotheism that was quickly dismantled by his successors.

I don’t regret the “guilty pleasure” label – parts of the picture are incredibly cheesy, especially the woozier patches of dialogue and the casting of heavily accented Bella Darvi as a Babylonian whore. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Spouting lines like “I’m an evil woman, Sinuhe” and “I did not ask for this trash,” Darvi could give Maria Montez a run for her money in the camp sweepstakes. But she seems to have wandered in from a different, sleazier, less ambitious picture.

The Egyptian was the first movie I’d seen that took a single central character from childhood to death. Its dark, troubling, sometimes pretentious account of that journey made a lasting impression. So did the lavish visualization of ancient Egypt. It’s full of lines like “all existence is vanity” and “I made the evil in myself,” as its self-loathing hero tries to come to terms with a mostly wasted life. Seeing it for the first time as a nine-year-old, I was riveted by an ancient-world epic that entertained such pessimistic thoughts and didn’t deal simply with the triumph of good. When Cecil B. DeMille’s staff first saw it, they stopped worrying that The Ten Commandments, the less ambiguous Egyptian epic DeMille was preparing, would be challenged by it at the box office.

The central character is not Akhenaten but the fictional Sinuhe, a peasant boy who is actually of royal birth (his fate is an ironic variation on the Moses story), though he doesn’t know this as he grows up to become pharaoh’s physician. When he makes a mess of his life, betraying his parents as he pursues the manipulative Babylonian, Sinuhe runs away from his birthplace, returning years later to see Akhenaten’s revolution collapse in civil war. Disillusioned by pharaoh’s mistakes and his own dubious adventures in other lands, Sinuhe is at first skeptical about Akhenaten’s achievements, and he prepares to be the king’s executioner.

Although the script fails to dramatize correctly what happened after pharaoh’s death (there is no mention of King Tut, who may have been his son), most of what happens before his demise is historically accurate. Since so much of his legacy was deliberately destroyed by his successors, there are still crucial gaps. Whether the king was a destructive fanatic or an ahead-of-his-time idealist is still being debated. Every decade or so brings a new Akhenaten book and a fresh attempt to stir up the controversy. Michael Wilding’s careful, nuanced performance as Akhenaten can be read both ways. “Tear down the mountains, empty the seas, strip the sky of stars, and still you haven’t touched God,” he says in one of his more selfless philosophical moments. But this is immediately followed by a pompous suggestion of exclusivity: “I am fortunate beyond other men that he permitted me to recognize him.”

John Carradine and Edmond Purdom

At the time of its release, The Egyptian was less popular than such Christian epics as The Robe and Quo Vadis, perhaps because it deals with a religious revolution that failed. It seems less simplistic and more watchable today, partly because of Michael Curtiz’s slick direction, the painstakingly recreated sets and costumes, Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-nominated CinemaScope cinematography and a soaring score (the one-time-only collaboration of Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman) – all of which help to keep it interesting on so many levels.

The Oscar-winning director of Casablanca, Curtiz also made King Creole (arguably Elvis Presley’s best picture), The Sea Wolf (a triumph for Edward G. Robinson), Yankee Doodle Dandy (James Cagney’s sole Oscar winner), Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford’s sole Oscar winner) and he co-directed The Adventures of Robin Hood (Errol Flynn’s wittiest swashbuckler). Curtiz’s reliance on evocative montages and headlong pacing are evident throughout. The vivid opening sequence quickly establishes that, while the Egyptians may have been surrounded by monuments and justifications for their creation, they were still recognizably human.

The script ends by trying to make a link between Akhenaten and Judaism/Christianity, just as Freud did in “Moses and Monotheism,” suggesting that monotheism simply went underground after Akhenaten’s demise. Sinuhe the non-believer becomes the new religion’s spokesperson, eventually exiled to the Red Sea for his heresies.

Marlon Brando was scheduled to play Sinuhe, but he balked at the script and co-star Darvi and ended up making a much duller historical film (playing Napoleon in Desiree). Edmund Purdom cannot fill Brando’s shoes in the role, and he frequently makes lines like “I believe in nothing” sound simply whiny. This effect may have been partly intentional. Peter Ustinov, playing a wily comic-relief servant, openly mocks Sinuhe’s kvetching at one point, and Sinuhe’s boyhood geekiness is used to make a deliberate contrast with his more vulgar pal Horemheb (Victor Mature). But Purdom grows into the part, even if he can’t make a lot of sense of the character’s sudden conversion and his endless speechifying. Two Hollywood pros, Philip Dunne and Casey Robinson, wrote the frequently talky script, which unfortunately reaches its nadir with Sinuhe’s last act of verbal defiance.

The supporting actors often carry the film, especially Ustinov, John Carradine as a philosophical grave robber and Jean Simmons as Sinuhe’s devoted girlfriend; Ustinov and Simmons seem to be preparing for similar roles in 1960’s Spartacus. Gene Tierney is a knockout as Akhenaten’s butch sister and Judith Evelyn is briefly commanding as Akhenaten’s hard-drinking, tart-tongued mother, who thinks her children exchanged gender roles at birth. “The gods were perverse,” she complains. That wouldn’t make a bad alternate title for The Egyptian.

What finally carries the movie and lifts it above most sword-and-sandal spectacles is Curtiz’s dramatization of an important turning point in human history, when the most powerful man in the western world chose radical, progressive change over religious and aesthetic tradition and political pragmatism. “Have I the power to change the law?” asks Akhenaten when faced with an ancient rule that says he must execute two innocent men. His priests concede that there is no limit to pharaoh’s power. “Then the law is changed,” he says almost casually. His reign ended in chaos and tragedy, but it lasted 17 years. No other film has told his story.

Now available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Screen Archives, with audio commentary by Alain Silver and James Ursini ($39.95). Both editions are limited to 3000 copies.

Gene Tierney as Akhenaten’s butch sister