Friday, November 25, 2016

The Egyptian (USA, Michael Curtiz, 1954)

I saw this much earlier in the year through the graces of the Petrie Museum Film Club, with an introduction by the estimable John J. Johnston. It's a movie that deals with antiquity, rather than specifically Classical antiquity, though there is a very brief excursion to Minoan Crete. (Or is it Mycenaean Greece? It's not quite clear.)

The Egyptian, based on a 1945 novel by Finnish author Mika Waltari, is something of an overlooked oddity. Director Michael Curtiz, most famous for Casablanca, evidently did not value The Egyptian highly, to the point of refusing to co-operate with a retrospective at the British Film Institute unless this movie was removed from the programme. A whole range of actors rejected roles in the movie. The lead role was at one point offered to Marlon Brando, who had by this point demonstrated that he could do antiquity through his performance in Joseph Mackiewicz's Julius Caesar (1953), but he turned it down. Other people supposedly in the line for major roles were Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Dirk Bogarde, and more. In the event, the leads are played by the largely unknown Edward Purdom as Sinuhe, the eponymous Egyptian, with Michael Wilding as the Pharaoh Akhenaten, and Victor Mature, with plenty of experience in epics, as Horemheb, Sinuhe's friend and the man who will overthrow the Pharaoh. Peter Ustinov plays the slave Kaptah, faithful companion to Sinhue, and female support comes from Jean Simmons as love interest Merit, Gene Tierney as Akhenaton's sister Beketaten, and Bella Darvi as the courtesan Nefer.

Nobody, to be honest, is terribly good here. Ustinov looks unhappy. Tierney, essentially playing a version of the manipulative femme fatale that she had made her trademark, is out of place. Only Mature and Simmons looks like they are actually in roles that they can understand, and Simmons is not in the movie very much. Darvi, who got the role ahead of Marilyn Monroe because she was sleeping with the producer, is mostly there to titillate through near-translucent dresses. Purdom shows that he learnt his craft at the hands of Laurence Olivier by essentially doing an Olivier impersonation throughout. And there's a bizarre cameo by John Carradine as a grave robber. It's cruel, but not entirely unfair, to say that the best performance is actually given by a donkey halfway through the movie.

Part of the problem seems to be that the actors' performances don't really match other aspects of the movie. It's shot on an epic scale (including some scenes that look like they've been filmed in John Ford's beloved Monument Valley). But the performances seem on a much smaller scale, as if they are in a filmed play such as Caesar and Cleopatra.

If the movie is of interest, it is for two points. The first is the semi-tragic ending - Sinuhe dies having lost the love of his life in a religious massacre, in exile and separate from his son. The movie sets up this end right at the beginning, and to its credit, doesn't try to cheat the viewer.

The other interesting aspect is the way in which it demonstrates that almost all epics of the 1950s are essentially Biblical epics, even when they can't possibly be. So epics such as The Rope and Ben-Hur had the life of Christ at their core, or at least not far from the centre, Quo Vadis dealt with the early Christian Church, and movies such as The Ten Commandments and Solomon and Sheba explored the Old Testament. (Indeed, it might be argued that when ancient epics distanced themselves from the Bible and Christianity, with Cleopatra and The Fall of the Roman Empire, they were met with much less successful box office returns.)

It's now generally considered that there's nothing obviously Judaeo-Christian about the events of the reign of Akhenaten. However, in the nineteenth century, the religion of the Aten was seen as a monotheistic precursor of Christianity. The movie chooses to hammer through that connection. The worshippers of the Sun are presented as proto-Christians, dressed in white, desiring only peace, and willing to die for their beliefs. Akhenaten himself becomes, like Spartacus in Kubrick's movie six years later, a pseudo-Christ, and the idea that all these events merely foreshadow the life of Jesus is made explicit in the final caption. Towards the end of the movie Sinuhe delivers a defiant speech to Horemheb, now Pharaoh, one that is very similar to the speech delivered by Richard Burton's Marcellus Gallio to the emperor Caligula in The Robe.

Finally, it is worth mentioning how the movie reflects the essential racism of Hollywood in the 1950s. All of the characters who get to speak are white. There are black people in this movie, but they are all, without exception, slaves or servants of some description.

None of this makes The Egyptian a particularly good movie, though it does make it an interesting one.

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