Fox // 1954 // 139 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 26th, 2011
To Nefer, shameless temptress of Babylon, he surrendered his parents' hope of immortality!
"These things happened thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ." -- An end title card, perhaps designed to make us marvel at the main character's distinctly Christian-ish religious beliefs.
Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom, Herod the Great) began life much the same way Moses did: he was placed into a basket and shipped down the Nile. He was adopted by a kindly physician and determined to follow in his father's footsteps as he entered adulthood. Through a series of remarkable coincidences, Sinuhe is selected as the official physician of Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding, Stage Fright). Over the course of his colorful life, Sinuhe becomes close friends with a bold military man (Victor Mature, Kiss of Death) and a one-eyed beggar (Peter Ustinov, Spartacus). In addition, he strikes up romantic relationships with the tender Merit (Jean Simmons, The Big Country), the power-hungry Baketamon (Gene Tierney, Laura) and the seductive Nefer (Bella Darvi, The Racers).
Lavish historical dramas were faring quite well during the 1950s, due in large part to the massive success of the 1953 spectacle The Robe. Eager to recapture the success of that drama, Daryl F. Zanuck quickly greenlit an adaptation of Mika Waltari's sprawling novel The Egyptian. Unfortunately, the massively expensive production would prove considerably less memorable than its predecessor.
Watching the film today, there's a distinct sense of deja vu: The Egyptian feels very much like Cecil B. DeMille's The Ten Commandments, both in terms of its "a noble man's on-and-off relationship with Pharaoh" plot and its production design. The latter item is easily explained: desperate to recoup some of the massive budget, the producers sold many of the props from this film to Paramount for use in The Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, the story (a meandering fusion of lofty-yet-dusty philosophical discussion and overheated romance) just isn't as compelling as DeMille's fiery biblical drama. This is the sort of contrived, melodramatic saga that gives the genre a reputation as being tiresomely bloated. The film isn't as long as many of this sort, but even 139 minutes is too long for the story being told. Strike that: it's too long for the story being told with this cast.
The spotty script is an issue, but the film's biggest problems come from the casting department. The lead role had initially been offered to Marlon Brando (who might have done something interesting with this conflicted character), but poor Edmund Purdom is outacted at every turn by his more experienced co-stars (even the often-stiff Victor Mature runs circles around Purdom in terms of charisma). He seems to be striving for the kind of no-nonsense decency of Gregory Peck, but his line readings have zero personality. Even worse is the attractive but alarmingly untalented Bella Darvi (Zanuck's mistress at the time she was cast) as Nefer. Hers is one of the film's most crucial roles (Marilyn Monroe actively lobbied for the part when the film was in pre-production), but Darvi turns every one of her dramatic scenes into thickly-sliced Colby Jack.
The Egyptian arrives on Blu-ray sporting a strong 1080p/2.55:1 transfer. The colors are bright and vibrant, detail is solid and a layer of natural grain has been left intact. A few scenes look a bit softer than I would have liked, but this isn't a huge issue. The image also looks a bit warped on occasion due to the fact that The Egyptian was shot in Cinemascope (this is impossible to correct short of employing the sort of "Smile-vision" option used on the How the West Was Won Blu-ray). Audio is exceptional throughout, with the score remaining remarkably crisp despite its age. The dialogue is clean and clear, and the handful of action-oriented scenes manage to retain impressive clarity. The extras are more involving than the film itself: a terrific commentary from film historians Alain Silver and James Ursani, an isolated score track, a trailer and a booklet featuring a very casual, enjoyable essay from Julie Kirgo (who cheekily claims that Zanuck was "thinking with his little brain" when he cast Darvi in the film).
Note: This Blu-ray is a limited edition release. Only 3,000 copies are being made available, so act quickly if you want one.
The movie gets the big things wrong, but there are quite a few small pleasures to be had. As I mentioned earlier, the supporting cast fares quite well. Predictably, Ustinov steals every scene he appears in (just as he did in so many films, including Spartacus). Tierney and Simmons do strong work; particularly the former in an atypical role. Perhaps best of all is John Carradine, who is nothing short of magnificent in a small role as a grave robber. Carradine is one of those fleeting figures so compelling that he briefly makes us feel as if we're watching a different, better film.
The film's greatest virtue is unquestionably its score, written by the single greatest pairing of composers in Hollywood history: Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. The two musical legends have dramatically different voices, but they work together astonishingly well. Newman's trademark strings and gift for memorable melody fuses beautifully with Hermmann's more jagged, mysterious intonations. It's a fantastic film score that actually lives up to the promise suggested by the pairing of two great composers (as opposed to the anticlimactic results of James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer tag-teaming on Christopher Nolan's Batman flicks).
Despite a great score, strong production design and an excellent supporting cast, The Egyptian never becomes as interesting on the screen as it must have seemed on the page. Twilight Time's Blu-ray release is solid, though.
Guilty, but sentencing will be light.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.55:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 139 Minutes
Release Year: 1954
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Isolated Score