In the sunset of the world: The Egyptian (Michael Curtiz, 1954)

theegyptian

More than many other historical eras, Ancient Egypt has a wide-reaching appeal. Who doesn’t find it intriguing in some way? Odd, then, that it should have so rarely been brought to life on the big screen. Is expense the issue, or was 1963’s Cleopatra such a bomb that it took a chunk of the genre out with it? Whatever the reason, while it’s hard to claim that any particularly good films have been made about Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian certainly isn’t the worst attempt.

This film follows the life of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a real folkloric figure. Abandoned at birth and adopted by a doctor, Sinuhe’s fortunes rise and fall. Babylonian temptress Nefer (Bella Darvi), ambitious soldier Horemheb (Victor Mature), loyal barmaid Merit (Jean Simmons), wily princess Baketamon (Gene Tierney) and weak Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding) figure largely in his story.

The Egyptian is hampered by an unremittingly slow pace. Even where particular outcomes are clearly evident well in advance, events proceed methodically. Nearly all of the conversations unfold at half their ideal speed. The film is over two hours long, but doesn’t need to be.

Not to say that The Egyptian doesn’t have its fair share of memorable characters and performances. Though Purdom is competent but lacking spark, Mature plays his character to the hilt. Darvi, best known (and unkindly mocked) as Daryl F. Zanuck’s then-girlfriend, makes Nefer a peculiar creature – in that blue wig, she could be from another planet. Peter Ustinov offers lively comic relief as Kaptah, Sinuhe’s self-appointed servant. Simmons’s Merit is a steady presence, while Michael Wilding conveys that Akhnaton is not completely situated in the physical world (for better or worse). Tierney is a real delight – she was made for these sort of costumes, and though it isn’t a typical role for her, she’s quite good at playing tough. John Carradine, not always a guarantee of quality, is so good as a grave robber that his single scene becomes the film’s standout moment.

I bring the same complaint to The Egyptian that I have to other historical epics: there’s not enough closeups. This may have something to do with the difficulties of achieving proper focus in Cinemascope. Regardless, there’s a distancing effect that becomes a real drawback in a film that’s already not especially gripping.

When the dialogue fails to engage, there’s plenty to look at, at least. Various historical artifacts, such as Nefertiti’s headdress, have been authentically recreated here. Street scenes bustle with life. Akhnaton’s throneroom, which cost $85 000 to build, never gets dull. The costumes and wigs are gorgeous throughout; if accurately replicating these is an impediment to getting this time period onscreen, then at least there’s plenty of them to savour here.

The Egyptian does feel ponderous, but this is partly a side effect of one of its more impressive qualities. It’s ultimately a story about the meaning of life; Sinuhe is an intellectual who’s trying to find his place in the world. The film becomes a tragedy by avoiding the conclusions that other films would have chosen: Sinuhe gets neither love and poverty nor wealth and power. His claim that he’s living “in the sunset of the world” is given lasting impact as he loses everything, and Egypt seems poised to fall into dark times.

The film does suggest a new dawn is coming. It’s hard to find a historical epic from the 50s that’s not Biblical, and though I thought The Egyptian would be an exception, it sneaks a Christian message in at the end. Ironically, Akhnaton’s view of the world as God’s temple is not terribly specific to any religion, but the film seizes on his monotheism as a harbinger of the coming of Christ. This is the only upside of the film’s ending – as far as it goes.

Within a few years, Gods of Egypt, starring Gerard Butler (the Victor Mature of our times?!), will make its way to a cineplex near you. No doubt it will be a CGI-driven extravaganza that won’t have a fraction of The Egyptian’s thoughtfulness, but just as much white-washing. For its traces of historical accuracy and occasional high points, I’ll be looking back on The Egyptian with a certain amount of tempered admiration when that time comes.

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