The Oscar Project
I find it a little hard to believe that I’m sitting writing my 20th post for this series already. (Technically it’s my 18th since I think I missed two back last month.) When I tried to do this challenge a few years ago, I flamed out after only two weeks, and now I’ve gone ten times that duration.
As I mentioned in my post the other day, the category for this week was A Film From Your Favorite Time Period. This could obviously be any period in history, and you could pick as broad or narrow a time period as you want. My pick was Ancient Egypt for a few reasons. I’ve always been obsessed with that period in history as far back as I can remember. I’m not sure if it’s simply based on the amazing architecture they developed in the pyramids and enormous temples, but I know that had a lot to do with it. I also really like the visual art they created, and the entire idea of hieroglyphics as a form of writing. I even went as far as to try and learn some basic hieroglyphic symbols at one point when reading through everything my local library had on Ancient Egypt.
Now, there are plenty of movies I could have picked from. There are any number of adaptations of the story of Cleopatra, several versions of The Ten Commandments, The Prince of Egypt, and too many mummy related films to list. But I wanted to go in a direction I hadn’t explored before, and came across the 1954 CinemaScope epic The Egyptian. It looked interesting and I’d never really heard of it before, so I decided to give it a shot.
Sinuhe soon befriends a man named Horemheb (Victor Mature) and goes out lion hunting with him in the wilderness. While chasing a lion, they come across the newly crowned Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding) and save him from being killed by a lion. As reward for this act, Sinuhe is made the court physician and Horemheb is given a post in the royal guard. Sinuhe enjoys the work in the court, but is pulled away from helping the poor, the real reason he became a physician. He also falls in love with a courtesan named Nefer (Bella Darvi) and squanders his family’s wealth on gifts for her. When he parents die, he is forced to bury them in unmarked graves, having sold off their tomb in the name of love.
At this time, Sinuhe also runs into a former love interest from the city named Merit (Jean Simmons) who warns him that Akhnaton has condemned him to death, blaming Sinuhe for the death of one of his daughters. Sinuhe is forced to flee with his servant Kaptah (Peter Ustinov). He spends years outside of Egypt before running into a group of Hittites that plan to attack Egypt using their superior iron weaponry. In exchange for treating one of their officers, he obtains an iron sword which he brings back to Egypt to show Horemheb, now captain of the royal guard.
Sinuhe also reunites with Merit and discovers that she has a son Thoth (Tommy Rettig). After treating the boy for some minor injuries, it is revealed that Sinuhe is the father and the boy dreams of one day becoming a physician as well.
It is soon revealed that Horemheb and several priests are attempting to remove Akhnaton from power and ask that Sinuhe “accidentally” kill the ruler while trying to treat him. Sinuhe initially refuses, but eventually acquiesces, agreeing to poison Akhnaton, but also planning to poison Horemheb and take his own place as pharaoh after finding out that he was secretly the son of the previous pharaoh. However, upon listening to Akhnaton speak as he dies, Sinuhe realizes that Horemheb should be the one to rule and reveals his plan before Horemheb can drink from the poisoned cup. Horemheb takes the throne and marries the princess. In the end, the story returns to where is started as Sinuhe finishes writing his story in exile on the shores of the Red Sea in hopes that Thoth or his descendants will someday find it.
At first glance, some of the pieces of this film might seem intriguing. We have stories of lion hunts, a war between the Hittites and Egyptians, and political intrigue. Unfortunately, most of the focus of the film seems to have been on crating lavish sets to fill with hundreds of extras, all decked out in what were thought to be period accurate costumes. That left little time or money for portraying the battles described in conversations or the ability to create any substantial action in the film. Maybe I’m just biased by how I would imagine a film like this would be made today, but there was so much more potential here than what was realized.
That said, the sets and costumes are by far the best part about this film. Being made in the 1950s, they obviously didn’t have the ability to shoot on location in Egypt, and many of the scenes depicting the Egyptian city, you can usually tell where the physical set ends and the painted backdrop begins. But that doesn’t take away from the sheer scale of what is being shown on the screen. Top that off with the exquisite costumes, especially for characters like the pharaoh and other royalty and the film is truly a visual spectacle.
But visual sizzle doesn’t make a film. Part of what similar films of the era so popular (The Ten Commandments, The Robe, Ben-Hur) was the story. Yes, there were visual spectacles as well, but there was more substance to the stories to support that. This is something that holds true as much today as it did 70 years ago, perhaps even more so today when there are so many more visual flashes that can be added to films, and done so more and more cheaply with every passing day. The biggest offense of this in The Egyptian comes during the lion hunt early in the film. Sinuhe and Horemheb are driving a chariot while chasing the lion and the film uses the classic rear projection technique to get the moving. It may have looked amazing at the time, but to today’s audiences, it looks corny and old.
My other issue with this film’s story is that it was hard to follow. Part of that may be due to the missing audio on the version I watched. I wasn’t able to find a copy on physical media in any libraries near me, so I resorted to a YouTube copy. Unfortunately, this file was missing several minutes of audio in various places throughout the film, often in key moments of dialogue. This meant I had to go back and read plot summaries to fully understand what was going on in these moments. Even with that, there were elements of the plot that felt tacked on or unnecessary, almost like the filmmakers created the sets and costumes first, and then had to cobble together a story to fit all the impressive sets.
In the end, The Egyptian is a forgettable 1950s film. There are better options made during this period, and better options set during a similar period. My favorite film set in Egypt still remains The Prince of Egypt and I might just have to go back and watch that again as a palette cleanser after this film. If you’re a die hard fan of Egyptian history and haven’t seen this film, you might want to carve out two hours for it, but otherwise I would recommend avoiding it.
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?