…and it’s a historical, again!
Frequent visitors to this blog would probably by now have realised that I have a weakness for history and historical films. Give me a sword and sandals epic, a Mughal extravaganza, or just about any film set in the ancient, medieval, or even early modern world, and I’m happy. Even happier when it’s a somewhat unusual setting. And more when the film maker has spent two years researching the film.
The Egyptian is set in the Egypt of 3,300 years ago. The main story plays out as a flashback, the memories of old Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), who looks back on his life.
Sinuhe had been found, tucked into a reed basket tied with fowler’s knots, floating down the Nile—the traditional way of getting rid of unwanted babies in ‘the queen of cities, Thebes of a hundred gates’. A physician and his family had found the baby, brought him ashore, and brought him up their foster son, Sinuhe (‘he who is alone’).
Inspired by his foster-father, Sinuhe too decides to be a physician. When he is old enough, therefore, he joins the School of Life, where youths come from all over Egypt to learn: everything from medicine to the art of war. While at the school, Sinuhe makes friends with the boisterous Horemheb (Victor Mature), the son of a cheesemaker but with ambitions above his station: Horemheb wants to be a soldier, an officer in Pharaoh’s army.
When they finally leave school, Sinuhe gathers up his potions and instruments and sets out for another neighbourhood, so that he doesn’t steal, even unwittingly, any of his foster-father’s patients. It is, however, very difficult to find patients, as Sinuhe soon discovers for himself as he wanders the street, looking for the ill or injured.
A passing one-eyed beggar, Kaptah (Peter Ustinov), whom Sinuhe offers to examine—hoping that he can heal that eye—tells Sinuhe there’s no hope for the eye. It was put out a long time back by one of Kaptah’s ex-masters, who’d found Kaptah stealing his beer and replacing it with something else (Kaptah doesn’t say what, and we’re left to make our own guesses). This man has a wry sense of humour, and Sinuhe warms to him quickly.
In the meantime, the Pharaoh dies. The news is announced all across Thebes.
And, also in the meantime, Sinuhe becomes somewhat acquainted with the lovely tavern maid Merit (Jean Simmons). Sinuhe goes about blissfully unaware that Merit has fallen in love with him; he is more intent on making a living as a physician.
Also among those who frequent the tavern where Merit works is Sinuhe’s bosom buddy, Horemheb. Horemheb is thoroughly disheartened, since he’s been turned down for the army.
To help swallow his own disappointment, Horemheb proposes a chariot ride out into the desert, where he’s seen a black-maned lion. They’ll hunt the lion, he says, and overrules Sinuhe’s protests.
So they set off, find the lion, give chase, and run up against a very odd sight: a man (Michael Wilding) clad in white robes, worshipping an image of the sun painted on a rock.
A fool, says Horemheb, since the man doesn’t budge even when the lion comes racing straight at him. Forget about budging, the sun-worshipper is so oblivious, he doesn’t even glance over his shoulder or acknowledge the presence of the lion—or of his two rescuers, since:
(a) Horemheb shoots an arrow, killing the lion at the critical moment; and
(b) when the man, shortly after, has a seizure, Sinuhe attends to him
The two friends are looking after this convulsing stranger when a contingent of soldiers arrives, headed by an imperious officer who commands them to arrest Horemheb and Sinuhe. The as-yet-unproven physician and his-would-be-soldier friend are baffled: they’ve not done anything even vaguely illegal; why then are they being arrested?
They find out in two days’ time, when the new Pharaoh, Akhenaton, arrives in court, and both Horemheb and Sinuhe are produced in front of him. Pharaoh is the man they’d found in the desert!
And this is where they realise, too, why they’d been arrested: it is against the law to touch the person of Pharaoh.
Akhenaton, fortunately, has the sense to know that by touching him Sinuhe had saved his life, and that Horemheb, by killing the lion, had also saved him. He therefore (much to the discomfiture of the officer-minister who had ordered the arrest) summarily amends the law. And bestows the title of royal physician on Sinuhe.
Sinuhe’s sudden and meteoric rise to potential fame and fortune has not gone unnoticed. In court, watching him with interest, are the Pharaoh’s mother Taia (Judith Evelyn) and her daughter, Pharaoh’s sister Baketamon (Gene Tierney).
When Pharaoh and his entourage (including his queen and their three darling little princesses—a sweet touch, that) leave the court, the Queen Mother has Sinuhe summoned. When he arrives, she questions him. He had mentioned in court, when Akhenaton asked him his antecedents, that he had been found in a reed basket tied with fowler’s knots. Has he any idea who his real parents were?
Sinuhe admits he does not know. On further questioning, he tells her that he was born in the same year as Pharaoh, a fact that seems to unsettle the queen. Sinuhe also notices that the Queen Mother, who has been weaving, is weaving a mat of fowler’s knots—how can this be? The queen tells him then that she is of humble origin: not a fine lady like the late Pharaoh’s other wives.
When the conversation is over and Sinuhe is dismissed, Horemheb decides that this elevation in their respective positions is cause for celebration. A celebration in the form of a party being hosted at the house of a Babylonian woman named Nefer (Bella Darvi).
At Nefer’s house, amid music and song and plenty of beautiful women, the shy Sinuhe finds himself out of his depth—and, at the same time, very attracted to his luscious hostess.
It seems, too, that his attention is neither unnoticed nor unwelcome. When her other guests have gone off to ‘wander in the gardens’ (one wonders how much wandering those guests actually did), Nefer shows Sinuhe the back door of her house and tells him that there’s where she wants him to come in, once all her other guests have left. Invitations don’t get more blatant than that.
Sinuhe admits, in this conversation, that he’s an absolute innocent, and Nefer (who is obviously a literal embodiment of the Whore of Babylon) laughingly tells him that she has enough experience for them both. She also gives him a veiled warning of how dangerous she can be.
But Sinuhe is too drunk with lust, exhilaration, and what he believes to be love, to see Nefer for what she is: greedy, ruthless, and an utter opportunist. Within a short while, Nefer has worked her charm on him so completely that Sinuhe doesn’t turn away (even though he is sullen) when he realises that she has not left off her other lovers (clients?) for him.
In fact, when she goads him on by saying that a certain man is giving her a priceless ruby, Sinuhe falls for the bait. At Nefer’s prompting, he gives her his most valuable possession: Pharaoh’s very own necklace, bestowed when Sinuhe was appointed royal physician.
It doesn’t stop there. In a reckless attempt to retain Nefer’s ‘love’, Sinuhe gives her his instruments—the best money can buy—as well as the deeds to his house. When Nefer still isn’t satisfied and demands even more (and tells him what she wants), he finally signs away the deed to his foster-parents’ home and their tomb. He knows what he’s doing is reprehensible, but he cannot stop himself. The hope lives on: perhaps this will finally convince Nefer that he is worthy of her ‘love’?
In the meantime, word has spread of Sinuhe’s liaison with Nefer. One day, Princess Baketamon approaches Horemheb and asks him to intervene on his friend’s behalf. Nefer, she says, is ‘worthless’; Sinuhe must be made to realise that. And what better way than to have Sinuhe realise that Nefer has betrayed him with his best friend?
Horemheb takes up the task, and—having gifted the greedy Nefer with a valuable bracelet (given to him for this purpose by the princess)—is ‘wooing’ Nefer… when Sinuhe arrives, summoned by a note purportedly from Nefer, but actually sent by Horemheb. Sinuhe is furious, and tries to bash Horemheb.
But the chips are down. Sinuhe has begun to realise that Nefer may be irresistible, but she’s also pretty much a succubus. In a mad fit of rage, he tries to strangle her—
As if this wasn’t enough, when a broken-hearted Sinuhe, filled with self-loathing, goes to his foster-parents’ home, he finds Kaptah sitting beside their corpses. The two old people, saddened by Sinuhe’s doings, have taken their own lives. In a last letter (a suicide note, so to say), Sinuhe’s foster-father has heaped blessings on Sinuhe, absolving him of all blame for their deaths. This, of course, has the opposite effect, reminding Sinuhe even more forcefully of just how much he is to blame.
Sinuhe’s problems don’t end there. He has no home; even his foster-parents’ home and their tomb is now Nefer’s property. When he takes the two dead bodies to the House of the Dead to be embalmed, he is refused; they don’t embalm bodies for free. Finally, Sinuhe offers in exchange the only thing he has to give: his services, to use as they will.
So he works in the House of the Dead for 90 days, and at the end of this time, takes his foster-parents’ now-mummified bodies to the Valley of Kings, hoping he can quietly bury them near a royal tomb where perhaps some of the joys of the afterlife can also be reaped by this couple who brought him up.
It’s while he’s there, getting ready to bury the two corpses, that Merit arrives. She’s discovered his whereabouts from Kaptah, and has brought food and drink for him. And yet another declaration of her love, which Sinuhe finally listens to.
Merit also brings other news: Pharaoh’s daughter, the little princess, has died of an illness, because Sinuhe, royal physician, could not be found to attend to her. Pharaoh, grieving and enraged, has sentenced Sinuhe to death. There is only one safe option for Sinuhe: to flee Egypt.
The Egyptian is based on a Finnish novel by Mika Waltari. I haven’t read it myself, but it was by all accounts both critically acclaimed (by Egyptologists, what’s more) as well as highly popular, though there were many who lambasted it for its ‘obscenity’. The film seems to be a rather condensed version of the novel, but is still an engrossing one. It’s a story of emotions, of human strengths and failings—love and hate, lust and ambition, greed, disillusionment, rivalry, loyalty, betrayal. A story of war, and of peace. A story worth watching.
What I liked about this film:
A lot, really. The gorgeousness of it all, for instance. A total of $ 5million was spent on The Egyptian, and it shows in the splendid costumes and props, the extravaganza of it all. This isn’t Ben Hur, but it’s still quite stunning. (Some of the costs of the costumes, set pieces and props were eventually recouped by selling them to Paramount, to be later used in The Ten Commandments).
The story, scripted by Phillip Dunne and Casey Robinson (based on Waltari’s novel). The characterisation, with one exception (that of Sinuhe), is generally rather one-dimensional, but as far as pace and progression of the plot is concerned, this wins.
It also wins in the way it combines and juxtaposes fact and fiction, the life of a fictitious character (Sinuhe) with the reign of an actual ruler (Akhenaton, father of the famous Tutankhamon). Some of the characters—including Queen Taia and Horemheb himself—were actual people, and Akhenaton’s establishment of a monotheistic religion that worshipped the Aten, derived from the Sun God Ra, was fact. Unlike Genghis Khan, this isn’t a story pretending to be factual (and botching it up); on the other hand, it isn’t merely a story of totally fictitious characters in a historical setting.
Peter Ustinov as Kaptah. This man is one of my favourite actors, and he’s wonderful here, even in a role that’s quite short. Some of the best lines are his, and despite the fact that Kaptah is unscrupulous and a thief, Ustinov plays him so well, he is utterly endearing too, thanks to his unflagging loyalty to Sinuhe, and the deep-down goodness that shines through now and then.
What I didn’t like:
Bella Darvi’s accent, which got on my nerves. Her portrayal of Nefer as the tantalising but cold-hearted, greedy seductress was otherwise not unconvincing, so in the final analysis, this wasn’t that much of an irritant.
I must admit I know next to nothing about ancient Egyptian history barring what I’ve read in books or seen onscreen—and that not much. It was only after I’d seen The Egyptian and did some research that I discovered that the history of Horemheb, as depicted in the film, is wildly off reality. Since I hadn’t known this, it didn’t hinder my enjoyment of the film, but unforgiving sticklers for the truth might be put off a bit.
Marlon Brando was supposed to play the part of Sinuhe in The Egyptian. During the script readings before filming began, however, he changed his mind; his agent, conveying Mr Brando’s refusal of the role, said that it was because “He doesn’t like the director, he doesn’t like the role. And he can’t stand Bella Darvi!”
Bella Darvi, incidentally, seems to have been a colourful (and tragic, too) personality. Polish-born, she had survived incarceration in a concentration camp, and had been ‘discovered’ after World War II by Darryl F Zanuck and his wife Virginia. A combination of their names—‘Dar’ and ‘Vi’—became Bella’s screen surname. Although she acted in a total of nearly 20 films, both in Hollywood and in France, she was never really much of a success (“An actress who ‘nefer’ was” as her The Egyptian co-star Jean Simmons unkindly put it). Worse, gambling, alcoholism, and a string of affairs—including one with Darryl F Zanuck himself—wreaked havoc with her career and personal life. At one point, Bella Darvi was so hard up that she had to resort to pawning her clothing, jewels, fur, furniture and two poodles in order to make ends meet.
Bella Darvi committed suicide by gassing herself in her Paris apartment in 1971, aged just 42 years.