As that newfangled invention they called television gained acceptance with the American public, movie studio execs found themselves in a panic. As such, they developed something they dubbed “Cinemascope” — a large wide screen to lure people out of their homes — and started shouted something to the effect of “Look, the movie screen is not square anymore like it is on the TV: it’s a big rectangle now!” to get their attention (ironically, following the advent of widescreen TVs in the 2000s, IMAX theaters would revert to a more “squarish” look — go figure). They even went the extra mile to create something called a “4-track magnetic stereo system,” or “Dolby” if you prefer.
OK, so new-and-improved screen format? Check. Weird-sounding audio structuring? Check. Now then, what else can you do in order to sell tickets? Why not take viewers all over the world. Better still: why not take them to new worlds — new worlds that are really rather old? And thus, the “Historical/Biblical Epic” was born. Throughout the ‘50s, movie studios cranked out one long, ambitious and oh-so-costly movie after another, with titles such as Demetrius and the Gladiators, The Ten Commandments and The Robe.
They swept moviegoers back to the times of kings, awarded Hollywood bigwigs like Darryl F. Zanuck with multiple opportunities to stamp their names across the country, engaged in America’s unbridled obsession with Christianity (thank you, Hayes Code!) and gave beefy Victor Mature many chances to strut his stuff. The Historical/Biblical Epic kick continued for many years, before its own boisterous weight gave way to its demise at the hands of movies like Cleopatra (1963). Prior to that (in)famous Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton flop, however, there was another box office failure that threatened to sink the career of Zanuck: The Egyptian.
Once again giving Victor Mature a part as the movie’s macho-kind-of-guy, The Egyptian immediately loses its foothold with its audience by not making him the main character, giving a newcomer by the name of Edmund Purdom the starring role as an Egyptian physician named Sinuhe. But it isn’t the casting of Purdom as the film’s bottom-billed titular protagonist that causes its audience to start examining the ceiling for cobwebs, it’s the fact that Sinuhe is a total antihero. Wimpy, aimless and without a whole hell of a lot of common sense, Sinuhe isn’t the kind of feller you can immediately warm up to — and, his story first progressed over the course of this two-hour-plus movie in 1954, the general public (as well as the critics) found it next-to-impossible to sympathize with him.
Is it Sinuhe’s character alone that caused The Egyptian to be so unsuccessful, though? Well, he’s pretty similar to the way he was in the original best-selling novel by Mika Waltari, so I can’t imagine that would be the case. Maybe it’s the fact that the film’s makers took such a gamble in casting Purdom — after several other, more-prominent actors declined of dropped out of the production, including Marlon Brando and Dirk Bogarde. Either way, Zanuck lost on this one, and wound up selling many of the movie’s numerous (and often-massive) props to Cecil B. DeMille for The Ten Commandments.
But enough about that. The story here has Sinhue and his lifelong pal, Horemheb (Mature) befriending and joining the court of Pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding) after the brilliant young surgeon and friend save his life. From that point on, the tale is stretched out to really drive home how bad Sinhue really gets it before finally finding a purpose in life — at the very end of the movie. Top-billed Jean Simmons plays Purdom’s willing love interest, while Gene Tierney and Bella Darvi inhabit more “femme fatale” qualities in their performances. Peter Ustinov co-stars as Sinhue’s thief servant (a part that was written solely for the movie), with John Carradine and Henry Daniell also showing up in a couple of minor roles.
So, is The Egyptian a “bad” film? Well, yes and no. It’s a well-made feature overall: there’s some lovely acting to be found here, it’s crafted very well by director Michael Curtiz (Casablanca) and — in addition to a wonderful music score by Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrman — boasts a truly magnificent color palette that truly compliments the film’s cinematography. That said, though, The Egyptian is an overly-long effort — one that never quite succeeds in achieving a status worthy of being called “classic.” It simply doesn’t have the “impact” we find in the more famous historical/biblical epics (even from a non-Christian standpoint, I might add). Personally, I find this to be one of those movies that just have to check out and judge for yourself. But, for me, The Egyptian just isn’t one of those “lost” masterpieces.