• Bible Films Blog

    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


    Monday, May 24, 2021

    The Egyptian (1954)

    I've been meaning to write up my notes on  Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954) for a while now, not because it's a Bible film (it isn't), but because there are, nevertheless, numerous overlaps with the Biblical epics which at the time (1954) were in full flow.

    Firstly there's a lot of overlap with the cast and crew - and what a cast/crew it is. Director Michael Curtiz had been involved in four silent biblical epics (directing Sodom und Gomorrha (1923), Die Sklavenkönigin (The Moon of Israel, 1924) and Noah's Ark (1929) and being involved with Alexander Korda's 1922 Samson und Delila though the exact extent of his involvement is unclear). Lots of the crew came more or less straight from The Robe (1953) as did stars Jean Simmons and Victor Mature. Then there's Peter Ustinov who played Nero in Quo Vadis? (1951)'s and Edward Purdom who would go on to star in The Prodigal the following year. And to top it all Alfred Newman - who scored several biblical films, including The Rove - here teams up with Bernard Herrman. Having just one of those great composers on the soundtrack would be impressive, but both? I'd be interested to read a bit more about that incredible combination.

    The main story / theme here is the rise of monotheism under Akhnaten - a story I first encountered via Philip Glass' 1983 opera "Akhnaten".  Akhnaten (originally know as Amenhotep IV) was an Egyptian pharaoh from the 14th century BCE who abandoned polytheism in favour of a much greater focus on one god in particular, Aten the sun god. But his religious reforms failed and his compatriots reverted back to their traditional faith after his death, removing most of the evidence of his reforms. 

    Due to the timing of these events, many have speculated about potential links between the temporary cult of Aten and Moses' restoration of YHWH worship, not least because of significant similarities between the Hymn of Aten and Psalm 104.

    Given all this; as well as the way biblical epics had performed at the box office over the past five years; the aforementioned similarities in cast and crew; and a story focusing on a time and place in close proximity to parts of the Bible, it's hardly surprising that are numerous allusions to the Bible and, more specifically, the biblical (epic). These begin from the very start when the Purdom's physician Sinuhe describes how he was pulled from a basket on the Nile when he was young. Interestingly he makes this sound fairly common place, but still this is a clear klaxon from the film-makers to be on the look out for more biblical allusions.

    While Purdom is the lead, the film's biggest star is Victor Mature's Horemheb, who begins as Purdom's friend. It's not long before Mature is defeating a lion recalling not only the Biblical account of Samson and the Lion (Judges 14), but specifically a now infamous scene in DeMille's Samson and Delilah (1949) where Mature and his stunt 'double' between them wrestle a real lion and a fake one. This time there's no wrestling (even the first time, Mature was understandably not terribly keen) Horemheb relies on a bow and arrow. Shortly afterwards another interesting piece of intertextuality emerges: Mature is a Cheesemaker, a profession it's impossible to hear about these days without thinking of Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979). Any influence is the other way here and quite possibly unintentional by the Pythons (I struggle to believe it's nothing but coincidence, though that is possible). Nevertheless, as soon as this is revealed it's hard not speculates as to whether he is also the manufacturer of other types of dairy products.

    Sinhue and Horemheb happen across Akhnaten in prayer and manage to save his life and as a result the two get promoted into his service. Sinhue as his physician and Horemheb into the army where he eventually becomes a general. It's not long however before it becomes clear that the barmaid at the inn where the two friends celebrate their successes (Jean Simmons as Merit) has very much taken a shining to Sinhue. Sinhue is good natured and builds a friendship with Merit, but he is smitten instead with Babylonian courtesan Nefer (Bella Darvi), who openly admits loving her will ruin him and so she does. Again this is one of the classic tropes of biblical epic - the "good" man is so tempted by exotic/erotic woman that he ignores the honourable sensible woman who quietly adores him and, as a result, stumbles into ruin.

    However, it turns out that Sinhue is not really that good. [SPOILER] When he realises that Nefer has not only taken his money and slept with his best friend, and his now rejecting him, he tries to murder her, making him a pretty grim "hero". The film and other reviewers don't seem overly bothered by that, but it's a pretty inexcusable act of 'domestic violence'.[END SPOILER] Why Merit still wants to have anything to do with him is beyond me.

    The parallels with between the Aten worshippers and Christians comes in more in the second half, particularly around the use of "the cross" as it is frequently called (though technically it's Egyptian cross/hieroglyphic/cross with a loop, the ankh). These elements peak in the final few scenes. Jean Simmons character Merit turns into a Mary figure. Not only is there similarity in names, but Merit seemingly remains a virgin but mothers a son, is pure-hearted, dresses in pale blue, is seen with a donkey and devoutly follows Aten.

    Meanwhile Akhnaten - who is portrayed as being mad for most of the film - realises as he dies that he was on the right track but didn't go far enough. Both him and Purdom get final speeches anticipating Christianity's one god/Prince of Peace. Yet there's no mention of Hebrew/Jewish religion. And then there are the final titles which - just in case anyone missed the film's 'subtle' implications - mentionsthat these events happened 1300 years before Jesus Christ.

    Aside from the Bible/biblical epic parallels there are a few other interesting points. There's an interesting detail about the invention of iron being a key advance in military technology which few films (I recall) from this era mention. The history here is fudged to a degree to make this point.

    Also, the visual similarity of the sets to DeMille's 1956 The Ten Commandments (which was still in the early stages of production) is striking. In the 1920s Curtiz and DeMille had this mimetic rivalry each both copying and vying to outdo one another with their biblical films. Here, 30 years later, there's so much about the look of this film that is very similar to what DeMille would do two years later. According to archivist James Harrison this is not entirely coincidental. DeMille really admired the look of Curtiz's film, to the extent that when "Fox lost so much money" on it and decided "to sell what they could to other productions", "DeMille nabbed it nearly all of it."

    Harrison also notes that the film "was panned by most of the critics. Even Variety, who were fans of Zanuck, thought it was a miss fire by him". As a result Fox stashed it in their vaults, described Alan Rode as ‘an embarrassing instance of excess’."

     The sets and costumes are great - I can see why DeMille was so keen to re-use them - , but plot-wise the film is a mess and eventually it runs out of steam. Purdom lost my sympathy after the incident and as a result it became hard to care for him as thew film takes ever more preposterous turns. Nevertheless, it's interesting to see what is more or less a biblical epic that is neither based on the Bible nor on the direct aftermath of Christianity.

    There's another write up of this film at Roderick Heath's blog and you can read a great deal more in Alan Rode's biography of Curtiz cited below.


    Rode, Alan K. (2017) Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film, The University Press of Kentucky.


    • At 3:55 pm, May 24, 2021, Blogger Peter T Chattaway said…

      Re: Akhenaten and his possible relationship to ancient Israelite monotheism, the Iranian TV series Prophet Joseph imagines that Akhenaten was the Pharaoh whose dreams were interpreted by Joseph. In that series, Akhenaten does not inspire Hebrew monotheism; instead, he learns from it.

    • At 5:39 pm, May 24, 2021, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Ah, interesting! I've not seen that one, but it's one of the interpretations I've heard before. The timescales in that would not match a more literal take on the biblical chronology, though, I guess, but then I'm not sure how the Qu'ran dates them. Here's it's almost curious that - despite the numerous other allusions - there's not one of those knowing comments you sometimes get in biblical/ historic epics where there's a token mention of a character's future (e.g. Samuel at the end of Samson & Delilah).


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