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In eighteenth-dynasty Egypt, Sinuhe, a poor orphan, becomes a brilliant physician and with his friend Horemheb is appointed to the service of the new Pharoah. Sinuhe's personal triumphs and tragedies are played against the larger canvas of the turbulent events of the 18th dynasty. As Sinuhe is drawn into court intrigues, and bizarre secrets are revealed to him, he learns the answers to the questions he has sought since his birth. Short on historical accuracy but strong on plot and characterization.
For more about The Egyptian and the The Egyptian Blu-ray release, see the The Egyptian Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on July 15, 2011 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.0 out of 5.
Director: Michael Curtiz
Writers: Philip Dunne (I), Casey Robinson
Starring: Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Gene Tierney, Michael Wilding, Peter Ustinov, Judith Evelyn
» See full cast & crew
The Egyptian Blu-ray Review
As Norma Desmond might say, this film was made before the pictures got small.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, July 15, 2011
The film world changed irrevocably in 1953. For years since the end of World War II, Hollywood had been rocked by one calamitous event after another, whether it was the anti-monopoly rulings which divested the studios of their theaters, or, perhaps even more cataclysmically, the advent of television and slow, steady decline of paying audiences. Why should people go to the time and trouble, not to mention the expense, of going to a movie when they could remain comfortably at home and watch the new technological marvel of television? But the film industry wasn't about to simply roll over and die, and in 1953 the first of what would be many widescreen processes to try to lure awestruck viewers away from tiny black and white screens. CinemaScope was a revolutionary process in its day, a radical reassessment of what going to the movies was really all about. Suddenly spectacle and casts of thousands were the flavor du jour, and historical recreations also entered the mix in substantial new ways. The first CinemaScope offering was The Robe, a religiously themed epic based on a best selling novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, and it provided a little religion itself for world weary studio executives, giving them a renewed faith that maybe their industry wasn't doomed to a slow, malingering death. 1954's epic historical CinemaScope feature (along with The Robe's sequel Demetrius and the Gladiators) was considerably less charmed than The Robe, but if anything, The Egyptian has become much more of a cult item than the Richard Burton-Jean Simmons starrer ever was. Darryl F. Zanuck spared no expense bringing The Egyptian to the screen, and as odd as it may sound to modern day audiences used to everything from Fox's own 1963 Cleopatra to Cecil B. De Mille's The Ten Commandments to any number of other films set in Ancient Egypt, The Egyptian was the first large scale color film to tackle that era, and as such it presented huge production design challenges which at times seemed insurmountable. The Egyptian's staggering costs meant the film, while at least decently popular in the United States, had to wait for foreign rentals to pour in to ever show even a minimal profit, and indeed the film was thought of as a massive failure in its time. (It's somewhat ironic to note that De Mille himself purchased several Egyptian props from Fox for the 1956 Commandments and Fox itself, facing near bankruptcy during the prolonged, extremely expensive production of Mankiewicz's Cleopatra eight years after The Egyptian, supposedly recycled all sorts of sets, costumes and props from the earlier film into the Elizabeth Taylor epic in a desperate effort to cut costs).
Though The Egyptian, much like The Robe, is a quasi-religious epic based on an immense worldwide bestseller, its removal from an actual Christian setting (despite certain analogies which are made evident in the film's final text comment) probably made it seem more "distant" both figuratively and literally to 1954 audiences. Despite the splendor of Ancient Egypt being gorgeously brought to life, the storyline may simply have been too esoteric to really viscerally impact audiences of the day. And despite the always sure hand of iconic Michael Curtiz, it can't be denied that The Egyptian is one of the more shall we say "relaxed" epics of its era in terms of pacing. Some might argue the film is actually a pretty slow slog, but others (myself included) would aver that the film's outstanding production design and uniformly fine performances help to overcome any momentum issues the film probably inarguably presents.
The film's basic premise is really rather simple, and as I mentioned in my interview with The Egyptian's distributor Twilight Time's Nick Redman, bears a certain peculiar similarity to the "other" epic starring Edmund Purdom, The Prodigal. Much like the hero of that later film culled from a brief Biblical parable, The Egyptian recounts the "wandering" of its titular character, a physician named Sinuhe (Purdom). Sinuhe through a chance encounter meets the new Egyptian Pharoah, Akhnaton, who is espousing a radical new idea: monotheism. That rejection of the scads and scads of Egyptian deities puts Akhnaton squarely at odds with the powerful priestly class, and Sinuhe finds himself with a front row seat to lots of courtly intrigue. Sinuhe, much like Purdom's character in The Prodigal, has to choose between a "nice girl", Merit (Jean Simmons) and a seductress courtesan named Nefer (Bella Darvi, allegedly Zanuck's mistress who edged out Marilyn Monroe for the role). Gene Tierney is on hand as a sort of butch Princess who wants to be Pharoah herself and might have a secret or two up her gilded sleeve with regard to Sinuhe. A series of cascading calamities affects Sinuhe, leading to his banishment and years of traveling, before he is ultimately able to return to his homeland, albeit perhaps too late to repair many burnt bridges.
The sheer scope and size of The Egyptian is awesome to behold, especially when you realize this was obviously long before the days of CGI, when everything had to be handled in practical terms. While some may have passing issues with the actual drama on tap in this sometimes lumbering film, the magnificence of its visual (and aural) splendor can't be underestimated. Every dollar Zanuck lavished on this production is fully on display throughout the film, with one eye popping set after another, and a series of equally eye popping costumes lighting up the screen. Equally as impressive is one of the most unusual scores from the Golden Age of Hollywood, one split between two titans of the Fox lot, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. Though not a collaboration in the usual sense of them co-composing individual cues, the individual contributions from both of these masters are colorful and work surprisingly well together, especially considering both men were working under the gun of a fast approaching deadline to deliver the finished film.
In terms of performances, if it's admitted that films like this almost always have a staid, overly stiff demeanor to them, several of the actors here actually manage to deliver solid work that is at least competent if not exactly inspired. Michael Wilding makes for a very gentle and appropriately Christ-like Akhnaton, though he, like Purdom himself, seems overly passive at times. Simmons, coming off of that other CinemaScope behemoth The Robe, doesn't exactly have great material to sink her teeth into, but as with her other role, she's properly virginal (up to a point—you'll have to see The Egyptian to know what I'm talking about) and certainly gorgeous and demure. Bella Darvi is an odd sort of actress, one seemingly not all that at ease in front of the camera, but, like Simmons, an eyeful (though perhaps of a more openly lascivious variety). Victor Mature is surprisingly good as Horemheb, Sinuhe's buddy who becomes Master of the Guard in the court of Akhnaton. And the ever reliable Peter Ustinov is up to his usual shenanigans as the sly but lovable servant to Sinuhe, Kaptah. And so that brings us to the putative star pair of The Egyptian, Gene Tierney and Edmund Purdom. Tierney was in the throes of what would be her worsening mental condition, and while she still possesses a certain allure, when stacked up (so to speak) against Simmons and especially Darvi, it becomes sadly obvious she is well past her pinup girl prime. Purdom has long been the object of critical brickbat throwing for his work in both The Egyptian and The Prodigal, but as Nick Redman rightly pointed out in our interview, one really has to take into account the kind of nebbish role that Sinuhe is at its core. This is a character who has "Victim" inscribed on his brawny forehead from virtually the first moment of the film, and it's hard for any actor to overcome that appellation. Seen from a distance now, Purdom does what he can with a largely hopeless role, and it certainly can't be argued that he's horrible by any stretch, something with which he's been unfairly saddled since the film's release.
The Egyptian attained a certain cult status after its release due at least in part to its perceived failure. Unlike The Robe and even Demetrius and the Gladiators, it was quickly pulled from circulation and wasn't even broadcast all that much during the big feature film era on television shows like Saturday Night at the Movies. With home video releases also near non-existent, it became one of those rarities that may in fact be more desirable in anticipation than in realization, at least for some. But though The Egyptian has "issues," as they say, this new Blu-ray release makes it abundantly clear what an amazingly well produced epic it really was. While perhaps nothing approaching historically accurate, it still manages to create a believable ambience and the interplay between the many characters is more often than not compelling. But it's probably the sheer size of The Egyptian that is its most remarkable achievement. This is filmmaking on the grandest scale imaginable, and much like the Ancient Egyptians themselves managed to do with such icons as The Sphinx, Zanuck managed to create something so towering in its scope that no matter what its flaws may or may not be, The Egyptian still looms large as one of the prime examples of the lengths (and widths) Hollywood was willing to go to to lure audiences back into theaters.
The Egyptian Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Egyptian is the first Blu-ray release from niche label Twilight Time, though as Nick Redman revealed in his exclusive interview with Blu-ray.com, the HD transfer was actually handled by Fox and was in their "assets" vaults, simply waiting for release. Encoded via AVC, in 1080p and 2.55:1, this is (rather incredibly) one of two HD masters evidently in the Fox vaults, this one from 2010 while a previous transfer is from 2005. According to Redman, this was handled by the same crew who oversaw the exemplary Blu-ray release of The Robe, and if the results aren't quite as staggering as they were with that film, they're still often awe inducing. The biggest qualm some viewers may have with this release, however ultimately minor it may be, is the kind of pasty yellow skin tones that are the hallmark of Deluxe color, the process Zanuck chose for this film. The better news is if you can get past that anomaly, the rest of The Egyptian's lavish palette is incredibly robust, including gorgeous blue, green and teal tones that fully bring the jade, lapis lazuli and other gemstones of the costumes and sets completely to life. The image here is just a tad bit softer than The Robe, and there does appear to have been some moderate noise reduction applied, though grain is still natural looking and never overwhelming. Depth of field is astounding in the many outdoor shots, though the increased resolution of the Blu-ray only makes the many matte paintings and rear projections look more obvious. One or two times there's some very faint haloing from edge enhancement, but it's extremely minor. Overall, this is a sterling transfer of a film very few of us probably ever thought would see the HD light of day, and it's a joy to see it looking so splendiferous on this new Blu-ray.
The Egyptian Blu-ray, Audio Quality
The Egyptian was originally released with the "wonder" of "directional, four track stereo," and those original stems have been quite artfully repurposed on this Blu-ray in a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix. A film this huge has plenty of opportunity for immersion, and some may find The Egyptian a little lackluster in terms of consistently involving surround activity, but what's here sounds wonderful. Some of the huge crowd scenes teem with sonic activity skirting around the edges of the soundfield, and quite often nice panning effects are utilized in terms of things like spears or arrows finding their marks. Dialogue is clean and crisp, and in fact the entire track is damage free and lacks any overt narrowness that sometimes plagues soundtracks of this era. Best of all is the vaunted score by Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Newman (also available on an isolated track, see below for details), which sounds absolutely magnificent throughout the film.
The Egyptian Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
The Egyptian Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
The Egyptian has long been a favorite film of mine for a host of reasons, but I had long ago given up hope of ever seeing it on DVD, let alone Blu-ray. I occasionally returned to my pretty hideous looking pan and scan VHS when I need a quick fix of Sinuhe and his trials and tribulations, so it's just incredibly wonderful to a longtime fan like myself to have this film in this stunning new format. All of that said, don't be lured into believing The Egyptian is some sort of lost masterpiece. This is a long, sometimes lumbering film that takes a certain amount of patience to get through. That said, The Egyptian should just as certainly never be feared as being potentially boring, for it absolutely isn't. Even if it's occasionally dramatically turgid, or even maddening with regard to Sinuhe's idiotic passivity, the film is such a riot of production design genius that you could spend hours examining one frame to simply soak in the amazing sets and costumes. Kudos, then, to Twilight Time for taking a chance on this film and for daring to fight the naysayers who claim there isn't an audience for niche fare like this. For the discriminating viewer who wants to see a film that could never be made on this scale in this way ever again, The Egyptian is most definitely Highly recommended.
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The Egyptian Blu-ray, News and Updates
• A Classic Restored: The Egyptian - July 13, 2011
From the vaults of 20th Century Fox comes an epic unavailable on home video since the days of VHS. Newer label Twilight Time has released a restored (by Fox) limited edition Blu-ray of 3,000 copies. Read on to learn the history of this epic production with very ...
• Exclusive Interview: Nick Redman discusses The Egyptian - June 22, 2011
Screen Archives has just announced pre-orders are available for 1954's epic The Egyptian, released by niche label Twilight Time. Twilight Time is a partnership between Nick Redman and Brian Jamieson, both of whom have a long history with various Hollywood studios ...
• The Egyptian Coming to Blu-ray in July - May 5, 2011
Twilight Time, a specialty label which focuses on releasing vintage 20th Century Fox films previously unavailable on DVD, have revealed that they are planning to release on Blu-ray Michael Curtiz's The Egyptian (1954), starring Jean Simmons (Hamlet, Spartacus), ...
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