The Egyptian (film)

The Egyptian is a 1954 American epic drama film made by 20th Century Fox. Filmed in CinemaScope with color by DeLuxe, it was directed by Michael Curtiz and produced by Darryl F. Zanuck. It is based on Mika Waltari's 1945 novel of the same name and the screenplay was adapted by Philip Dunne and Casey Robinson. Leading roles were played by Edmund Purdom, Bella Darvi, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Gene Tierney, Peter Ustinov, and Michael Wilding. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy was nominated for an Oscar in 1955.

The Egyptian
Theatrical release poster
Directed byMichael Curtiz
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Screenplay byPhilip Dunne
Casey Robinson
Based onThe Egyptian 1945 novel
by Mika Waltari
StarringJean Simmons
Victor Mature
Gene Tierney
Michael Wilding
Bella Darvi
Peter Ustinov
Edmund Purdom
Music byBernard Herrmann
Alfred Newman
CinematographyLeon Shamroy
Edited byBarbara McLean
Distributed by20th Century Fox
Release date
  • August 24, 1954 (1954-08-24)
Running time
136 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$3.9 million[1]
Box office$4.25 million (US rentals);[2][3] $9.25 million (worldwide rentals)[4]


Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a struggling physician in 18th dynasty Egypt (14th Century BC), is thrown by chance into contact with the pharaoh Akhnaton (Michael Wilding). He rises to and falls from great prosperity, wanders the world, and becomes increasingly drawn towards a new religion spreading throughout Egypt. His companions throughout are his lover, a shy tavern maid named Merit (Jean Simmons); and his corrupt but likable servant, Kaptah (Peter Ustinov).

While out lion hunting with his sturdy friend Horemheb (Victor Mature), Sinuhe discovers Egypt's newly ascendant pharaoh Akhnaton, who has sought the solitude of the desert in the midst of a religious epiphany. While praying, the ruler is stricken with an epileptic seizure, with which Sinuhe is able to help him. The grateful Akhnaton makes his savior court physician and gives Horemheb a post in the Royal Guard, a career previously denied to him by low birth. His new eminence gives Sinuhe an inside look at Akhnaton's reign, which is made extraordinary by the ruler's devotion to a new religion that he feels has been divinely revealed to him. This faith rejects Egypt's traditional gods in favor of monolatristic worship of the sun, referred to as Aten. Akhnaton intends to promote Atenism throughout Egypt, which earns him the hatred of the country's corrupt and politically active traditional priesthood.

Life in court does not prove to be good for Sinuhe; it drags him away from his previous ambition of helping the poor while falling obsessively in love with a Babylonian courtesan named Nefer (Bella Darvi). He squanders all of his and his parents' property in order to buy her gifts, only to have her reject him nonetheless. Returning dejectedly home, Sinuhe learns that his parents have committed suicide over his shameful behavior. He has their bodies embalmed so that they can pass on to the afterlife, and, having no way to pay for the service, works off his debts in the embalming house.

Lacking a tomb in which to put his parents' mummies, Sinuhe buries them in the sand amid the lavish funerary complexes of the Valley of the Kings. Merit finds him there and warns him that Akhnaton has condemned him to death; one of the pharaoh's daughters fell ill and died while Sinuhe was working as an embalmer, and the tragedy is being blamed on his desertion of the court. Merit urges Sinuhe to flee Egypt and rebuild his career elsewhere, and the two of them share one night of passion before he takes ship out of the country.

For the next ten years Sinuhe and Kaptah wander the known world, where Sinuhe's superior Egyptian medical training gives him an excellent reputation as healer. Sinuhe finally saves enough money from his fees to return home; he buys his way back into the favor of the court with a precious piece of military intelligence he learned abroad, informing Horemheb (now commander of the Egyptian army) that the barbarian Hittites plan to attack the country with superior iron weapons.

Akhnaton is in any case ready to forgive Sinuhe, according to his religion's doctrine of mercy and pacifism. These qualities have made Aten-worship extremely popular amid the common people, including Merit, with whom Sinuhe is reunited. He finds that she bore him a son named Thoth (Tommy Rettig), a result of their night together many years ago, who shares his father's interest in medicine.

Meanwhile, the priests of the old gods have been fomenting hate crimes against the Aten's devotees, and now urge Sinuhe to help them kill Akhnaton and put Horemheb on the throne instead. The physician is privately given extra inducement by the princess Baketamun (Gene Tierney); she reveals that he is actually the son of the previous pharaoh by a concubine, discarded at birth because of the jealousy of the old queen and raised by foster parents. The princess now suggests that Sinuhe could poison both Akhnaton and Horemheb and rule Egypt himself (with her at his side).

Sinuhe is still reluctant to perform this evil deed until the Egyptian army mounts a full attack on worshipers of the Aten. Kaptah manages to smuggle Thoth out the country, but Merit is killed while seeking refuge at the new god's altar. In his grief Sinuhe blames Akhnaton for the whole mess and administers poison to him at their next meeting. The pharaoh realizes what has been done, but accepts his fate. He still believes his faith is true, but that he has understood it imperfectly; future generations will be able to spread the same faith better than he. Enlightened by Akhnaton's dying words, Sinuhe warns Horemheb that his wine is also poisoned, thus allowing him to marry the Princess and become Pharaoh.

Later, Sinuhe is brought before his old friend for preaching the same ideals Akhnaton believed in, and is sentenced to be exiled to the shores of the Red Sea, where he spends his remaining days writing down his life story, in the hope that it may be found by Thoth or his descendants. Ultimately it is revealed that "These things happened thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ".


Original Novel

The script was based on the Waltari novel of the same name. It is elaborated in the book, but not the film, that Sinuhe was named by his mother from The Story of Sinuhe, which does include references to Aten but was written many centuries before the 18th dynasty. The use of the "Cross of Life" ankh to represent Akhnaton's "new" religion reflects a popular and esoteric belief in the 1950s that monolatristic Atenism was a sort of proto-Christianity. While the ankh has no known connection to the modern cross, the principal symbol of Aten was not an ankh but a solar disk emitting rays, though the rays usually ended with a hand holding out an ankh to the worshipers. The sun-disk is seen only twice; when we first meet Akhnaton in the desert, he has painted it on a rock, and Sinuhe says "Look! He worships the face of the sun." It appears again as part of the wall painting above Akhnaton's throne. With that said, the ankh was used in the original novel. Likewise, Akhnaton's dying revelation that God is much more than the face of the sun is actually found among Waltari's best-known writings.


The novel was well received critically, the New York Times calling it "fine and panoramic".[5] It became a best seller.[6]


Darryl F. Zanuck of 20th Century Fox bought the film rights in 1952. He announced the film would be his only personal production in 1953. Marlon Brando was going to play the lead and Casey Robinson would write the script.[7] Robinson finished his script by March 1953.[8] In April, Fox announced the film would be shot in its new wide screen technology, CinemaScope.[9] Zanuck borrowed Michael Curtiz from Paramount to direct.[10] In November 1953 Victor Mature joined the cast along with Jean Peters and Kirk Douglas.[11] In January 1954 Fox said the cast would also include Betta St John, Peter Ustinov, and Bella Darvi.[12]

It was the film debut of Darvi, who was a protege of Zanuck and his wife Virginia ("Darvi" was a combination of "Darryl" and "Virginia"). She eventually became Darryl Zanuck's mistress.[13] By January Peters was out and replaced by Jean Simmons.[14] In October 1953 Philip Dunne signed a new three year contract with Fox and joined the film.[15] Dunne said Robinson had done "a pretty good script" which was ultimately done in by "casting". Dunne says he worked on the film as an "unofficial producer".[16]

There were a number of Egyptian-themed films made around this time, others including Valley of the Kings and Land of the Pharaohs.[17]

Marlon Brando Quits

In February 1954, a week before filming was to start, Brando took part in a reading of the script. Dunne says Brando read the part "absolutely beautifully" but then Curtiz said "How can I with all my genius make you play this man who is one minute hero the next moment villain?" Dunne says he went home to write a memo for Curtiz then got a call saying Brando had quit the film.[18] Brando said he was unable to play his part due to mental strain and had his psychiatrist support him.[19] As location filming in Egypt had already started, Fox sued Brando for $2 million.[20][21]

Filming was postponed. Fox tried to borrow Dirk Bogarde from J. Arthur Rank in Britain.[22] Hedda Hopper suggested John Cassavetes. Cameron Mitchell, then a Fox contract star tested for the role of the Pharaoh.[23] Farley Granger was the next choice and considered the role, but then decided he was not interested after having just moved to New York.[24][25] Other contenders for the role had been John Derek and Cameron Mitchell, who were all screen tested. Eventually the role went to Edmund Purdom borrowed from MGM.[26][27] MGM took $300,000 for Purdom's services although he was only paid $500 a week.[28] Cassavetes later credited Hopper's public push for him as helping kick start his career in Hollywood.[29]

Philip Dunne later said he tried to get Zanuck to cast Cassavetes as the Pharaoh but Zanuck wanted an English actor to play it. "He thought all kings, emperors and nobility should be played by English actors," said Dunne.[30] Michael Wilding played the part. Dunne says he also wanted Dana Wynter to play Nefertiti – he thought the actress just looked like the real queen – but instead "Zanuck let Michael Curtiz cast some lumpish girlfriend who looked about as much like Nefertiti as you or I do."[31]

Fox's lawsuit against Brando was resolved when the actor agreed to make Desiree (1954) for the studio.[32]


Filming began in May 1954.[33]

Some of the sets, costumes, and props from this film were bought and re-used by Cecil B. DeMille for The Ten Commandments (1956). As the events in that story take place seventy years after those in The Egyptian, this re-use creates an unintended sense of continuity. The commentary track on the Ten Commandments DVD points out many of these re-uses. Only three actors, Mimi Gibson, Michael Ansara and John Carradine, and a handful of extras, appeared in both pictures. The Prince Aly Khan was a consultant during filming; he was engaged to Gene Tierney.

Dunne recalls during filming "Darryl was so besotten [with Darvi] he decided to go around to our film stills department and see how she looked in her costumes. He'd been running the lot for 25 years, but didn't know where it was and flew into a rage. It was right next door to his private dining room."[34]


Owing to the short time available in post-production, the composing duties on the film score were divided between two of 20th Century-Fox's best-known composers: Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann.

Newman would later conduct the score in a re-recording for release on Decca Records. Musician John Morgan undertook a "restoration and reconstruction" of the score for a recording conducted by William T. Stromberg in 1998, on Marco Polo Records. The performance of the score recorded for the film was released by Film Score Monthly in 2001.

See also


  1. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p248
  2. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century Fox: A Corporate and Financial History, Scarecrow Press, 1989 p225
  3. 'The Top Box-Office Hits of 1954', Variety Weekly, January 5, 1955
  4. Daily Variety, November 9, 1955 p. 4
  5. Books of the Times, By ORVILLE PRESCOTT. New York Times 22 Aug 1949: 19.
  6. TOP BEST SELLERS: IN LOS ANGELES Fiction Leaders, Los Angeles Times 18 Sep 1949: D9.
  7. METRO AIMS TO SUE LANZA IN FILM ROW: Studio Instructs Its Attorneys to Move Against Tenor for Damages to 'Student Prince' By THOMAS M. PRYOR New York Times 17 Sep 1952: 34.
  8. CinemaScope and 3D Rivalry in Full Swing; Henreid to Direct Play Schallert, Edwin. Los Angeles Times 24 Mar 1953: A7.
  9. U.-I. STUDIO SHOWS NEW WIDE SCREEN: System Accommodates Both Standard and 3-D Pictures -- Fox Lists Production Plan By THOMAS M. PRYOR Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 02 Apr 1953: 34.
  10. SCREEN GUILD ACTS TO BAR COMMUNISTS: Actors' Union Adopts Bylaw Prohibiting Reds -- 3,769 Favor Move, 152 Opposed Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 28 July 1953: 23.
  11. Drama: Mature Handed Big Role in 'Egyptian' Los Angeles Times (1923-1995); Los Angeles, Calif. [Los Angeles, Calif]27 Nov 1953: B8.
  12. Fox 'The Egyptian' To Have All-Star Cast The Washington Post 10 Jan 1954: L5.
  14. Drama: 'Long John, Silver' to Be Shot in Australia Los Angeles Times 18 Jan 1954: B8.
  15. EISENHOWER ROLE IN FILM APPROVED: President Grants Permission to Columbia to Portray Him in Movie of West Point By THOMAS M. PRYOR New York Times 16 Oct 1953: 33.
  16. McGilligan p 164
  17. HOLLY: Get set for a rash of sphinxes, Pharaohs and dancing girls. A new movie cycle is under way Los Angeles Times 25 July 1954: K8.
  18. McGilligan p 164-65
  19. LEMMON IS SIGNED FOR COMEDY LEAD: Actor, Who Will Co-Star With Judy Holliday in 'Phffft,' Is Doing Grable Film By THOMAS M. PRYORS New York Times 4 Feb 1954: 22.
  20. Studio to Sue Brando for Film Delay Hopper, Hedda. Los Angeles Times 5 Feb 1954: 18.
  21. FOX SCORES BRANDO IN $2,000,000 CLAIM New York Times 17 Feb 1954: 28.
  22. ARNALL FOR DROP IN FILM BARRIERS: President of Independents Urges Re-evaluation of Foreign Market Policy By THOMAS M. PRYOR Special to THE NEW YORK TIMES. New York Times 11 Feb 1954: 34.
  23. Looking at Hollywood: Richard Widmark, Who Acts and Writes, Wants to Produce Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 18 Feb 1954: c8.
  24. Drama: Merian Cooper Paid Honor in Washington Los Angeles Times 25 Feb 1954: A12.
  25. Reconstructing Old Egypt: Hollywood Letter By Richard Dyer MacCann. The Christian Science Monitor 25 May 1954: 6.
  26. Pryor, Thomas M (26 Feb 1954). "NICHOLS HONORED BY WRITERS GUILD: Scenarist Is Awarded Laurel Achievement for His Work in Industry and Union". New York Times. p. 15.
  27. Putdom Picked for 'Egyptian' Los Angeles Times 26 Feb 1954: B7.
  28. Looking at Hollywood: Movie on Vasco da Gama to Be Set in Portugal Hopper, Hedda. Chicago Daily Tribune 13 Mar 1954: 16.
  29. Drama: ZaSu to Play Nurse in 'Francis' Picture Los Angeles Times 26 Feb 1954: B6.
  30. McGilligan p 164
  31. Lee Server, Screenwriter: Words Become Pictures, 1987 p 107
  32. Screen and Stage: His Conflicting Traits Qualify Brando as Genuine Character Bacon, James. Los Angeles Times 11 Apr 1954: D8.
  33. Reconstructing Old Egypt: Hollywood Letter By Richard Dyer MacCann. The Christian Science Monitor 25 May 1954: 6.
  34. Philip Dunne looks back at movies' golden age: [SA2 Edition] Jim Bawden Toronto Star. Toronto Star; Toronto, Ont. [Toronto, Ont]27 Jan 1990: G8.
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