Watching Ancient Egyptian Poetry —
Among Other Histrionics

by Scott Morschauser


1. R. B. Parkinson, Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry Among Other Histories (Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester, 2009).

2. Ibid, pp. 250-253.

3. Parkinson notes (ibid, p. 250) that the novel was originally published in Finnish in 1945. The American version appeared as The Egyptian (G. P. Putnam's Sons: New York, 1949), in a translation by Naomi Walford. According to B. J. Whiting, "Historical Novels 1948-1949," Speculum 25.1 (1950), pp. 104-122 (pp. 104-106), Walford's rendering was based on a Swedish translation. However, the Hollywood screenplay utilized Walford's work.

4. The Egyptian (20th Century Fox, 1954); screenwriters, Philip Dunne-Casey Robinson; producer, Darryl F. Zanuck; director, Michael Curtiz.  Note the typo in Parkinson, Reading, p. 251, where the latter is identified as, "Cortiz." The attribution is correct in R. B. Parkinson, "Reading Ancient Egypt," British Museum Magazine 34 (1999), pp. 12-15 (p. 14).

5. For a translation of the text and historical commentary, see R. B. Parkinson, The Tale of Sinuhe and Other Ancient Egyptian Poems 1940-1640 BC (Clarendon Press-Oxford: 1997), pp. 21-57.

6. Parkinson, Reading, 251. He uncritically follows the evaluation of Sam Serafy, "Egypt in Hollywood: Pharaohs of the Fifties," in Sally MacDonald-Michael Rice (eds)., Consuming Ancient Egypt (Encounters with Ancient Egypt) (UCL Press-London, 2003), pp. 77-86.

7. Ibid, p. 251, relying on David Montserrat, Akhenaten: History, Fantasy, and Ancient Egypt (Routledge-London, 2000), p. 163.

8. Ibid, p. 252; also, idem., "Reading Ancient Egypt," pp. 14-15.

9. Ibid, p. 252. How Parkinson comes to this conclusion is puzzling. While most of the priests are shown with shaved heads, there are no discernible markers of ethnicity, other than they are white-skinned, as is the pharaoh (played by Michael Wilding).  It is interesting that many of Akhenaten's opponents speak with American accents, and are depicted as harassing the idealistic followers of the king's solar-religion.  This is in contrast to the use of British actors to denote "imperialism," and Americans, the ideals of "freedom," in Ben-Hur and Spartacus. While such casting in these later films seems deliberate, one is not quite sure if this was so intentional with The Egyptian (but cf. below). Marlon Brando was scheduled to play the role of Sinuhe (cf. Thomas M. Pryor, "Fox Films To Make 7 Super Specials," NY Times [1/6/1953], p. 22), but refused after the first reading of the script, necessitating legal action against him (cf. Thomas M. Pryor, "Fox Plans Suit Against Brando," NY Times [2/5/1954], p. 15; Leonard Moseley, Zanuck:  The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's Last Tycoon [Little-Brown: Boston-Toronto, 1984], pp. 263-265). Judging from his other performances, Brando's approach would likely have been inventive. The English actor, Edmund Purdom, was hired as a last minute replacement. Parkinson (ibid, p. 253) makes the snide comment that "Purdom's career never fully recovered." This is not supported by facts: Purdom went on to have major roles in big-budget films for MGM. See the publicity article by Barbara Birch Jamison, "On Paging A Party Named Purdom," NY Times (8/22/1954), X5, just prior to the release of The Egyptian.

10. The original NY Times' review of Bosley Crowther, "`The Egyptian' at Roxy is Based on Novel," NY Times 8/25/1954, p. 23, was negative: "(The Egyptian) glistens with archeological scenery. . . and moves at the pace of a death march. . . " However, he does exonerate Edmund Purdom's performance, noting that he "is a handsome and earnest young actor who is obviously clutching at dramatic straws. . ." In a subsequent article, Crowther ("The Price of Size: `The Egyptian' Manifests the Peril of Overproduction in Films," NY Times 8/29/1954, X1) lambasted the production again. Curiously, his complaint was the opposite of Parkinson's (cf. below):  "Where the appeal of the novel is in its lurid and lively accounts of wicked savage encounters, excessive sensual bouts. . . Mr. Zanuck and his associates have attempted to cover these things in great scenic pageants and refined, non-pornographic charades."

11. Admittedly, there are many Egyptological inaccuracies. For example, the film telescopes Waltari's novel, so that all the palace-drama takes place in Thebes, rather than Amarna, to which the king (historically) moved his residence.  Hieroglyphs on monuments are from the later Ramesside period.

12. The most famous example being the similarities between "The Great Hymn to the Aton," (which is set to music in the film by the composer, Alfred Newman, with lyrics based on a translation by James Henry Breasted) and Psalm 104.  For the text of the ancient "hymn," cf. William Kelly Simpson, "The Hymn to the Aten," in The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry (3rd ed.), ed. William Kelly Simpson (Yale University Press: New Haven-London, 2003), pp. 278-283.

13. See the summary of Montserrat, Akhenaten, pp. 95-104.

14. Parkinson, Reading, pp. 252-253.

15. Parkinson follows Serafy, "Egypt in Hollywood," pp. 78-79, who states that The Egyptian "adopts the two standard film noir character types, the femme fatale and the mother/nurturer"- - - the first represented by Nefer (and some of the royal women), the latter, by Sinuhe's true love interest, Merit. Serafy fails to note that the dichotomy is utilized by Waltari, even as these sorts of contrasting figures are to be found in antiquity, denoting "folly" and "wisdom." Parkinson states that The Egyptian's "modern orientalist clichés included a gold-clad temptress with a fluffy feline companion," adding that "in the original, Sinuhe's sexual activity is less flamboyant." However, an examination of Waltari's novel reveals that it contains numerous scenes of sexual encounters, including necrophilia.

16. For Setne and Tabubu, cf. Miriam Lichtheim, "The Stories of Setne Khamwas," in Ancient Egyptian Literature 3: The Late Period (University of California Press: Berkely-London, 1980), pp. 125-138 (Setne 1, pp. 133-36). Setne wants to sleep with the beautiful Tabubu, who- - - like Nefer- - - is associated with the goddess Bast(et). As in the modern adaptations, the main character signs over to the woman all his possessions.  In The Egyptian, Sinuhe deeds over his parents' tomb to the prostitute.  In the ancient tale, Setne promises to give Tabubu his children's inheritance, after agreeing to her demand to kill them so they won't contest the arrangement.

17. Both Parkinson and Serafy, "Egypt in Hollywood," p. 81, make reference to the Hittites' "secret" development of iron technology as a Cold War motif. Without denying the resonances, the episode comes from Waltari's novel.

18. Serafy, "Egypt in Hollywood," pp. 80-81 comments that the film shows Egypt "in the clutches of totalitarianism by high priests of an oppressive and corrupt government who stamp out free thought to preserve the ancient order. This grim view of society accorded to the American perception of life in the Soviet Union." He adds: "Of course, McCarthyism was also limiting free speech in America, especially in Hollywood." Apart from a gratuitous jibe, Serafy does not see "McCarthyism" as an element within the film. As noted The Egyptian is primarily a commentary on domestic politics in the United States.

19. The literature is enormous, cf. John Earl Haynes, "A Bibliography of Communism, Film, Radio and Television," Film History 16.4 (2004) (Issue on "Politics and Film"), pp. 396-423; also Arthur Eckstein, "The Hollywood Ten in Memory and History," Film History 16.4 (2004), pp. 424-436; Richard Shickel, Elia Kazan: A Biography (Harper-Collins: New York, 2005), pp. 250-272.

20. Potentially sensitive- - -and suspicious- - - topics, such as disarmament, are also addressed in the western, Broken Arrow (20th Century Fox, 1950), and in the science fiction film, The Day the Earth Stood Still (20th Century Fox, 1950). Although he acquiesced to the blacklist, studio head, Darryl F. Zanuck, had little sympathy for it (cf. George F. Custen, Twentieth Century's Fox: Darryl F. Zanuck and the Culture of Hollywood [Basic Books: New York, 1997] pp. 310-317), and was open to addressing controversial issues (albeit sometimes in historical or fantasy guise). According to Custen (ibid, pp. 314-315) screenwriter Philip Dunne was interested in making a film critical of HUAC as early as 1949.  He later suggested to Darryl F. Zanuck that he make George Orwell's 1984: "We could make another The Robe, set in the future instead of the past." The comments certainly demonstrate that the screenwriter was looking for vehicles by which to express his political views on the blacklist.

21. Interview in "The Making of The Robe," DVD Special Edition, The Robe, 20th Century Fox Entertainment, 2008.  The Robe (20th Century Fox, 1953); screenwiters, Albert Maltz (originally un-credited) and Philip Dunne; producer, Frank Ross; director, Henry Koster.

22. The dialogue has been transcribed from the film. It is interesting to note how the screenwriter (likely Philip Dunne) has changed the wording of the original novel by Lloyd C. Douglas, The Robe (Mariner-Houghton-Mifflin:  Boston-New York, 1999) (reprint 1942), p. 507:

"Your Majesty. . . if the Empire desires peace and justice and good will among all men, my King will be on the side of the Empire and her Emperor.  If the Empire and the Emperor desire to pursue the slavery and slaughter that have brought agony and terror and despair to the world. . . if there is then nothing further for men to hope for but chains and hunger at the hands of our Empire- - my King will march forward to right this wrong! Not tomorrow, sire! Your Majesty may not be so fortunate as to witness the        establishment of this Kingdom- - but it is coming!"

The shift from the book's "justice and goodwill" to the film's "brotherhood," and from Douglas' "pursue the slavery and slaughter," to "the course of aggression and slavery," might be indicative of the respective contexts.  Douglas was writing during World War II and American opposition to Nazi oppression; Dunne, during the time of the Cold War, where liberal groups were critical of confrontational international policies, while pursuing a more aggressive Civil Rights posture domestically.

23. On Albert Maltz and The Robe, cf. Bernard F. Dick, Radical Innocence: A Critical Study of the Hollywood Ten (University of Kentucky Press, 1989), pp. 94-96; Jack Salzman, Albert Maltz (Twanye Publishers: Boston, 1978), p. 129. Maltz wrote his version of the screenplay in 1945-46, when the project was under the auspices of RKO Pictures (Dick, Radical Innocence, p. 94). From his examination of the production files of 20th Century Fox in the UCLA archives, Dick surmises that (Radical Innocence, pp. 95-96) most of the explicitly religious scenes surrounding Palm Sunday and Good Friday were from Maltz, along with the "conversion" episodes involving Demetrius, Marcellus, and finally Diana at the conclusion of the film. Likewise, Maltz retained Lloyd C. Douglas' depiction of Caligula's final taunt of Marcellus and Diana as they go to their deaths. For the restoration of Maltz's screen credits, see, Jean Rouverol, Refugees from Hollywood: A Journal of the Blacklist Years (University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, 2000), p. 267. Maltz was also the un-credited screenwriter for the irenic Broken Arrow.

24. On Dunne and the Committee for the First Amendment, see his autobiography, Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics (Mc-Graw-Hill: New York, 1980), p. 193-208. Dunne (ibid, p. 254) describes himself as being somewhat critical of the earlier Maltz script of The Robe: "Dramatically, the script was a vast improvement on the book, but a great many of the scenes were trite and DeMillish. In other words, it was a typical biblical. . . I improved some of the characterizations, eliminated some of the religious hokum, interpolated some authentic Roman history, and sharpened the drama. . . " Dunne received sole credit for the screenplay, claiming that he learned twenty years later that the original was "the work of one or more blacklisted writers," decrying that the "blacklist, or its noxious fallout, had turned me into something I had always despised: a credit hog" (ibid, p. 255). This would contradict Custen (Twentieth Century's Fox, p. 312) that Maltz worked at reduced wages on the script with Dunne.

25. Lloyd C. Douglas, The Robe, pp. 501-508.

26. The sedition theme is in the novel (ibid, 503), but notably, in the film, Caligula likens the Christian movement to the slave uprising under Spartacus- - a favorite symbol of revolution in Communist ideology. Given Dunne's statement (cf. above) that he "interpolated some authentic Roman history," it might be surmised that he is the author of this particular wording.

27. Kuntz, "Making of The Robe," offers, "(in The Robe) we have a tribunal in front of Caligula that is just like the 1947 HUAC hearings. . . (with) Marcellus behaving exactly like the Hollywood Ten behaved, speaking `truth to power'- - - as they saw it; announcing their commitment to new ideas that were going to change the world, and then walking off to a form of martyrdom." On the use of "loyalty oaths" in Hollywood, see Custen, Twentieth Century's Fox, p. 316.

28. Serafy, "Egypt in Hollywood," p. 80, wrongly names the director of The Robe as "Costa," instead of "Henry Koster."

29. Waltari, The Egyptian, pp. 487-488.

30. Philip Dunne, Take Two, p. 65.

31. On the division of the music score between Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, cf. Steven C. Smith, A Heart at Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (University of California Press: Berkely-Los Angeles-Oxford, 1991), pp. 181-183. Although "Horemheb's Entrance," is seemingly more suited to Herrmann, Newman was the composer.

32. Transcribed from the film.

33. The words strikingly anticipate Martin Luther King's 1963 Lincoln Memorial "I Have a Dream" speech. One should note how Dunne changed Waltari's "a man cannot be measured by the color of his skin," to "a man cannot be judged by the color of his skin," as well as adding "he who uses mercy is superior to him who uses violence." Dunne himself worked as a speechwriter for Democratic candidates (cf. Take Two, pp. 324-327), and interestingly, was in Washington a few weeks after King's address.

34. Perhaps this should also be seen against the backdrop of Gandhi's death in 1948.

35. The film's epilogue, which notes that "these things happened thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ," (backed by Alfred Newman's score, recalling his music for The Robe) unquestionably links the film to Christianity. However, one needs to comment on Serafy's assessment ("Egypt in Hollywood," 79) that "Akhenaten's sun worship is shown to be nearly identical to Christianity." As support, he quotes Akhenaten's death speech, which is absent in Waltari's novel, and likely is to be attributed to Philip Dunne. After realizing that Sinuhe has poisoned him, Akhenaten addresses his murderer:

"Have I drunk death, Sinuhe? . . . So be it. The fault is mine. You gave me what I asked for, but I was wrong to ask it. I was weak. I thought my god had forsaken me. But he hadn't, Sinuhe. Nor have you killed him, as you believed. Horemheb seeks to kill him by tearing down his temples, but the House of God is all creation. Tear down the mountains, empty the seas, strip the sky of stars- - and still you haven't touched God. I see it clearly now. I thought God was the face of the sun, and thus I made His image. But God is more- - much more. The sun is just a symbol of His warmth, His creative power. He is no idol, no tangible thing- - but the Creator of all things, the Loving Spirit that lives in all our hearts. I'm fortunate beyond other men, that he permitted me to recognize him . . . Nor does my death matter. I was no more than a shadow of things to come; one voice that spoke for Him. But there will be other voices- - clearer than mine. For the hearts of men will not be denied forever. God is in us all, and one day, in His own good time, He will speak out in words that cannot be misunderstood. . . God forgives everything, Sinuhe- - He forgives you."

Although there are "Christ-like" resonances (being forsaken; forgiveness) Akhenaten is presented as an ancient Egyptian "John the Baptist," proclaiming not a redeemer-figure, but a kind of "pantheistic humanism. "

Notably, Dunne presents similar sentiments in other biblical/religious films that he wrote. In the The Robe, Dunne's "Christianity" is "demythologized," marked instead by "its compassion for every man," being but "one of many ways to God." Indeed, at the climax to the film, Caligula asks: "Tell us Tribune, are we to believe these stories that this Jesus could heal by the touch of his hand, make the crippled walk, and the blind see again?" To which, Marcellus replies: "It makes no difference whether you believe them or not, Sire. All that matters is there are no stories that he made anyone blind, or made anyone a cripple, or raised his hand except to heal." The dialogue is not in the original novel.

Dunne was rather expansive on the subject of religion and the supernatural (Take Two, p. 252):            

I don't deny anyone's right to believe in miracles, but as a non-believer myself. . . I think I should be both presumptuous and hypocritical to imply belief by writing this into my scripts. . . But I do believe in some miracles. . . Jesus was a miracle, not because he did conjuror's tricks with water and wine, but because he brought a message of hope to the hopeless and love to those who were hated and despised. . . Most Christians continue to believe that Christianity follows the teachings of a gentle Jesus, totally ignoring the fact that different Christian sects have sanctified mass slaughter. . . ever since the astute if murderous Constantine read the public opinion polls of the time and decided to do his killing under the sign of the Prince of Peace.  One of the great tragedies of history is the subversion of Jesus' message of decency and love into the great hypocrisy which all too often has usurped the name of Christianity" (ibid, p. 255).

From his self-descriptions and the evidence of his scripts, Dunne's views would seem to be akin to Enlightenment critiques of Christianity, as well as the sentimental, "Liberal Lives of Jesus" of the 19th Century.

It is also intriguing to examine the screenwriter's "theology," as expressed in his earlier David and Bathsheba (20th Century Fox, 1951; producer, Darryl F. Zanuck; director, Henry King)  where Dunne's David "explains" the 23rd Psalm to Bathsheba, as she awaits stoning for adultery:

"When I wrote those words (e.g. the psalm), I believed in such a God.

I was only an ignorant shepherd boy: 

there was no one to teach me about God,

so I taught myself.

I saw Him in the hills and the trees,

in the miracle of the birth of lambs.

I felt His mercy, when the wolves had fled and my flocks were safe,

when spring broke the grip of snow and ice,

and the cool wind blew after the heat of the day.

I saw His splendor in the flowers blazing in the hillsides,

and the stars burning in the skies- - -

and knew His hand in everything."

However, this gentle "nature deity," eventually is replaced:

"But somehow I wandered from Him.

And when I tried to find Him again,

I had lost Him:

somewhere in Saul's court,

or in the camp of the Philistines.

His image paled in the lights of the city,

and His voice was drowned amidst

the quarreling and the scheming

of the ambitious and the mighty."

David then bitterly announces:

"But Nathan has found him for me:

not the God of my boyhood days.

But a god without mercy, a god who thinks only of his justice."

There is a clear (and negative) dichotomy between the vengeful and cynical "biblical god of `Law,'" and David's "enlightened religion of feeling."

36. There are other references to "blacklists" in the film: when Sinuhe and Kaptah return to Egypt from the land of the Hittites, they are singled out because their names are on a roster of proscribed individuals.

37. In his original review of the film, Bosley Crowther, "`The Egyptian' at Roxy," NY Times, 8/25/1954, p. 23, states that "Mature bulls and bellows in the small role he has as the hero's solider pal." A more positive view of Mature's performance can be found in Jon Solomon, The Ancient World in Cinema (Yale University Press: New Haven-London, 2001), p. 247.

38. Serafy, "Egypt in Hollywood," p. 81, makes the strange juxtaposition that "Haremhab. . . is like Stalin. . . (whose) character seems more than slightly modeled upon General Douglas MacArthur. . . "  By 1954, MacArthur was politically irrelevant. However, one wonders whether the film's "Horemheb" might not be a "coded"-reference to Joseph McCarthy. Although "son of a cheese-maker," is found in the novel, the epithet would neatly suit the Wisconsin senator, who parlayed his war-experience into elected office. Notably, Sinuhe denounces Horemheb precisely for his popularity: "You're the pharaoh that Egypt wants."

39. Mature's characters were not necessarily saintly. His Samson is a bit of a naive clod, while as Demetrius- - - a Greek slave converted to Christianity- - - Mature becomes temporarily embittered towards his faith. At one point in Demetrius and the Gladiators, the character renounces Christ to swear fealty to Caligula, with the emperor then commissioning him to inform on his former co-religionists (another example of the "blacklist" motif). Not coincidentally, the screenwriter was again, Philip Dunne, cf. Take Two, pp. 255-256.

40. This is shown quite dramatically in the film. As Horemheb declares "I am Egypt" over the slumped corpse of Akhenaten, the camera pans to the wall-relief of the benevolent, shining sun-disk of the Aten, and then dissolves to a scene on a pylon where a pharaoh smites the head of a captive.

41. Whether this is a reference to "MacArthur's public challenge to (Truman). . . (which) highlighted the dangers of giving too much power to the military," as Serafy, "Egypt in Hollywood," p. 81, asserts is debatable. However, we would agree with his recognition of the anti-military trope of the screenwriters.

42. Note Dunne's final polemic against post-World War II American foreign and military policy, which very much recalls his script for The Egyptian: "nationalism and idealism, unwisely combined, produced a venom that in the end almost destroyed not our adversaries but ourselves" (Take Two, p. 339).  He further decries (ibid) how "in the name of national security, we have had to consent to the alienation of certain `inalienable' rights, among them the right to know. The military, and the corporations they employ, are of necessity privy to secrets which must be withheld from us, their theoretical masters."

43. Quoting Parkinson, "Reading Ancient Egypt," p. 15.

44. Quoting Parkinson, Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry, p. 11.

45. Ibid, p. 11.

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