Journal of Religion and Film

Watching Ancient Egyptian Poetry —
Among Other Histrionics

by Scott Morschauser
Rowan University
Vol. 15, No. 2 October 2011

Watching Ancient Egyptian Poetry —
Among Other Histrionics

by Scott Morschauser
Rowan University

British Egyptologist, Richard B. Parkinson, is highly critical of the 1954, 20th Century Fox film, The Egyptian, both for its championing of "American Christian values," as well as reflecting nationalistic prejudices surrounding "Cold War tension with the Soviet Union." A close examination reveals that The Egyptian actually subverts the attitudes that Parkinson ascribes to it, and represents screen-writer Philip Dunne's commentary upon the then-current practice of "blacklisting."

[1] In Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry Among Other Histories, British Egyptologist,  Richard B. Parkinson, offers a fascinating study of the scribal transmission of Middle Kingdom texts in antiquity.1 He also provides a welcome overview of the treatment of ancient Egyptian literature by modern scholarship, extending his discussion to include aspects of its "performance" within popular culture, being especially keen to identify "orientalizing" attitudes towards the ancient denizens of the Nile Valley.  In this regard, Parkinson's assessment of the 1954 Hollywood adaptation of Mika Waltari's best-selling novel, The Egyptian, is of particular interest.2

[2] Both the fictional work3 and the film,4 are loosely based on the Tale of Sinuhe: the story of a man- - - Sinuhe- - - who fled Egypt to Syria-Palestine following the assassination of the Twelfth Dynasty ruler, Amenemhat I.5 In contrast to the original source, which dates to c. 1940 BC(E), the more recent versions transfer the setting to the New Kingdom, over a half millennium later, where the drama is played out against the attempts of the Eighteenth Dynasty pharaoh, Akhenaten, to introduce monotheism into the Nile Valley, during the so-called "Amarna Period."

[3] In notable contrast to his imaginative and original analyses elsewhere in his volume,  here, Parkinson relies heavily on the opinions of others. He is content to dismiss The Egyptian as being "a stage to display the superiority of the biblically founded American ideal," while deriding its characters as "representative of American Christian values."6 However, the scholar makes the further assertion that "the conflicts in the film reflected contemporaneous Cold War America tensions with the Soviet Union,"7 adding that "the presentation of the forces opposing (the idealistic pharaoh) Akhenaten embodied orientalistic attitudes."8 He clinches this disparaging verdict with the blanket observation that "the pagan priests were played by less European actors. . . "9 The writer apparently overlooks that the studio cast the very British, Henry Daniell as one of the main foils to the king's policies.

[4] Given Parkinson's pleas to be sympathetic to multiple "readings" of "texts," his comments are surprisingly glib.  I am in no position to judge the Hollywood offering's artistic merits- - - or lack thereof10 - - - but as a "historical document" in its own right, The (cinematic) Egyptian might be worth more scrutiny than Parkinson allows.11 To be sure, he is correct in pointing out the film's anachronistic depictions of Akhenaten's religion, but many Egyptologists of the time noted parallels between texts from his reign and those of the Bible,12 as well as seeing the pharaoh as a "Christ"-like figure.13 Likewise, Parkinson's umbrage over images of female sexuality in both book and movie,14 fails to acknowledge that some of the portrayals of women definitely came from ancient prototypes.15 Waltari, who was followed by the screenwriters, clearly derived a major plot-line involving the gold-digging courtesan, Nefer, from the voluptuous Tabubu in the Demotic tale of Setne-Khamwese.16

[5] More importantly, the Hollywood feature can hardly be reduced to the simplistic tale of a morally superior America (e.g. Egypt) confronting a barbaric Russia (e.g. the Hittites), that Parkinson assumes. In fact, whatever the "Cold War" references,17 the subtext is less that of "super-power" competition, and more the atmosphere of intimidation associated with the "black-list" era of Hollywood.18 Historians now recognize that some of the films of the 1950's not-so-subtly alluded to the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) investigations of the entertainment industry.19 Perhaps the most famous example is the 1952 Stanley Kramer-Carl Foreman Western, High Noon, where a lone sheriff opposes a band of vengeful thugs, while at the same time, resists community pressure towards their accommodation. This topos of taking a courageous stand against oppression was especially well-suited for biblical and costume epics of the period, where the idea of bearing witness/martyrdom was central to the story. The religious element, as well as historical distance, provided a convenient cover for expressing ideas that, in a contemporary context, might have been regarded as dangerously subversive.20 Tellingly, these sorts of spectacles often contained a climactic "judgment" scene where the hero proclaims his convictions at the cost of his life.

[6] Film historian, Jonathan Kuntz points out that a prime example of this motif occurs in 20th Century Fox's, The Robe, where a Roman convert to Christianity, the tribune Marcellus Gallio, assails the mad emperor, Caligula:21

"If the Empire and the Emperor desire peace and brotherhood among all men, then my King (e.g. Jesus) will be on the side of Rome and her Emperor.  But if the Empire- - - and the Emperor- - - wish to pursue the course of aggression and slavery, that have   brought agony and terror and despair to the world- - - if there's nothing left for men to hope for, but chains and hunger- - - then my King will march forward to right those wrongs! Not tomorrow, Sire- - - Your Majesty may not be so fortunate as to witness the establishment of His kingdom- - - but it will come!"22

[7] The declaration, which results in Marcellus' execution, is notable for a number of reasons, least of which is its contents. The original screenwriter of The Robe was Albert Maltz, who was himself, blacklisted for his associations with the Communist Party, and whose name was only recently restored to the credits of the film.23 Maltz' replacement was Philip Dunne, one of the founding heads of the "Committee for the First Amendment," formed in the wake of the HUAC conviction of the "Hollywood Ten" for refusing "to name names."24 Much of Marcellus' speech quoted above is in the original novel of Lloyd C. Douglas.  But there, the confrontation between the tribune and Caligula takes place at a private banquet.25 However, in the film, the screen-writer(s) transfer the setting to the imperial throne-room, where Marcellus is charged with sedition.26 After attempting to intimidate Marcellus' family members, the emperor, seated on a throne emblazoned with the titulus "SPQR"- - - "(for) the Senate and the People of Rome"- - - demands that the officer recant and take a loyalty oath to the state, quite reminiscent of the histrionics of earlier Congressional interrogations.27

[8] Similar dynamics are evident in The Egyptian- - - a product of the same studio as The Robe- - - and a film that very much replicates the sympathies of its predecessor.28 Once more, Philip Dunne was one of the screen-writers. Like The Robe, the climax of The Egyptian shows the protagonist, Sinuhe, being forced to defend his beliefs before the ruling authorities. What is intriguing is that, again, the denouement of the movie places the main character in surroundings very different from that of the book. At the end of his novel, Waltari portrayed Sinuhe- - - a royal physician- - - wandering the streets of Thebes, laden with guilt over his role in the betrayal and poisoning of Akhnaten. Abandoning his place of luxury and privilege, Sinuhe chooses to live in solidarity with the poor, seeking to console them in their miseries:29

"There is no difference between one man and another, for all are born naked into the world. A man cannot be measured by the color of his skin, or by his speech, or by his clothes, and jewels, but only by his heart. A good man is better than a bad man, and justice is better than injustice- - - and that is all I know."

Eventually, his former friend, the general Horemheb- - - now pharaoh- - - confronts Sinuhe and privately warns him to refrain from his disruptive activities. After a meeting in his own hut, Sinuhe declares that he will never change his behavior, resulting in the new king reluctantly banishing him for his civil disobedience.

[9] By contrast, Philip Dunne, in his autobiography, describes how he shifted the staging in the film for Sinuhe's cri de coeur and expulsion:30

The big scene at the end of the picture had the new Pharaoh. . . condemn his old friend Sinuhe the doctor. . . to perpetual exile in the desert. It had what we called production values: the Pharaoh and his consort. . . led a massive procession into the audience chamber. There were soldiers, courtiers, musicians, cheetahs on leashes, all the magnificence of eighteenth-dynasty (sic) Egypt. It took three cameras, four hundred extras, a hundred technicians, and about six hours to shoot.
[10] The lavish setting serves as a backdrop to Horemheb's triumphal entry, his strength and brutality accentuated by barbaric drums and dissonant brass playing over the soundtrack.31 The occasion for the gathering is a celebration of the king's recent victory over his enemies, the Hittites, who are marched in chains as prisoners of war. Significantly, Horemheb's achievement- - - heralding Egypt's "rebirth" as a world-power- - - occurs after he has dismantled the dead Akhnaten's policy of disarmament and international cooperation. In the wake of this martial display, Dunne has Horemheb usher Sinuhe in before his gathered minions, and formally charges him with treason. When no one comes forward to his defense, the pharaoh allows Sinuhe to address the "court":33

SINUHE: (I speak) not for myself, Sire, but for one whose memory you tried to wipe out; whose very name you've sought to destroy. For Akhenaten. . .

HOREMHEB: Do you flaunt your treason in my face? That name is forbidden! Take care physician, or I will. .. '

SINUHE: Will? Will what you will. You will go to war and win a battle.

You will conquer, and not know that it is defeat. You will raise Egypt to glory, and watch her die. We live in the twilight of our world, Horemheb, and you will be its sunset. Nations rise, only to fall. Kings build mighty monuments, only to have them crumble into dust. Glory flees like a shadow. All these things have the seeds of death in them. Only a thought can live. Only a great truth can grow and flourish. And a truth cannot be killed. It passes in secret from one man's heart to another. It is given in a mother's milk to her child. . . "

HOREMHEB: Are you trying to tell me that you'll fight against me?

SINUHE: Oh, you will win that, too. For if you fail to silence me, you know what I will do.

HOREMHEB: What will you do, physician?

SINUHE: I will go among the people, and try to answer the questions that burden their hearts. The questions that I have asked myself all my life, wherever I've wandered in the world, and which were answered for me by a dying man (e.g. Akhnaten). I will wear the clothes of a slave, and kick the sandals from my feet, and speak to the wives as they fry their fish before their mud-huts by the river; to the porters on the docks; to the smiths by their bellows; to the slaves under their yokes. And I will a man cannot be judged by the color of his skin, by his clothes, his jewels, or his triumphs. But only by his heart. A good man is better than a bad man. Justice is better than injustice. He who uses mercy is superior to him who uses violence- - though the latter call himself pharaoh, and make himself `master of the earth.' We have but one; Master: the God who made us all. Only His Truth is immortal. And in His Truth, all men are equal. No man is alone.

HOREMHEB: The sentence: exile for life.

[11] Besides the obvious change in venues, which gave Dunne the opportunity to present Sinuhe's ordeal as a public spectacle, the screenwriter has dramatically moved the apologia away from existential angst towards a more politicized focus. In neatly balanced antithesis- - - winning is defeat, the rise of nations is their sunset, monuments built to self-glory will crumble into dust- - - Dunne denounces the mainstays of Horemheb's policies- - - militarism and imperialism- - - in a much more explicit manner than in Waltari's book. He extends the criticism further to include capitalism and materialism, when Sinuhe declares that individual worth is a matter of ethos, exemplified by respect for civil rights, pacifism, and non-violence.33 These noble teachings are directly attributed to Akhnaten- - - an innocent slain34 and damned for his cause- - - but whose humanistic ideal Dunne gives universal application by linking it to a Transcendent ideology.35 Upon close examination, this, the penultimate scene of The Egyptian, is highly critical of the pieties that Parkinson would blithely ascribe to the film. By extension, one cannot but notice that central to the hero's persecution, is his insistence on speaking Akhnaten's outlawed name: in effect, Sinuhe breaks the "blacklist" imposed by Horemheb.36 However, just as worthy of comment is the effect of casting Victor Mature in the role of the vengeful king. The assignation of this Kentucky-born actor to the part, causes one to reexamine Parkinson's charge of "orientalizing," just as his "performance" is jolting in a way that the scholar does not address.37 In contrast to the British accents of the majority of players- - - including Edmund Purdom's Sinuhe- - - Mature speaks in flat American tones. The incongruity in accent works well here. In both novel and film, Horemheb is portrayed as an upstart without social pedigree or lineage: he is routinely mocked as the "son of a cheese-maker."  Upon his assumption of the throne, this ancient version of "Babbitt" pursues a policy that is unabashedly aggressive abroad, while being oppressive towards "liberal" elements at home.38 Not only does the appearance of an American in this case produce audience unease, but Mature's portrayal can hardly be seen as the film's endorsement of a "hawkish" "Cold-War" attitude.

[12] Victor Mature's part in The Egyptian is even more disquieting when we recognize that it is radically "against type." In the late 1940's throughout the Fifties, the actor was a staple of biblical and quasi-biblical spectaculars. Beginning with Cecil B. DeMille's Samson and Delilah, and then continuing with The Robe and its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Mature was a heroic figure.39 Mature's vengeful portrayal of Horemheb in The Egyptian, undercuts the expectations movie-goers in the United States would have initially brought to the character. That it is Victor Mature- - - the epitome of screen religiosity- - - who seeks to crush "(the) biblically founded American ideal" should not be minimized.40 Whatever its relation to "orientalizing," Mature's vulgarian Horemheb is nothing less than the embodiment of the 1950's "military-industrial" complex running roughshod over "progressive" values.41 Despite the film's aesthetic weaknesses, through this disconcerting casting it results that it is not the "exotic outsider" who proves to be dangerous, but the "familiar insider." The Egyptian is hardly the bland and harmless piece of "entertainment" some "sophisticated" observers make it out to be.42

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[13] Throughout Reading Ancient Egyptian Poetry, R. B. Parkinson, creatively impresses upon the reader how important are "space, place, time, and performance," in the "reception" of a work, and how these factors affect interpretation. As valid as this observation is for perceptions of the Tale of Sinuhe throughout the Bronze Age, it is equally applicable to its later incarnation in the "Atomic Age." Arguably, from certain vantage-points- - - "especially when the modern reader lacks detailed knowledge of the context that gave it meaning"<43- - - the casual viewer might regard The Egyptian as a gaudy promotion of Eisenhower-era American "civil religion." At worse, it might be taken as evidence of a simplistic- - - but dangerous- - - Manichean mindset.  However, a fuller "awareness" of the circumstances surrounding The Egyptian's creation might also "open up the interpretative spaces beyond the assumptions of a normative academic `common sense.'"44 The recognition that The Egyptian alludes to its own contemporary crises prompts us to consider that its target was not some distant "Other," but very much "Itself." And in its own "occidentalizing" way, the film was "queerly" "at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant," inviting its audience " to examine the theoretical and central forces. . . that privilege the normative over the disruptive."

Group Notes


Demetrius and the Gladiators

The Egyptian

High Noon

The Robe


Samson and Delilah

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