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The Egyptian (1954)

aka The Egyptian

Directed By: 
Written By: 
Details: 139 mins · English


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The Egyptian tells the story of Sinuhe, a struggling physician in 18th dynasty Egypt (14th Century BC.) who is thrown by chance into contact with the pharaoh Akhnaton. 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, and his corrupt but likable servant Kaptah.

While out lion hunting with his sturdy friend Horemheb, 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 Sinhue 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 monotheistic worship of the sun, referred to as the Aten. Akhnaton intends to promote Aten-worship 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, and is the means of his falling obsessively in love with a courtesan named Nefer. 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 their superior Egyptian medical training gives them an excellent reputation as healers. 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 (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; 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 was true, but that he has understood it imperfectly; future generations will be able to spread the same faith better than he.

Sinuhe allows Horemheb to become pharaoh, but the warlord is still indignant that his old friend had considered murdering him. He banishes Sinuhe to the shores of the Red Sea; the physician grows old in solitude, still inspired by the glimpse of another world he has been afforded through Akhnaton.

The film concludes with a caption reading, "These things happened thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ".

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