The Egyptian tells the story of Sinuhe (Edmund Purdom), a struggling physician in 18th dynasty Egypt (14th Century BC.) who 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 monotheistic 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 was 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. The film concludes with a caption reading, "These things happened thirteen centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ".Edmund Purdom as Sinuhe
Victor Mature as Horemheb
Jean Simmons as Merit
Bella Darvi as Nefer
Gene Tierney as Baketamon
Michael Wilding as Akhenaten
Peter Ustinov as Kaptah
Judith Evelyn as Taia
Henry Daniell as Mekere
John Carradine as Grave robber
Carl Benton Reid as Senmut
Tommy Rettig as Thoth
Anitra Stevens as Queen Nefertiti
Peter Reynolds as Sinuhe, age 10
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 monotheistic 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.
Some of the sets, costumes, and props from this film were bought and re-used by Cecil B. DeMille for The Ten Commandments. 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.
The original male stars were Victor Mature, Marlon Brando and Kirk Douglas. Marlon Brando was to star as Sinuhe, but did not like the script and dropped out at the last minute.
Farley Granger was the next choice and considered the role, but then decided he was not interested after having just moved to New York. Dirk Bogarde was then offered the role but also turned it down. Finally it was awarded to the up-and-coming young actor Edmund Purdom who was under contract to MGM and who had just made The Student Prince. (Other contenders for the role had been John Derek, John Cassavetes and Cameron Mitchell.)
Marilyn Monroe coveted the role of Nefer, only to discover that it was earmarked for Bella Darvi, the protegee and mistress of producer Darryl F. Zanuck. This would be the second of only three American films featuring Darvi.
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.