Laserdiscs, Blu-rays...and Egypt

I've written early and often about where the current mania for streaming will take us, and the slow, possible demise of packaged media. Yes, new and re-releases on disc are still common, to which anyone who follows the website The Digital Bits website can attest. But where, exactly, can you go to buy them? Amazon is still a reliable source, and my local Walmart has a good assortment, though it's at least, 10:1 for DVD over Blu-ray (I suspect that most of the public still thinks DVD is high def, or doesn't care).

Outright purchase of movie titles on disc (or tape) has long been a niche business that's no longer subsidized by the once huge buys from the old video rental stores. That leaves individual sales of video discs to the serious movie/home theater fans willing to buy them.

So where might the video business go next? To see where this might lead, a look back at where we've been might be in order, along with a glance at a title that experienced a unique path to market, a path that might be an omen for the future.

Seasoned readers might recall the Laserdisc era. It never went mass market, but at least moved beyond VHS for those of us interested in quality video. It also showed Hollywood studios that there was at least a viable market for something better. I still have a few dozen of those big silver discs and two Pioneer players squirreled away somewhere. The last time I checked any of them out I couldn't believe how much better today's Blu-rays (or even DVDs) look in comparison (Laserdiscs, like DVDs, were 480i standard definition). I recall a press visit to Japan in the mid '90s sponsored (if memory serves) by Panasonic. They talked about their ongoing research on a new, digital video disc format that could hold an entire film on one side of a 5-inch disc. I scoffed (quietly!), wondering how they could possibly pull that off. A few years later I no longer had to pause and flip over a 12-inch disc to watch the second half of a movie!

One of those Laserdiscs was The Egyptian. I had first seen that film well before even Laserdisc hit the market. Produced in 1954 by 20th Century Fox in early CinemaScope, the film is an underappreciated "swords and sandals" epic that cost the studio the then enormous sum of $5 million to make. A relatively unknown British actor, Edmund Purdom, pulled down the ginormous sum of $500/week to play the lead! Today that would be about $53 million for the entire film and $5,300 for Purdom. Those sums would barely pay for a modest rom-com today. Hollywood inflation has clearly outpaced overall inflation through the years.

The critical reaction to the movie was decidedly mixed, and has remained so over the years. But when I first saw it, it triggered a passion for history in me, particularly ancient history, that continues to this day. My favorite film genres are history, science fiction, and animation, not necessarily in that order. But the history part began there.

Based on a best-selling 1946 book by Finish novelist Mika Waltari, The Egyptian is set roughly in 1300 BC Egypt during the reign of the pharaoh Akhenaton, who tried unsuccessfully to push a monotheistic religion on his subjects. That's a major driver to the plot, but apart from a few lines here and there, and the concluding shot, this isn't a religious film. The story is centered on Sinuhe, the Egyptian of the title and a young physician who becomes entangled with court intrigue, the wrong woman, exile, and assassination plots. The pace is slow, so don't expect the action of Gladiator, the religious depth of Saint Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments, or the grisly humor of The Mummy (2000).

(Factoid 1: The lead role was originally Marlon Brando's (he coulda been a contenda!!) but he backed out just before shooting began. Factoid 2: In one scene, a character is shown drinking beer. That's not warping history; the ancient Egyptians invented beer. Factoid 3: Despite Factoid 2, the film is no more accurate than the average historical flick. Unlike what's shown here, for example, Akhenaton was followed by King Tut, not Horemheb. There was a General Horemheb who took the throne later, but only after a couple of pharaohs down the road (Akhenaton> Tut> Ay> then Horemheb).

The Egyptian got under my skin on my first viewing, possibly because I'm a sucker for plots where the hero wins it all and then throws it all away. So when the independent video distribution company Twilight Time released it on Blu-ray around 2010 from a transfer they licensed from 20th Century Fox, I jumped at it. As I recall, it wasn't cheap at around $50. But I later wished I'd bought two or three copies. I saw one on eBay a couple of years later for several hundred dollars! More recently I've seen the film cheap on eBay and Amazon (DVD and Blu-ray), but those versions don't appear to be the from the 2010 release. The photo at the top of this page is the cover on a version currently listed on Amazon, and is totally different than the cover of my Twilight Time copy. Proceed with caution.

A few years before this disc release I saw the film in a revival in Hollywood at (appropriately) the Egyptian theater. It looked horrible; the color palette was drenched in red. But none of that is visible on my Twilight Time Blu-ray. It offers fine video, with just a little softness but with rich, natural color. That's a real plus as the art direction of this film is stunning, particularly the palace scenes. Some of the sets were later used in The Ten Commandments. The audio is also decent, particularly the score co-composed by the unlikely team of Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. But the audio is no challenge to even an average modern soundtrack.

This odd route to distribution might hint at a future for packaged media if streaming ultimately makes disc releases, at current volumes and prices, untenable. The Egyptian does show up occasionally on AMC or TCM, depending on who has the rights to it this week, but there's no indication that 20th Century has any plans to re-release it on disc, or for more frequent streaming. 20th Century now lacks the "Fox" tag on the end (so much for "Hollywood tradition") and is owned, like seemingly everything else in Hollywood, by Disney. But perhaps a few letters might dislodge it from Vault Disney for another run up the Nile. Perhaps they could even give it an HDR scan. I'd definitely subscribe to Disney+ for that.

Traveler's picture

Is there even an 8k format, certainly haven't seen any for sale. Guess disks might continue for the same snob effect as the vinyl revival.

trynberg's picture

"snob effect"?

Unlike vinyl, discs actually offer better audio and video fidelity than streaming...

da Choge's picture

Really enjoyed your review and especially the history behind the movie and your choice of releases. I, too, have quite a few Laserdiscs. My Pioneer player, which was one of the players that flipped the laser reading head to see both sides of a disc, is stored in mothballs. But I occasionally have silly fantasies of restoring it.
I think I want to get this disc, but my big question still remains, What is the best version currently available (that's still reasonable as far as $)? Are the Amazon versions that subpar?

dommyluc's picture

You wrote "...particularly the score co-composed by the unlikely team of Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann."

Actually, Herrmann had been working at Twentieth Century Fox since 1943, when he scored "Jane Eyre" (and went on, while there, to compose such film music masterpieces as "Anna and the King of Siam" and "The Ghost and Mrs. Muir".), and Alfred Newman was the head of the Fox music department. Herrmann and Newman had known each other for years (Newman was instrumental in getting Herrmann hired. He knew great talent when he saw it or, rather, heard it), so the idea of them working together on a score isn't really that far-fetched. And the score for "The Egyptian" is quite good.

Hi-Reality's picture

Hi Thomas, I read Sinuhe, the Egyptian around the age of 20. And I was told that it is highly recommended to read it again at a later stage in life. It is truly a great work of literature.

Thank you for this article, I didn't know there was a movie made around the book.

If I understood your article correctly, you say this version is no longer available?

Regards, Babak
the Hi-Reality Project