Saturday, June 10, 2006

SUEZ (1938)

This is a decent example of what passed for a historical epic in Hollywood before GONE WITH THE WIND changed the rules. It's a fictional biography of Ferdinand de Lesseps, engineer and builder of the Suez Canal (and who later was in on the beginnings of the Panama Canal, though that's not covered here). The film starts in 1850 in Paris with Tyrone Power as de Lesseps, the son of diplomat Henry Stephenson, leading a carefree life playing exhibition tennis and romancing Loretta Young, who herself is being admired from afar by Louis Napoleon (Leon Ames), the president of France (though because he is related to the tyrannical Bonaparte, the fear that Ames might shut down the government and claim himself Emperor becomes a plot point). When Power is called to Egypt by his father, he asks Young to marry him but she won't commit. Once in Egypt, he meets the somewhat tomboyish Annabella while she's skinny dipping; soon she has fallen in love with him, though he seems to think of her more as a little sister. After a storm, while admiring a rainbow, Power has the idea to build a canal that would connect the Red and Mediterranean Seas, and the rest of the film details his long struggle to bring the project to fruition, mostly involving jumping a number of political hurdles involving the French, the British, and the Arabs. At one point, Power finagles Ames into backing his plan by agreeing to get the Assembly to disband temporarily, but when Ames double-crosses Power and begins arresting the Assembly members, all of Power's friends think that Power has betrayed them for the Canal. The building of the Canal takes years, slowed by political reversals and deliberate sabotage, but the main set piece of the film is a spectacular dust storm in which Annabella sacrifices her life to save Power by tying him to a post as the wind blows virtually everything else away. After this sequence, the film rushes to an end with the eventual completion of the canal and a ceremony in which Power is given a medal by Young, now the wife of Ames. Apparently little of this is accurate, but the story is entertaining enough and Power makes a good leading man. J. Edward Bromberg plays an Arabian prince, Nigel Bruce does his usual befuddled persona as a pompous admirer of Young's, and other standouts of the large supporting cast include Joseph Schildkraut, Sig Ruman, and George Zucco. [FMC]

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