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SUEZ (director: Allan Dwan; screenwriter: story by Sam Duncan/Philip Dunne/Julien Josephson; cinematographer: Peverell Marley; editor: Barbara McLean; music: Louis Silvers; cast: Tyrone Power (Ferdinand de Lesseps), Loretta Young (Countess Eugenie de Montijo), Leon Ames (President Louis Napoleon), Annabella (Tonie Pellerin), Nigel Bruce (Malcolm Cameron), J. Edward Bromberg (Prince Sa’id), Henry Stephenson (Mathieu de Lesseps), Sidney Blackmer (Marquis Du Brey), Joseph Schildkraut (Vicomte Rene De Latour), George Zucco (Prime minister), Victor Varconi (Victor Hugo), Miles Mander (Benjamin Disraeli), Sig Ruman (Sergeant Pellerin), Maurice Moscovitch (Muhammad Ali), Frank Reicher (General Changarnier), Frank Lackteen (Swami); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Gene Markey/Ralph Dietrich; 20th Century Fox; 1938)

“The historical drama suffers for being undramatic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

In the hands of veteran director Allan Dwan (“Sands of Iwo Jima”/”Heidi”/”Robin Hood”) the prestige historical drama suffers for being undramatic. It’s strung together by a series of incidents whereby the building of the Suez Canal becomes secondary to a love story.The charming but uneven period pic, shot in black and white, gives its history lesson a false face as it plays out more as a tragic love story and a telling of the tribulations of trying to find virtuous partners in politics rather than sticking with the better building the canal story. WritersSam Duncan, Philip Dunne and Julien Josephsontell of the difficulties in getting financing and support for such a bold project as the building of a canal at the Suez isthmus, that will connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas and provide a short-cut to the east for western countries.Though it has an impactful story it misses the boat by its lethargic pacing and failing to be emotionally connecting. Instead its fictionalized historical workings construct another typical Hollywood theatrical version of the truth, this time about idealistic dreamer Ferdinand de Lesseps (Tyrone Power) and his struggles to get his big ditch built at any cost.

In Paris in 1850 President Louis Napoleon (Leon Ames) sees Countess Eugenie de Montijo (Loretta Young) with the young promising diplomatFerdinand de Lesseps at a tennis match and invites them to a ball, with his roving eye on the beauty. Overhearing a slur against him by Ferdinand, Louis Napoleon gets him immediately appointed to a diplomatic post in Alexandria, Egypt. Before leaving Ferdinand’s marriage proposal is rejected by the beautiful Countess. Ferdinand then reunites with his wily father Mathieu de Lesseps (Henry Stephenson), the consular-general in Egypt. Dad advises his son to befriend the future viceroy of Egypt, Prince Sa’id (J. Edward Bromberg), and the son succeeds in that mission. On a desert trek, Ferdinand envisions a canal which will benefit Egypt as well as the world and asks to lease the land from Egypt. But the Prince’s father Muhammad Ali (Maurice Moscovitch), the Turkish viceroy, says his hands are tied by political objections from England and Turkey to openly favor it but will nevertheless recognize the project if Ferdinand gets financial backing from France.

Back in Paris, Ferdinand is heart-broken that his Countess is courted by the ambitious Louis Napoleon and that the President has turned down his Suez Canal proposal. When rioting erupts in the streets of Paris because of Louis Napoleon’s attempts to adjourn the republic’s general assembly, the stealth President manipulates the naive Ferdinand to get the assembly to adjourn temporarily and promises to restore the assembly when the rioting stops. The assembly leaders, including Ferdinand’s father, go along with this because the President has given his written assurances he will do as promised. But when the assembly adjourns, Louis reneges on his promise and has them all arrested and declares himself emperor. Every opposition leader is arrested, including Ferdinand’s best friend (Joseph Schildkraut), except for Ferdinand, who is granted approval for his Suez Canal project for his support of Louis Napoleon.

Back in Egypt, Ferdinand is romanced and consoled by the feisty, impulsive commoner Tonie (Annabella). The fictional character is the uneducated granddaughter of the consulate’s army sergeant (Sig Ruman). Ferdinand spends a lot of time grieving that he has become so despised in France as a Judas and that his unwise actions caused his father’s death due to a stroke.

The building of the big ditch continues to be filled with hardships, that includes a centerpiece desert storm at the work-site that brings more personal tragedy to the canal builder. Now that the project is bankrupt, visionary Ferdinand lucks out that the new progressive prime minister in England is Benjamin Disraeli (Miles Manders) pledges his government’s full support for the canal.

Too bad this pic chooses to be factually incorrect, as De Lesseps’ diplomatic career was ruined by a controversy in Italy and not as portrayed in the film. I guess if you want to get the facts you’ll have to read the history books. If you’re into seeing a dazzling film about the building of the canal, you’ll likely find this one only a mixed bag that’s well mounted in its action scenes but misses the mark by not getting one’s blood boiling in its uninspiring dramatics.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”