Long before Omar Sharif was discovered and made internationally famous by director David Lean in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962, he was already a major star and matinee idol in his native country of Egypt. The director who truly deserves the credit for launching Sharif’s career is Youssef Chahine, easily the most famous and renowned Egyptian filmmaker of all time. Chahine discovered Sharif on a street in Alexandria, cast him as the lead in his sixth feature film, The Blazing Sun aka Struggle in the Valley (Siraa Fil-Wadi, 1954), and changed his name from Michel Chalhoub to Omar Cherif. Cast opposite Fetah Hamamah, one of Egypt’s reigning film actresses since the early 1940s, Cherif quickly established himself as a major star and female heartthrob. More importantly, he fell in love with Hamamah and they married in 1954, going on to make several movies together and becoming Egypt’s most popular romantic screen team.
Cherif (his name would change to Sharif with the release of Lawrence of Arabia) would make two more films for Chahine – Devil of the Desert (Shaytan al-Sahra, 1954) and Dark Waters (Siraa Fil-Mina, 1956) – and for many years it was almost impossible to see these early works outside of Egypt. Thanks to recent restoration efforts by Misr International Films (Chahine’s own company), the Cinémathèque française, the Cineteca di Bologna and other institutions, a large portion of Chahine’s filmography is available for screening again as part of a traveling exhibition in selected cities and on Netflix, where subscribers can view twelve of Chahine’s films, including the two Sharif titles, The Blazing Sun and Dark Waters.
For too many years, the Chahine-Sharif films have been dismissed by some as being inconsequential genre films that were designed to entertain and nothing more. That was true at the time but today they reveal so much more such as Chahine’s developing skills as an innovative storyteller, Sharif’s impressive range and charisma in his first films and plotlines that incorporate political and social commentary into formulaic narratives.
Sharif’s debut film, The Blazing Sun, is set in the farm land along the east bank of the Nile River near Luxor, the site of the ancient temple of Karnak. He plays Ahmed, a young engineer whose hard work has resulted in a sugar cane harvest for the local villagers that is selected by merchants over the crop produced by their top rival, Taher Pasha (Zaki Rustum). This does not sit well with Pasha who has always been the number one sugar cane seller so he commands his nephew Riad (Farid Shawqi) to secretly commit an act of sabotage.
When no one is looking, Riad opens the water lock on the local dam, flooding the fields and destroying the villagers’ crops. The incident immediately raises suspicion over the cause and to circumvent an investigation Riad has an accomplice steal a rifle from the home of Saber, Ahmed’s father (Abdel Waress Assar). He then shoots and kills the village elder who correctly suspects that Pasha is behind the disaster and then frames Saber for the murder. With no witnesses to prove otherwise, Saber is arrested by the police, tried and sentenced to death by hanging.
In the midst of all this, Pasha’s daughter Amal (Fetan Hamamah) has returned to the village and is overjoyed at her reunion with Ahmed, her childhood friend. Their relationship quickly escalates into a romance and Riad, who wants Amal for his wife, blackmails Pasha into arranging an immediate marriage. It soon becomes a race against time for Ahmed to save his father from execution and for Amal to escape the clutches of Riad while discovering her father’s complicity in the whole affair.
The Blazing Sun is melodrama on an epic scale in terms of the emotional intensity and one can only imagine how it was received by Eqyptian audiences at the times. Chahine piles on the outrages and injustices in a manner that approaches overkill but the director’s breathless pacing and pictorial sense keep the viewer riveted to the Greek tragedy unfolding.
Sharif and Hamamah make a stunningly beautiful couple with Sharif creating a strong impression in his film debut as the earnest and victimized hero. Hamamah, who was already an established star at this point in her career, is particularly memorable as a sophisticated, modern woman (she dresses in western fashions) who is forced to confront the inequality of her privileged position against the oppressive treatment of the villagers.
What is especially unusual is how Chahine inverts the standard love interest formula by making Sharif an almost fetishized love object, with the camera lingering over his bare torso in some scenes. There is also a passionate kissing scene between Sharif and Hamamah which was deemed controversial at the time since anything of an overt sexual nature onscreen was taboo.
The young couple’s mostly chaste romance, however, takes a back seat to the scene-chewing villainy of Farid Shawqi as the evil Riad. His loathsome character is established in his introductory scene as he shoots a feral cat on the grounds of Passah’s mansion. In fact, his first suggestion on destroying the villagers’ crops is to set a cat on fire and let it run through the fields igniting a fire. This is one bad dude!
[Spoiler alert] Riad not only ends up murdering his uncle but he comes close to killing Ahmed and Amal in a spectacular stalking sequence amid the towering statues and pillars of Luxor. The only disappointment is in how Chahine resolves the final conflict. Riad is arrested and carted off by the police. He is certain to be tried and executed for his crimes but most viewers will want to see him SUFFER for all the terrible things he did. Being deprived of seeing Riad executed results in an unsatisfying lack of emotional closure but Chahine seems less interested in depicting vengeance and bloodlust than in championing the working class and presenting the monarchy as corrupt and tyrannical through the framework of a B-movie plot. It should also be noted that The Blazing Sun was among the first of Chahine’s films to reach audiences outside his native country and was nominated for the Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival.
Chahine’s next feature, Devil of the Sahara (Shaytan al-Sahra, 1954), is an action-packed costume adventure that features Sharif as a Zorro-like character who takes revenge on a tyrant who terrorizes his desert tribe, kidnapping the women and slaying any opponents. (Devil of the Desert is currently unavailable for viewing on any format or for streaming but perhaps that may change in the near future). Sharif’s third and final film for Chahine, Dark Waters (Siraa Fil-Mina, 1956), appears to be using the same story template as The Blazing Sun in which the poor are manipulated by the rich. In this case, Fadel (Husain Ramzy), a powerful business tycoon, is duped by Ezzat (Tawfik El Deken), a corrupt employee, into stirring up unrest and economic instability among seaport dock workers for personal financial gains. Immediately thrust into the middle of this conflict is Ragab (Sharif), a sailor who has been at sea for three years and has just returned home. When Ragab attempts to mediate and help end the disputes, Ezzat and his slimy minion Monem, resort to lies, manipulation and even murder to undermine Ragab. They achieve this goal by convincing Ragab that his best friend Mamdouh (Ahmed Ramzy), the playboy son of Fadel, has been romancing his intended fiancé, Hamedah (Faten Hamamah).
Of course, Mamdouh is completely innocent of these accusations but Ragab’s rising jealousy and suspicions drive Mamdouh and Hamedah closer together. It all builds to an explosive climax in which the dock workers are fighting among themselves and Ragab is hell bent on killing Mamdouh, despite Hamedah’s attempts to reason with him. Once again, the villain of the piece (an exquisitely slimy portrayal by El Deken as Ezzat) almost succeeds in destroying the lives of everyone around him before being exposed and apprehended by the local authorities.
Like The Blazing Sun, the melodramatic aspects of Dark Waters are rendered in broad strokes by Chahine who still manages to weave a political and social critique into the film’s underbelly. What is most fascinating about the movie is how it utilizes the dynamic screen chemistry of Sharif and Hamedah, who are once again cast as lovers but playing much different characters than the victimized couple in The Blazing Sun.
For one thing, Sharif is a quick-tempered and volatile presence, the epitome of male entitlement. Once he is tricked into thinking his best friend has betrayed him, he almost succumbs to his dark side, becoming as objectionable as Ezzat. His treatment of Hamedah is straight up misogynistic, even resorting to physical abuse (slapping), which, unfortunately, was reflective of the patriarchal Arabian culture where women were expected to be subservient. Yet, Hamedah gives as good as she gets and proves to be a fiery and feisty heroine who helps save the day in the end. It is quite a departure from the more refined, college educated modern woman she played in The Blazing Sun. And Sharif is much more macho and demonstrative than his idealistic agronomist from that same film. It was said at the time that the fight scene between Ragab and Mamdouh in Dark Waters was fueled by Sharif’s genuine anger at Ramzy for flirting with Hamamah, who was his wife by this point.
Although Dark Waters lacks an exotic location like the Luxor ruins as a backdrop, the seaport setting and the local color are evocatively captured by the superb black and white cinematography of Ahmed Khorshed, who also lensed The Blazing Sun.
After Dark Waters, Sharif and Hamamah would go on to co-star in several other box office triumphs including The River of Love (1961), possibly their most famous film, which was loosely based on Leo Tolsoy’s Anna Karenina. Then Sharif’s international success in Lawrence of Arabia changed everything and he rarely returned to Egyptian filmmaking with few exceptions, most of them occurring during his later career between 1991-2009. Sharif’s fame and work schedule also took a toll on his marriage and family life and the couple officially parted in 1974. Hamamah remarried an Egyptian doctor and continued her acting career but Sharif never remarried, at one time stating “I might have been happier having stayed an Egyptian star.”
As for Chahine, he was just getting warmed up in 1956 for a soon-to-be-celebrated film career that lasted almost sixty years. His 1958 feature, Cairo Station, is generally considered his breakthrough movie and featured the director in a key role as Qinawi, the crippled newspaper vendor who has a sexual obsession with the film’s heroine Hanuma (Hind Rustum). His Alexandria quartet of Alexandria…Why? (1978), An Egyptian Story (1982), Alexandria, Again and Again (1990) and Alexandria…New York (2004) is probably his greatest achievement and was both critically acclaimed and attacked by some Egyptian viewers due to the director’s liberal attitudes about sexuality, politics, religion and other polarizing topics.
Thanks to Netflix, you can now take a deep dive into his filmography but for those who have never seen a Youssef Chahine film, The Blazing Sun and Dark Waters are easily accessible and entertaining entry points as opposed to more challenging and complex later work like Return of the Prodigal Son (1978) and Destiny (1997). Other websites of interest: