In Struggle on the Nile, a 1959 movie from the golden age of Egyptian cinema, you will encounter a young Omar Sharif as you’ve never imagined him — after witnessing the wonder of his stately good looks in Dr. Zhivago (1965), Lawrence of Arabia, (1962) and other movies of his Hollywood years.  Sharif was Egyptian of course.  Somehow though, we never think of him as Egyptian Egyptian — a young man, speaking Arabic and floating down the Nile with an older friend engaged to teach him how to be a man.  Yet that’s what we have in Struggle on the Nile.

Muhasab, [Sharif,] is a very young, very innocent — and very pretty — man, dizzily in love with the belle of Luxor village, Ward [no credits found], and is being sent off to Cairo by his recently blind father, to sell the last of the lateen sail feloukas of the village, “The Bride of the Nile,”  and buy a big motorized barge to compete with the other traders and boat owners along the river.  “The future is in steam and gasoline,” says one of the elders.  A long time friend of his father, Mujahed [ Rushdy Abazza] is to be the Chief of the boat. He is handed the sack of money collected by the village, much of it from selling their own boats and,  in a show of trust, and respect, gives the money to Muhasab for safe-keeping.

The scenes along the river and on the boats are filled with period detail — men handling rope, scampering up the mast, furling the large tri-corner sail.  The voices of the  old men in the village are filled with consternation over the coming changes —  “No one can defy time.” The courting couple jumps on and off the slowly turning water wheel, hauled around by oxen, as they play out their infatuation.  Ward is lovely and shy when she first appears,  lifting her veil up beside her face so he won’t see her directly, casting down her eyes.  As the minutes go by and their friendship is renewed she becomes as lively and gay as any 17 year old anywhere,  sitting beside him on the ground, jumping up, coming back to extract a promise….  When they separate she flies into a hut where the women are working.  They tease her about her sweetheart.  She admits to loving him and introduces the major problem of the movie:  “If  only God frees me from Abu Safaan.”

It turns out Safaan not only wants Ward but he and other bad-guys want the money.  He wants no competition to his cut-throat business.  The pursuit begins as Muhasab  and Mujahed  and a crew of 4 take the “Bride of the Nile” down river to be sold in Cairo.

Hind Rustom - The Marilyn Monroe of the East

The femme fatale, and key to the entire plot, is introduced at the first stop — a carnival the likes of which Muhasab  has never seen — nor have we, of course.  It is a raucous, old fashioned country carnival with rides, fried foods, crowds pushing and shoving — perfect for picking pockets, and above all — a shameless, dancing girl, Nargis [Hind Rostom of A Wife’s Confession, A Kiss in the Night and other Egyptian pulse pounders; she was sometimes called the Marilyn Monroe of the East] — and yes, the men whistle, cheer,stomp and cat-call, Muslim or not.  Allied to the tough guys –led by the strong man who chews iron for a snack– she is put up to charming the money off of Muhasab.  She refuses at first, and then after more “persuasion” and carnival action, acquiesces and runs to the boat to “warn” them of the bad guys after them.  Poor  Muhasab is smitten beyond the reaches of reason. Capt Muhajed, recognizing the danger, wants her to stay down in the hold, out of the way of the boy, himself, and the rest of the crew.  She, an irrepressible flirt, and with a mission to accomplish, is beyond his control.

If you want to know which set of female curves are most appreciated in the Egyptian world, at least of that time, it won’t take long to find out, following the loving caress of the camera.

You  could almost sketch out the rest.  With a woman aboard, both strong men become ensnared in her wiles, and wiles she has.  There is almost no moment when they, or we, know if she is telling the truth.  Does she love him, or him?  Is she still tied up with the gang, or is she really in love?  Do the sensual encounters in woods along the river indicate anything but female duplicity?  There are plots to kill, and plots failed.  The mentor and his young apprentice fall apart and come to blows.  The boy is beside himself.  He wants to take the village money and stay with her in Cairo — for which he is mocked “What will you do, sell used tin and rope?

Along with nicely restored, crisp black and white footage, and compelling landscapes along the Nile a wonderful sea-shanty adds to the story.  Led by well known singer Mohammad Qandil,  the tune, which everyone joins in, does double duty — first as a prayer to “make it easy,” meaning the voyage and safe return, later with the obvious double entendre, hoping for luck in seduction.

At length they get to Cairo and the truth emerges, in the middle of the best club swinging brawl — in the tradition of early American westerns– you’ve ever seen:  clubs appearing from nowhere, bodies flying into the water, bloodied bodies rising again,  enormous pots being hurled at heads, breaking both.  It’s not Jackie Chan, but it will do.  Nargis is in the middle of it — we still don’t know whose side she is on, except her own–  and comes to a bad end.  Muhasab and Muhjed  come out on top, reunited in friendship, when the Cairo coast guard arrives to chase the last of the toughs away.  They make the sale and turn the bow of their new motorized barge back towards Luxor [before the Aswan Dam turned it into a whole other place.]  The old man and new wife-to-be are all happily waiting.  along with a dearly loved little sheep you’ll have to see to understand.

Three years later Sharif had been discovered by David Lean and burst on the EuroAmerican world in Lawrence of Arabia, going on to be one of the most celebrated actors in the movies.

About as serious a movie as our old Saturday westerns were: tough guys, drinking, smoking, loose women and tender hearts — all representing in some way the people and culture they come from, at least enough to draw audiences to see something that is mostly recognizable and types they identify with.

Hey, you could do a lot worse for an evening’s entertainment.