Suez (1938)




Director:     Allan Dwan

Starring:     Tyrone Power (Ferdinand de Lesseps), Loretta Young (Countess Eugenie de Montijo), Annabella (Toni Pellerin), J. Edward Bromberg (Prince Said), Joseph Schildkraut (Vicomte Rene De Latour), Henry Stephenson(Count Mathieu de Lesseps), Sidney Blackmer (Marquis Du Brey), Maurice Moscovitch (Mohammed Ali), Sig Ruman (Sergeant Pellerin), Nigel Bruce (Sir Malcolm Cameron), Miles Mander (Benjamin Disraeli), George Zucco (Prime Minister), Leon Ames (Napoleon III - Emperor of France), Rafaela Ottiano (Maria De Teba), Victor Varconi (Victor Hugo).

Ferdinand Lesseps struggles to build the Suez Canal, which opened in 1869.

Leon Ames plays Napoleon III, although Loretta Young as Eugenie is much more highlighted.



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Paris in 1850. "Louis Napoleon, nephew of the great Bonaparte, is president of the French Republic. "

Tennis match for the championship of France. A young man named Ferdinand de Lesseps is playing in the tournament. He is cheered on by the beautiful Countess Eugenie de Montijo. Ferdinand smiles at Eugenie and is so distracted by her that the tennis ball goes right past him and he loses the set.

Coming to watch the tennis matches is the President of the French Republic and soon to be Emperor Napoleon III (1808 –1873), who ascended to the throne near the end of 1852.

The next match begins. Napoleon asks his adviser who is that fellow playing against Vicomte Rene De Latour? He is Ferdinand de Lesseps, son of the French Council General to Egypt. [He was born in 1805.] The son is one of the most promising of the young diplomats. And who is that lovely lady with the big hat on her head who cheers so much for Ferdinand? That's Countess Eugenie de Montijo originally from Madrid. Figuring that the Countess would come with Ferdinand, Napoleon tells the adviser to invite him to his next reception.

There is a big reception with men and women all dressed up and dancing. Napoleon welcomes his guests, among them the musician Franz Liszt. And now arriving is Ferdinand and Eugenie. And, of course, Napoleon is anxious to meet Eugenie. An older woman presents the couple to Napoleon. And Napoleon doesn't waste any time, being the first to dance with Eugenie at the ball. Ferdinand is not too pleased as he watches the pair dance below him. The dance is short because of the arrival of the British ambassador.

Ferdinand takes Eugenie to have her fortune told. The fortune teller says he sees difficulties ahead for Eugenie. She will live a hundred years and wear a crown. Ferdinand laughs and asks the fortune teller to tell his fortune. The fortune teller says Ferdinand will dig ditches. Eugenie and Latour have a good laugh over that prediction.

In a humorous vein Ferdinand decides to read the fortune of Napoleon. And who should hear some of the fortune told by Ferdinand?  Of course, it's Napoleon himself. Napoleon is not pleased and decides he wants to send Ferdinand far away from Eugenie.

The Marquis Du Brey pays Eugenie a visit. She greets him and he gives her a letter from Napoleon, who wishes her to give the messenger an immediate reply. Her reply is: "I would love to."

Ferdinand runs up to see Eugenie. He says he is going to Egypt and asks her to marry him. [Ferdinand's mother, Catherine de Grivégnée, was Spanish, and aunt of the countess of Montijo, mother of the empress Eugénie.] Eugenie asks him if he is insane? It's just impossible. Ferdinand is crushed, but he is a good sport about it. And he tells her that he will always love her wherever he is stationed. Eugenie is also upset. She didn't want to hurt Ferdinand since they were so close.

Alexandria, Egypt. A province of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. Ferdinand is taking a buggy ride in Egypt. He comes to a damsel in distress and has the driver stop to see if he can be of any assistance. The woman's name is Toni Pellerin. She is in a lake in the nude, but her donkey moved away from the lake shore and now she can't quickly jump into her little traveling bath house.

So Ferdinand pulls forward on the donkey to make sure the donkey resists him and backs the bath house right up to the water's edge. Toni hets into the bath house to put on some clothes. Once dressed, she starts climbing on the side of the bath house to get to the driver's seat. She asks Ferdinand for help and he starts to help her, but the donkey now starts moving forward on his own and both Ferdinand and Toni fall into the lake.

Ferdinand goes to the French Republic's Consulate. There he meets with his father. They embrace and then dad introduces his son to Sir Malcolm Cameron from Scotland.

Toni rides her donkey back home. Her grandfather is upset with her because she was gone for such a long time. Grandfather is a sergeant in the army. Toni tells grandfather that she went swimming with de Lesseps. Grandfather starts to get upset but she explains the situation. She also tells grandfather that the Frenchman is funny, polite and she is falling in love with him.

Father and son attend a get-together at the palace of Prince Said, the next viceroy of Egypt. Dad tells Ferdinand to cultivate the Prince and make him a friend.

[ In 1837 Ferdinand married Agathe Delamalle, daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. He had five sons and a daughter.  In 1853 his wife and daughter died. In 1854 he landed at Alexandria and got from Said Pasha a signed concession authorizing de Lesseps to work on the idea of a Suez Canal.]

Prince Said arrives to speak with Ferdinand. Toni hangs out around the place where Ferdinand works to get a chance to see him again. She says she will inform Ferdinand of the Prince's arrival. She bursts into his office and sits on his desk. She sees a portrait of Eugenie and asks who is this woman? "A friend of mine." Toni now tells him that Prince Said is here. And Toni has kept the Prince waiting? She says she only wanted to talk to Ferdinand for awhile. He says he should spank her for the delay and she asks him why doesn't he just do that? Ferdinand rushes out of his office. Then Toni pushes the portrait of Eugenie face down on Ferdinand's desk.

Ferdinand's dad has tea with Sir Malcolm. He says that he is going back to Paris. Victor Hugo wrote to him and the letter says that things look pretty bad in France. Dad is going to leave his son in charge of the Consulate.

Ferdinand is trying to teach Prince Said how to fence.

The Viceroy's annual tour of inspection of the Isthmus of Suez. Many soldiers ride out with the Viceroy on his inspection tour. And Toni has secretly ridden out with her grandfather, who is very surprised to see her when the camp is set up.

Toni sees Ferdinand pass by her, get on his horse and ride out. Toni is going to follow him on her horse. When he stops Toni catches up with him. A storm is coming in and Toni tells Ferdinand to head for the ruins of a building.

The storm does not last long and the pair start riding again. Toni points out a beautiful rainbow. Ferdinand says the rainbow goes from the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. He tells Toni that wouldn't it be wonderful if a ship could go from the one sea to another? As he thinks about it, he remembers his fortune that he would dig ditches. "I was looking for a way to serve France. . . . And I think I found a way to serve the world."

Ferdinand speaks with the Viceroy about his idea of building a Suez Canal. The Prince says he can't give Ferdinand any assurances. Ferdinand asks where does this resistance come from? Is it coming from England? Sir Malcolm simply says yes.

Ferdinand can't imagine why England would oppose such a canal that would lessen the time of the journeys to India and the far east. Sir Malcolm says the British are worried that another Napoleon might grab Egypt for their French Empire and use the canal as only belonging to them. Ferdinand says that a Suez Canal would be open to the entire world. Prince Said's father says he would like to help, but his hands are tied. Ferdinand leaves.

Ferdinand writes a letter to Eugenie, but he crumples it up rather than send it. He lowers his head, but not for long because Toni is right there to buoy him up as his new secretary. So Ferdinand tells her to take the books on Phoenicia and return them to the library. It's then he discovers that she can't read. She says she did go to school, but only for two days.

Prince Said comes in giving Ferdinand his condolences about the canal. Ferdinand says he must have been hallucinating to think that he could change the map of the world. In disappointment he kicks over his world globe. Just at this time the Viceroy comes in. He tells Ferdinand that though he can't give him an official permission to build the canal, he wants Ferdinand to start mapping out the project. When the critical moment comes, then he and his son will help Ferdinand in any way they can. When the Viceroy leaves the trio left behind start celebrating the good news.

Ferdinand goes back to France. He has Toni with him and tells her grandfather to make sure Toni goes to the boarding school. She asks Ferdinand if she could go to school tomorrow and be with him for the day. Ferdinand says no, she has to go to school. And, yes, he will come to see her at school.

Ferdinand's friend Latour greets him at the train station. He asks about the girl and Ferdinand says she's a constant pest, but she's going to school now. The man with her is her grandfather. He adds that Toni was the inspiration for his idea for a Suez Canal.

[Actually, the idea for the canal was an already old idea for Ferdinand. When he arrived in Alexandria November 7, 1854, by November 30 Said Pacha signed the concession authorizing de Lesseps to pierce the Isthmus of Suez.]

Latour and Ferdinand drive through Paris. The carriage they are in has to stop as the royal couple goes by. Ferdinand is shocked to see Napoleon III with Eugénie de Montijo. He is upset but accepts the relationship.

Ferdinand goes to see Napoleon III but the man rejects the idea of a canal because of a ridiculous report from the royal engineer that the waters of the Red Sea would flood the Mediterranean. Ferdinand walks out of the room and runs into Empress Eugénie. She is glad to see him, but he is not as enthusiastic. He's a bit rude to her, asking her if she still considered him a friend? She ignores that and says that she has been worried about him -- worried about what he might think of her. Later he apologizes to her and says he will come to see her.

The next morning the servant awakens Eugenie early, saying that rioting has broken out all over Paris. There is a meeting of the liberal politicians to deal with Napoleon III and the rioting. Ferdinand does not stay long at the meeting.

Eugenie comes to visit Ferdinand because she says she needs his help. Her husband thinks that Ferdinand can break the deadlock in the Assembly. She says there is rioting and bloodshed all over France. Eugenie asks him to talk to his father and get him to break the deadlock in the Assembly.

So Ferdinand goes back to the meeting and tells them about an offer from Napoleon III. His father is strongly opposed to trusting a Napoleon. His thinking is that Napoleon will break his promises as soon as the crisis is over. But Ferdinand keeps working on his father and gets him to speak in front of the Assembly about accepting the Emperor's offering.

And so the Assembly is adjourned. And now Napoleon says he wants every important spokesman for the Assembly to be put in jail by tomorrow. That is, all except Ferdinand. The Queen hears this last statement and after everyone has left the room, except for her husband, she accuses him of using her to fool Ferdinand into supporting the closing of the Assembly. She says that the liberals will blame Ferdinand and call him a traitor. Napoleon says Ferdinand will be well compensated. He is going to give Ferdinand and his Suez Canal his full support. Furthermore, he had to act quickly and ruthlessly to bring this anarchy under control.

Latour is arrested. The officer tells Ferdinand that he doesn't have to worry for the Emperor is grateful to him for his help. Latour now intimates that Ferdinand is a traitor to the cause of freedom and his friends who support the idea of freedom.

Soon other people criticize Ferdinand for his actions. Ferdinand goes to find his father. He goes home and into his father's bedroom where dad lays quietly on his bed. Sir Malcolm turns his back to Ferdinand. The doctor is there and he tells Ferdinand that his father had a stroke. Sir Malcolm tells Ferdinand that was a high price to pay for a ditch.

At the boarding school for girls, Toni escapes during the night. She wants to talk with Ferdinand. The butler tries to stop her from coming into the house at this hour of the night, but she whizzes right past him. She goes in to see Ferdinand.

Ferdinand is obviously upset and blames himself for the sudden death of his father. Toni does what she can to soothe Ferdinand. She is able to get him to fall asleep in his chair before the fireplace.

The Empress arrives to talk to Ferdinand. Toni goes into the room to tell her that she can't see Ferdinand. The Empress asks who is this woman? Toni says she's the only friend Ferdinand has left. Toni demands to know why the Empress first broke Ferdinand's heart and then made everyone hate him? She tells the Empress to go away.

Ferdinand comes out and the Empress tells him that her husband lied to her too. The Emperor wants to make amends and has promised to agree to what Ferdinand wants to do to build his canal. Ferdinand says that this will make his critics feel they were right about that Ferdinand. He sold his father and his friends out for the sake of the Suez Canal. He walks out on the two women.  Toni starts to cry. The Empress tells her not to give up on Ferdinand. Get him back to seeing that he must fulfill his dream of the canal for he was made to do great things on this earth.

Toni stays with Ferdinand. She's there when he gets a telegram from Prince Said. The telegram says that his father, Viceroy Mohammed Ali, has died and now Prince Said is the Viceroy. The new Viceroy wants Ferdinand to return to Egypt and start building the canal. Toni also encourages Ferdinand to start the canal building.

In Egypt the building of the canal starts. They make great progress but now the Arabs are trying to delay the project until it becomes a failure. The Arabs plant dynamite during the night and when the hills are filled with workers they light the fuse. Many workers are killed in the resulting avalanches.

Ferdinand and many others jump on their horses to go after the Arab terrorists. When they return with a dead Arab, his body is dropped before the tent of the new Viceroy. The Viceroy examines the dead man and his clothes. He now tells Ferdinand and the others that this man is no Arab. This man is Turkish. The Sultan obviously does not want the canal built.

Toni writes a letter to Ferdinand saying that she misses him and hopes he misses her. The Emperor married Eugenie last week. She says in honor of the ceremony, all the political prisoners were released, including Latour. She has run away from school and is now Latour's secretary.   [In 1853 Eugénie de Montijo married Napoleon III.]

The news in the paper is that the French Emperor has abandoned the Suez Canal due to pressure from England. Toni asks Latour what does this mean. He tells her it means that Louie expects trouble from Prussia over Alsace-Lorraine. Louie needs the support of England, but England wants the canal abandoned.

Ferdinand appeals to Louie not to abandon the canal project. But the threat of war with Prussia is putting too much pressure on Louie. Eugenie tells Ferdinand that she knows he will continue on with his canal despite the obstacles.

Toni shows up and this time Ferdinand is happy she did. He tells her that she is always there when he needs her. He also tells her she looks lovely. She notes that's the first time he ever told her that.

Toni has brought Latour to see Ferdinand. The two men shake hands. Latour explains that he has become a pamphleteer for democracy. Toni says they want Ferdinand to take some time off from work and they will take care of him. Ferdinand, however, says his last hope is to win the English over to supporting the canal. That's why he is headed for London.

Ferdinand goes to Number 10 Downing Street to speak with the prime minister. The prime minister says he cannot support a project that is not in the best interests of the British people.

The Prime Minister speaks before the House of Lords. He wants England to take care of England rather than putting the interests of its colonies over the interests of the mother country. And now Benjamin Disraeli gets up to speak for the other side of the debate. He says by deemphasizing the importance of the colonies he is sentencing England to be a third-rate power.

Ferdinand listens to the debate from the gallery. He likes Disraeli's thinking and thinks the man could be a supporter of his canal project. He asks to speak with Disraeli and Disraeli invites him over to his place.

Ferdinand explains that if they don't get started back up on this canal project, the millions they have spent on the project will be totally lost. Disraeli asks him why has he come to speak about the project with the leader of the British opposition? Ferdinand replies: ". . . because you represent progressive and intelligent English opinion."

Disraeli says, of course, he will support the project. This project will breathe new life into the conservative party. He wants to see a global power in England and a Suez Canal would do a lot to help reach this powerful position. He tells Ferdinand to go back to Egypt and try to keep his project alive. And if the conservatives get back in power, Ferdinand will get the full backing of England for his project.

Ferdinand is back in Egypt with Said Pasha. He is selling the royal jewels to get the project up and going again. He says he wants to build a bright future for his country.

Latour and Toni have come with Ferdinand to Egypt. Currently they are living and working out of large tents. Ferdinand tells Toni that they can't hold out for much longer. He thanks Toni for all the help and support she has given him. He then tells Toni that she should start thinking of herself for once. She should get married and have a family, instead of hanging around a lunatic with perhaps too great of a vision. This makes Toni sad and she starts walking slowly away from Ferdinand. He goes after her and she tells him she would rather be a lunatic with him than live any other way.

They see huge flocks of ibises heading north. Toni says she saw this one other time and that was the time of the devil wind. Ferdinand dismisses the idea but then they hear a tremendous sound of very strong winds. They look toward the horizon and it almost looks like a tornado is headed their way.

Ferdinand starts taking action to protect the workers and the equipment against the oncoming sand storm. The women are taken to a safer area. The horses are allowed to run wild. Many of the people rush into a sturdy structure that hopefully will withstand the storm. A huge beam is picked up by the wind and tossed onto the back of Ferdinand who is knocked unconscious.

Toni screams and tries to rush out to him. The women try to stop her from going, but she finally gets free from them. She rushes over to Ferdinand and lashes him down against a huge pole standing straight up in defiance of the sand and the winds. She should have lashed herself to the pole also, because as the center of the storm comes over the area, she is blown away from Ferdinand.

After the storm is over there is a lot of crying and wailing for the dead and injured. Ferdinand goes out looking for Toni. They find Toni but she is dead.

A funeral is held for Toni. Ferdinand is now very despondent and tells Latour to tell the workers to go home. He sees himself as a complete failure. Both Ferdinand and the Viceroy of Egypt are bankrupt.

Disraeli thinks he has lost the election and starts to write Ferdinand to tell him the bad news. But as he writes, a messenger comes in to tell Disraeli that the Queen congratulates him on his victory. Disraeli now says they will continue to work on the shorter route to Her Majesty's eastern empire.

The canal is completed and opens up in November of 1869. The Queen of France presents him with a medal for his distinguished service for France. She tells him that he has won. Ferdinand says: "Yes, I've won and lost everything I learned to hold dear." The Queen says: "Perhaps that's the price one pays for fame."

Ferdinand watches the ships going through the Suez Canal. He hears Toni's voice saying: "And when the day comes I want to stand beside you and see the ships go through the canal and know that you built it for all the people in the world."

[In Paris on November 25, 1869 Ferdinand marries his second wife, Mlle Louise-Hélène Autard de Bragard.  Eleven of her twelve children with de Lesseps survived their father.]


Good film.  I enjoyed it.  The history is very far off the mark.  There is no indication that de Lesseps was in love with the woman who became the Queen of France.  He married two women and had many children.  A young woman named Toni was not the source of the idea for the Suez Canal.  He had a long and distinguished career as a diplomat for France.  As early as 1832 he came up with the idea of a canal after reading a memoir written about a Suez Canal, according to Napoleon Bonaparte's instructions, by the civil engineer Jacques-Marie Le Père.  Canal construction began in 1859 and finished in 1869. 

Nevertheless, the introductions of the woman who became a French Queen and a feisty woman named Toni made for a very interesting story.  In the film one feels sorry for lonely Ferdinand's failures as concerns his women.  But Ferdinand did pretty well for himself in his real life. 

I liked both Tyrone Power and Loretta Young in their roles.  Annabella was also good as Toni. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 




Return To Main Page

Return to Home Page (Vernon Johns Society)