Hollywood’s conversation with Egyptomania

The 1932 film The Mummy, featuring Boris Karloff as the ancient Egyptian high priest, Imhotep, kicked off the craze of films about Egypt. These films often fall under criticism due to their inaccurate portrayal of Egypt and the archaeology of it. However, many of these concerns are rooted in our misunderstanding of the Hollywood system during the time. Certain scenes in the original Mummy can give evidence to this subtle form of cultural propaganda.

The film is very conscious of the issues surrounding Egyptian archaeology. The excavation of King Tut’s tomb had been in the newspapers on and off for about five years before Tut’s sarcophagus was opened. In another six years The Mummy was released, and became an icon.

Opening on the interior of a tomb, two men discuss the situation of their find. Sir Joseph Whemple, a dapper man in suit and tie, pieces together a stone tablet. He is heckled by Ralph Norton, an uppity man in tan desert gear. In this dynamic there is evidence for an understanding of the tensions surrounding archaeology at the time. Sir Whemple is a vague form of August Mariette, the influential fore bearer of Egyptian archaeology and the politics thereof. When Ralph asks him how much longer he’s going to take playing around with those rocks, Sir Whemple replies, “Method is everything in archaeology, my boy, we must always keep the finds of the day in order.” The understudy retorts, “Well, it seems to me that today, that box we dug up with the very peculiar gentlemen in it over there, is the only find that we’ve made in the past two months that’ll bring this expedition any medals from the British Museum.” And finally, he is silenced; “We didn’t come to dig in Egypt for medals. Much more is learned from studying bits of broken pottery than from all the sensational finds. Our job is to increase the sum of human knowledge of the past. Not to satisfy our own curiosity.” This exchange demonstrates the discourse over how excavations were handled.

Eventually, under guidance from August Mariette, laws set forth in 1854 aided in cultural preservation. The export of antiquities out of Egypt was prohibited. All antiquities were to be brought to the National Museum in Cairo. And most obviously, it was strictly forbidden to destroy any antiquity, while the government would actively move to preserve it. These laws changed the game significantly, yet Egypt was still targeted for the possibilities of glory that it held.

Treasure hunters, not necessarily trained archaeologists, would try to find their glory. This could be said of Carnarvon and Carter, who discovered the tomb of King Tut. Carnarvon funded the expedition and Carter took lead – eventually finding one lone step after a long drought of excitement. This scene is reflected directly in The Mummy where the first sign they find of a new tomb is the first level of stairs.

Despite cute nods to the actual excavation, there is evidence for the greater battle of ethnocentrism and cultural bias. While the West was still exploiting Egypt for the tales of glory, brought by newspapers and books – there was a social dissonance with which The Mummy toys with.

The Non-Egyptian characters are portrayed with an aura of elitism, while locals are decidedly less “civilized.” This is clear throughout, even when Boris Karloff’s Imhotep comes back into the picture. When he was excavated, Ralph Norton reads from the forbidden scrolls, found in a sealed chest that resided at the base of a godly statue (there are simply too many similarities between the original mummy and the newer ones, which was a surprise to me – I thought they were detached.) This summons Imhotep from the grave and allows him to walk again, he steals the scrolls and frightens Norton into a delirious craze. Ten years later, Imhotep has disguised himself as Ardath Bey, a modern Egyptian and guides some new archaeologists to the tomb of Ankh-es-en-amon – his long lost love.

We Egyptians are not permitted to dig up our ancient dead.

During their meeting Imhotep makes two important statements for the discussion of ethnocentrism. One: “Excuse me… I dislike being touched… An Eastern prejudice.” And, two: “We Egyptians are not permitted to dig up our ancient dead.” Both of these statements paint the Egyptians, ancient and modern, as “other.” The first statement lending itself to the understanding that these others are prejudice and somewhat hostile against the British and others. This has the effect of furthering the other effect, making it harder for identification with those who were being exploited. The other phrase implies a Western superiority, only they would know what to do with such treasures – the locals wouldn’t be able to do things right. This is disguised by Imhotep claiming it is forbidden, but after any form of research that is found to be untrue. Mariette’s laws helped to assure that they can, in fact, handle their own history.

Much as movies during the Cold War reflected the social paranoia and hostility of the time, so too does The Mummy. By subtle manipulation of the native elements of Egypt, but with acknowledgement of the tension, The Mummy aligns itself with Western thinking of the other, and claims its superiority.