How Early Hollywood Depicted Ancient Egypt

Filmmakers have had a fascination with Ancient Egypt since the medium’s infancy and it continues to this day. Just last month the reboot of The Mummy was released, continuing a trend that has persevered for over a hundred years now. Since it’s obvious that these movies aren’t going away and I couldn’t find any articles that break down this topic, I thought it would be beneficial to analyze how Ancient Egypt has been portrayed by Hollywood. I’m limiting this to American movies that have been somewhat influential in early Hollywood because if I went over all the films that took place in Ancient Egypt then this piece would probably take five separate posts. Plus there’s a weirdly high number of Italian films about Ancient Egypt and I didn’t feel like wading into those murky waters.

Generally, Ancient Egypt is regarded as a strange middle ground between “eastern” and “western” civilization (although I hate making those distinctions). Because it’s had its own distinct culture with plenty of recognizable artifacts, most people would probably say that they have a decent idea of what life looked like in the period; even though dynastic Egypt lasted for 3000 years. It has all those signifiers we know: the pyramids, mummies, tombs, gods, “curses”. These things are both familiar yet foreign to us, a feeling most people get when studying ancient cultures. Ancient Egypt is also connected to Rome in its later years so this further emphasizes its connection to western culture (in essence, to us). Because of this, works like Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra have further solidified a certain view of Ancient Egypt in our collected consciousness. People’s interest was further renewed when Howard Carter discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun. Egyptologist Toby Wilkinson had this to say about the event, “The public unveiling of Tutankhamun’s tomb made newspaper headlines around the world on November 30, 1922, capturing the public’s imagination and generating a wave of popular interest in the treasures of the pharaohs.” The cinematic exploration of Ancient Egypt that had previously been limited to Cleopatra now extended into other periods of the civilization.

kingtutreconstruction
Digital reconstruction of King Tut. Incest isn’t pretty folks.

The problem with this is that this period spans across 3000 years, therefore to make it simpler for the average moviegoer studios adopted Egyptian motifs in their films instead of focusing on distinct eras in detail. This has warped how we picture Ancient Egypt and we’ve been left with the idea that there was an Egyptian empire that consistently prospered, rather than the fact that most historians decidedly split its ages into the Predynastic, Old, Middle, and New periods.  It’s much easier to take something known like mummification and make that the central point in a franchise, rather than a specific period. I even found an article that claimed Ancient Egypt didn’t have a mythology…I guess the elaborate tombs were just for show and totally not to ease souls into the calm waters of the afterlife. The post was written in text bubble form though so I can’t judge it too harshly, the author did choose one of the worst formats possible. This is just one example of how limited our knowledge of the culture is, even though we might think the opposite.

georges-mélies
Georges Méliès

Cinephiles will probably recognize the name Georges Méliès, a pioneer in the earliest days of film and the director behind A Trip to the Moon (1902) as well as many other groundbreaking shorts. Most would recognize him as the subject of the book (and movie adaptation) Hugo. One of his shorts that is not often spoken of (largely because no remaining copies of it exist) is Cleopatra’s Tomb (1899). The only things that we know about it are that it was one of the earliest horror films and within it a man tries to resurrect Cleopatra’s mummy. Although these are the only details we have, they are somewhat telling. The fact that the first film about Ancient Egypt had to do with Cleopatra shows that she was a well-known historical figure even back around the turn of the century. It also established something of a sub-genre set in Egypt that was connected to horror. This stems from the fact that many Egyptian tombs had countermeasures like fake chambers in order to stop tomb robbers (though nothing as extreme as we’ve seen in movies like Indiana Jones). As we continue on with different films, we will continue to see these motifs involving curses and traps.

cleopatra1
Helen Gardner in Cleopatra (1912)

Continuing with the Cleopatra trend, we have Cleopatra (1912) that was adapted from a play by Victorien Sardou. This chronicles Cleopatra’s love affairs with a random Greek fisherman and Marc Antony. Interestingly, after the opening title card it says “the object of the director has been to ensure naturalness in an atmosphere of romance….to intimate the nobilities and grandeur of the woman who was devotedly loved by Julius Caesar.” Instead of making a movie for the sake of documenting the life of an interesting woman, she is attached to a well-known man she had an affair with. Generally this is how Cleopatra herself has been regarded, a greedy Jezebel who ruined the lives of the men she had relationships with. This is a very narrow view of the woman who knew seven languages (including Egyptian so that she could connect with her people) and was a cunning political strategist. Speaking about this particular movie, the quality of the cinematography is poor because of the high contrast. Unfortunately this washes out a lot of the decent sets they have. There are plenty with hieroglyphs in the background and elaborate furniture, nice touches from a film you might not expect much from. The costumes tend to cross into different cultures, some of the Egyptian skirts look Roman and Cleopatra’s long hair and headdresses look more Babylonian. Yet when Marc Antony is introduced there is a distinct difference between Egyptian and Roman clothing. The story isn’t completely accurate and it lags a lot but since this was adapted from a play (rather than attempting to be accurate) I can’t fault it too much. There are a lot of things that this film gets right (the sets, some costumes) but in many ways it’s a mishmash of different cultures and stories that don’t really represent what Ancient Egypt well. I’ll also note that this is the beginning of a trend of having Egyptian characters be played by famous white actors while real Egyptian actors or people of color play servants.

snakebra
Everyone knows the tale of Cleopatra’s infamous snake bra

There was another Cleopatra adaptation made in 1917 (apparently people couldn’t get enough of her) though there’s only one minute that survives from this film. This was one of the most popular movies of 1917 and the most expensive film made to date. All copies of the movie were lost because of a studio fire at Fox in 1937. I’ve also read that many churches tried to gain copies so that they could destroy them. This is because of the risqué costumes that Theda Bara wore, which probably would be just as scandalous today. Though the costumes are beautiful, I’m not sure how accurate they are to the period. This movie was also adapted from many plays (including Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra) so it seems as if this one also didn’t care much for historical accuracy, just pretty semi-modern costumes. This article says that they got Cleo’s hair right, though they wouldn’t say the same about the headdresses.

imhotep
You’d think a guy who had been asleep for thousands of years would have better skin

To finish out the first period of Egyptian films there’s The Mummy (1932). Now this film is post-Carter discovery and it shows in many ways. It’s not focused on Cleopatra (though there is an Egyptian “princess”) but it is something of a love story. The first thing I noticed was that a song from the ballet Swan Lake was playing over the title card and I thought it was funny that the filmmakers didn’t even attempt to make the music sound foreign. This will change once we get to movies like The Prince of Egypt (1997). In the first scene there’s a block of text that says, “This is the scroll of Thoth. Herein are set down the magic words by which Isis raised Osiris from the dead.” There actually is a Book of Thoth (both the legend and the artifact) and the filmmakers were able to weave in some Egyptian mythology that wasn’t made up. So far so good. Then we get more text praising Amon-Ra over a picture of Anubis, so that was a tad annoying.

So the mummy himself is Imhotep, who in real life was a chancellor and the architect of one of the earliest pyramids. The Egyptians looked upon him so highly that he was eventually deified. This is not the same figure as the one we get in the movie, a man who is ultimately disgraced and buried alive. The movie opens with archaeologists going through Imhotep’s tomb and wondering why he was buried alive. The youngest of the three remarks, “Maybe he got too close to the vestal virgins.” I don’t know if they were just trying to make his character look dumb, but the vestal virgins were priestesses in Ancient Rome in a completely different time period. It’s interesting how a lot of ancient history can get jumbled around because we’re so far removed from it. They come across a box that has a warning on the front and the older archaeologists argue about whether they should open it or not. The one who trusts more in science says they should and the one who’s more spiritual feels the opposite. By the end of the movie, the one who leans towards progress ends up dying by the Mummy’s hand. I wonder if in some strange way this was the filmmaker’s idea of showing that “science can be a bad thing too”. I would probably go into this more if it had been made in the 1950s, but since it was the thirties this was a more secular time and I probably wouldn’t read into it too much.

totes
We totes had vestal virgins bro

The younger one ends up opening the box and reads the scroll that brings the Mummy back to life. After he randomly goes insane because of this, the movie flashes forward to a 1932 expedition. The Mummy actually shows up (looking like a man) and tells the archaeologists that they should dig in a certain spot. The archaeologists end up discovering the tomb of “princess” (Queen in real life) Anckesenamun, who was actually the sister (and wife) of King Tut. She’s supposedly the Mummy’s lost love, even though these two figures lived over a thousand years apart from each other. The woman who plays the “reincarnated” modern version of Anckesenamun is supposed to be half Egyptian (at least for the story) but, again, she’s played by a white actress. The same is true for Boris Karloff who plays the Mummy. One thing that really surprised me about this movie was that it reminded me a lot of Phantom of the Opera and the Hunchback of Notre Dame in terms of story. Apparently the Universal monsters always have to be coveting some beautiful woman.

phantom
“Hey look, two other female characters who are nearly exact replicas of you!”

Out of all the movies I looked at for this post, this one encapsulates my original thoughts in the clearest way. There are figures from different time periods that come together again because of “curses” and “reincarnation”. It cares so little about the culture it’s drawing from that I currently have seven tabs open from researching dumb things like “were there vestal virgins in Ancient Egypt”. Speaking of research, this post took the most out of all the pieces I’ve written so far. Not to say that it’s a bad thing, I genuinely like it, the only thing is that it takes up a lot of time since I have to do historical research on top of watching and analyzing these movies. All of this is to say that my next post might take a bit longer than usual, but I’m looking forward to writing it. Thanks for reading and let me know your thoughts in the comments!

Sources

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Reader’s Digest: Everyday Life through the Ages

The History Chicks Podcast Episode 46: Cleopatra

The Podcast History of Our World Episodes 13-18 & 20

The History of Egypt Podcast Episodes on The Mummy adaptations

 

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