Films and Archaeology (II): The Mummy (1932)

Today I am presenting you with another film in the series of archaeology and the cinema, the 1932 classic The Mummy. If you usually watch many archaeological and adventure films you will easily recognise the aesthetics: exoticism, tan clothes, the old wise man, the lady in distress, and the naïve youngster that seems to be the hero but that most of the time does not seem to be able to find his own way…

The Mummy belongs to a genre of horror films (at least horror fothe_mummy_1932_film_posterr their time) produced originally as series-B by Universal that in fact saved the company from bankruptcy. The first film in the series was another classic in the history of the cinema, Dracula, with Bela Lugosi in the main rôle. For The Mummy the main monster was played by another myth of the cinema, Boris Karloff. If you like history of art and classic cinema you will easily recognise the great influence of German expressionism in the film, with the high contrast of some shots and the silenced acting of the mummy, with all those complicated gestures with the hands and facial expressions. In fact, the director of this film was that genius called Karl Freund, one of the most innovative directors of photography in the history of the cinema and responsible for the photography of classics such as Metropolis of Fritz Lang (1927) and Dracula of Tod Browning for the Universal (1931).

I do not like spoilers, so I will just suggest you to pay attention to the scene of the resurrection of the mummy at the beginning of the film (there is no secret the mummy needs to resurrect for the film to make sense…). Look at the lack of music, actually any noise, the angle of the camera, the slow and unavoidable movement of the hand, the tension building up… In a cinema that needs to rely on special effects and a sea of blood to distress the viewer I believe that, just for that scene, this is a piece of art.

The_Mummy,_Boris_Karloff_(1932).jpg

But what about archaeology? Well, believe it or not, it plays an important role beyond the narrative of the film. You have to remember first that by 1932 the phenomenon of the Egyptomania triggered by the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen tomb by Howard Carter in 1922 was well established. The readaptation of Egyptian motifs in th art nouveau is a well studied phenomenon, and this film somehow drinks from the same springs. The difference lays perhaps in the popular and more direct social impact the film had on the way archaeologists were portrayed in the mass media: a scholarly explorer in exotic lands who incidentally resurrects an ancient evil that needs to be defeated by finding some ancient and esoteric knowledge. Nothing new under the sun.

The success of this film triggered a series of mummy-related films that continued rather irregularly the storyline of the first one, unfortunately decreasing quality with every new one. Two of the most famous remakes done, which included the resurrected Imhotep and the lost love from the past, are The Mummy (1959) of Terence Fisher for Hammer films, with fantastic performances by Christopher Lee, a good Dracula and better Saruman, as the mummy, and Peter Cushing, for most of you Grand Moff Tarkin but in my opinion the best Sherlock until the advent of Benedict Cumberbatch; and The Mummy (1999) of Stephen Sommers for Universal, with Arnold Vosloo as the mummy, Brendan Fraser, and Rachel Weisz, a much better female character than in previous films and the actual brains behind the adventure. In the reboot saga of the Universal Monsters that started with Dracula Untold (2014) we find a new The Mummy (2017) with a big cast and a trailer that seems to divert from the classical films.

Should you watch this film? Absolutely. It is part of the history of cinema and Freund and Karloff’s works are superb. What about archaeology? Well, it is a background rather than a driving force in the story, as it happens in many occasions. But if you are a die-hard fieldworker as me you will love the camp, the tents and the little boxes of finds… And let me tell you something, the defence of the little things made as opposed to the gold and the big finds is something that, shame on us, even some archaeologists seems not to understand.

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