I love this poster so much. From a compositional standpoint, it just looks amazing. The two biggest words tell us all we need to know: “KARLOFF. MUMMY.” The eye naturally moves from Boris Karloff’s greenish, putrefying presence down to Johann’s contrasting red dress against a giant stone slab.
I debated with myself for some time as to whether or not this movie fell within Turban Decay’s jurisdiction. After all, this blog deals with Arab images in the cinema and the very question of the ancient Egyptians’ demographics opens up a whole hornet’s nest that I’d rather not delve into.
Eventually, I decided to go for it solely because I just really like the film. I actually prefer Karloff as the mummy to Karloff as Frankenstein’s monster. This role gives him a greater chance to flex his acting muscles while at the same time allowing him to bring the horror. If you have yet to see this film, pop culture has probably induced you to expect a stiff, bandaged quasi-zombie ambling mindlessly through pyramid corridors, killing everyone he sees.
|Maybe something like this?|
Race in The Mummy: Not Much, Not Good
Unfortunately, Arabs appear very little in this film and make only an incidental contribution to the narrative. They occupy servile, almost entirely mute positions.
|Even these two Egyptian police inspectors (left) behave deferentially to the British.|
|Strange Look + Magic Words = Nubian Slave|
I guess at least this film depicts the villain as more racist.
Dear Brits, Leave Egypt Alone; Love, America
For a Hollywood horror flick, The Mummy, interestingly, serves as a message in favor of true independence for the Egyptian nation. The film starts innocently enough: archaeologists on behalf of the British Museum unearth a sarcophagus and a cursed golden box. When they open the latter and find a magical, revivifying scroll, the mummy inside the former comes to life and terrorizes them. All the while, this mummy attempts to use the scroll to manipulate half-Egyptian socialite Helen Grosvenor into becoming his bride. The film uses the obdurate British archaeologists, the malignant antagonist masquerading as a creepy Ottoman noble, and a woman of Pharaonic descent caught in the middle to serve as an allegory, rebuking the British and other foreigners for keeping their hands in Egypt’s affairs and obstructing Egypt’s path to true independence.
The British characters symbolize the continued British presence in Egypt; the scroll and contemporaneous artifacts symbolize Egypt’s national identity. Dr. Muller continually warns the Britons that they’ll reap the whirlwind for messing with such things, but they all brush off his admonitions at their own peril. After all, if they did heed his advice, we wouldn’t have a movie.
|Dr. Muller (left): “Don’t open the box or you’ll die.”|
Dr. Whemple & Ralph Norton: “Pfft! Whatever, man!”
Some people just couldn’t leave Egypt well enough alone, though, including the Brits… and the Ottoman-descended rulers.
|If you see this in context in HD, no combination of alcohols or head trauma will ever let you forget it.|
I initially found it a bit strange that Imhotep would choose to disguise himself as a Turkish bey, but then I realized that, as a patrician relic of the past, Imhotep represents Ottoman rule, especially the Muhammad Ali dynasty. Even after the 1919 revolution, Fuad I and Farouk I regularly dissolved parliament, ignored the constitution, made unilateral decisions without consulting the Egyptian people, and elevated unpopular and undemocratic men to Parliament. Europeans and foreigners led privileged lives relative to the natives in a society starkly stratified in every way.
|This digging crew shows probably the most native Egyptians on screen at once.|
|Life for the British looks a little more… comfortable.|
|Some people really suck at drawing eyebrows.|
Despite that the character had a European father and an Egyptian mother, the film regards Helen Grosvenor as Egyptian for its purposes. This idea actually follows Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s belief in Egyptian assimilation. He believed that foreigners settling in Egypt “acclimatized themselves to our country, intermixing with us and becoming part of us, in fact all becoming Egyptians themselves. Their first nationality completely vanished.”4
The film actually agrees with Haykal, since Helen Grosvenor looks and acts Western, but her identity remains with Egypt. Of considerable importance, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon proves the force that saves the day by propitiating the Egyptian god Isis. Here, we come to the film’s main point: if we continue to intrude on Egypt, eventually the people will regain their cultural identity, cast off the foreign invaders, and choose to move on making their own way in the world.
Between the British characters who mess with powers they don’t understand without regard for the rectitude thereof, the Turkish antagonist who steps all over the Egyptian people to get what he wants, and the confused part-Egyptian leading lady caught in the middle, questioning her very identity, the film seems to take Dr. Muller’s viewpoint, warning the rest of the world to leave Egypt alone. I’d even go so far as to say the film presages the Egyptian Revolution of 1952, the total British evacuation in 1956,3 and the rise of an Egyptian leader tired of putting up with an intrusive British presence.
The Film as a Film
I really liked The Mummy, but even so it falls tantalizingly short of greatness. It has largely humdrum cinematography with the occasional pretty shot, like this shot of Dr. Muller again warning Dr. Whemple to leave the artifacts alone.
|Dr. Muller brings his friend out under the starry sky to say in silhouette, “No, seriously, don’t open the box.”|
|Karloff and Johann in what little ancient Egypt flashback footage remains.|
|Henry Victor, here in Freaks, played a Saxon warrior who remained in the credits even as his scene didn’t.|
i OK, maybe not more interesting; I always found Anakaris pretty awesome. But you get the idea.
ii If you have a bias against black & white movies, I have two pieces of advice. First, only boring people need their movies in color. Second, watch them in HD. Everyone should see what black & white looks like in high definition.
1 Gershoni 143-144
2 Botman 19
3 Botman 5-7, 18, 20, 23
4 Gershoni 148
Books I Cited
- Botman, Selma. Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1991. Print.
- Gershoni, I., and James P. Jankowski. Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: The Search for Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930. New York: Oxford UP, 1986. Print.