Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Mummy (1932)

In my experience, when Westerners think of Arabs in the cinema, they think of four things: terrorists, the Crusades, the Arabian Nights, and…

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?
Or this?
The actual film gives us something far more menacing and interesting.i

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.
Worse, the most prominent Nubian character spends half the film as a servant of British protagonist Frank Whemple and the other half as the antagonist’s mind-controlled thrall.

Strange Look + Magic Words = Nubian Slave
I guess at least this film depicts the villain as more racist.
The film actually does deal with a culture and a national identity. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go about this with progressive roles for natives. The film still does still have something to say…

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!”
The violent Egyptian revolution of 1919, spurred on by nationalist Saad Zaghloul, led to the British recognizing Egypt’s nominal independence on February 28, 1922. But with the British continuing to control their foreign interests in Egypt—especially the Suez Canal—and Sudan, there still existed very strong feelings within the Egyptian people that the British still had far too great a presence in their country and culture. Egyptian nationalist thinkers such as Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Muhammad ‘Abd Allah ‘Inan railed against these influences. Haykal, in particular, referred to contemporary views on Egyptian history as “the history of those foreign conquerors who humiliated our fathers and grandfathers,” and ‘Inan complained that foreign influences wrote most of the history of Egypt as understood then, leaving large periods of time “still concealed from our eyes by a curtain of darkness.”1 Egyptians from all over the political spectrum2—and apparently writer John L. Balderston—agreed with Woodrow Wilson’s belief in self-determination for the Egyptian nation.

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.
Boris Karloff famously played the title character, Egyptian priest Imhotep, whom the pharaoh executed by vivisepulture because Imhotep tried to use black magic to revive the woman he loved. Contrary to what pop culture may have led you to believe, Karloff actually spends most of the film not all bandaged up, but in the form you see above, which actually looks even scarier in context. Karloff’s angular countenance and creepy eyes lend themselves uncannily to such an imperious, menacing villain. This iteration of Imhotep styles himself as a Turk, calling himself Ardath Bey.

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.
Turkish pashas largely comprised the moneyed, propertied classes and those who controlled the important posts of the state. The native Egyptians remained politically mute and largely relegated to agrarian rural life with little means, backward technology, poor nutrition, and constant risk of disease.3 As Gamal Abdel Nasser would put the Muhammad Ali dynasty and the penury of his people to a final end in 1952, so too does Helen Grosvenor, representing Egypt, break free from Imhotep’s spell and destroy him once and for all.

Some people really suck at drawing eyebrows.
Although the film does nothing for Arab characters on its surface, the real handling of Middle Eastern images rests on leading lady Zita Johann, who plays the female lead, Helen Grosvenor and her ancestor/past life, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, whose persona lives on, lying dormant within her descendant.

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.”
With that said, the film constantly feels lacking in something or other. Sequences that would’ve gone well with a score remain silent. One gets the (very accurate) feeling that the paltry 74-minute running time left a lot of footage on the cutting room floor.

Karloff and Johann in what little ancient Egypt flashback footage remains.
This becomes especially apparent in the brief, choppy flashbacks to ancient Egypt, the love triangle established at breakneck speed, and the strikingly abrupt ending. Indeed, this film underwent a particularly brutal editing process. The film actually had longer and more abundant flashbacks featuring Helen Grosvenor’s past lives. (Zita Johann, who played her, actually did believe strongly in reincarnation.)

Henry Victor, here in Freaks, played a Saxon warrior who remained in the credits even as his scene didn’t.
With that said, I really enjoyed what the film does have. Boris Karloff steals the show over and over, and Zita Johann has a presence very unlike leading ladies of her time. Not everything in the film works, but as a political allegory and a Universal monster pic, I found it above average and very easy on the eyes in HD.ii Plus, on the bright side, all those cuts mean it won’t take you very long to watch it and judge for yourself!

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.

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