Brendan Fraser and Victorian Egyptology: A Nineteenth-Century Review of Universal Pictures’ The Mummy

Sara Brio is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her thesis examines the intersection between representations of Ancient Egypt in Victorian fiction and nineteenth-century theology. She first became fascinated by Ancient Egypt around the age of seven, when her mother refused to gratify Sara’s request to be mummified in the event of her untimely demise, claiming that it was: ‘too expensive’. Information on her research activities and further childhood disappointments can be found on her University profile: http://www.leeds.ac.uk/arts/profile/40000/1357/sara_brio.

Copyright: Universal Pictures 1999

It might not be surprising that my favourite film is rife with pyramids, mummies, and adventurous romance based on my dissertation topic. However, the decidedly unscholarly nature of that film might come as a bit of a shock. I usually admit with more than a little chagrin that my favourite movie is The Mummy: released by Universal Pictures in 1999 and starring Brendan Fraser as American adventurer Richard ‘Rick’ O’Connell and Rachel Weisz as Evelyn ‘Evy’ Carnahan, an English librarian and Egyptologist living in Cairo. After discovering an ancient artefact and treasure map leading to the city of Hamunaptra, Evy, her brother Jonathan, and Rick travel to the fabled city and accidentally awaken the victim of the ‘Hom-Dai’ curse, the priest Imhotep, who unleashes an apocalyptic version of the ten plagues of Egypt.

This film, a loose remake of Universal’s 1932 classic of the same name, received very few accolades amongst the cinematic elite and is certainly not known as a pillar of historical accuracy.[i] However, as I indulged in a reprieve from research and laughed adoringly at Fraser’s swashbuckling antics and witty quips for the seemingly millionth time, I began to realize that The Mummy has a surprising amount of commentary to offer on nineteenth-century Egyptology.

Howard Carter examines the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun  Copyright: The Guardian 4 November 2013

Howard Carter examines the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun

The main characters, Rick and Evy, can be read as an amalgamation of the popular Egyptologists of the Victorian era. Evy’s character is the more thinly veiled of the two, combining two of the most famous names to surround Egyptology in the long nineteenth century and early interwar period. Her surname, Carnahan, is a clear reference to Lord Carnarvon, who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamun alongside Egyptologist Howard Carter in 1922. The two men had been working together on excavations in Thebes and the Valley of the Kings since the early turn of the century.[ii] Carnarvon’s death in 1923, shortly after the discovery of the tomb, furthered his celebrity status as it was attributed to the ‘mummy’s curse’, which was believed to befall anyone who disturbed the Pharaoh’s eternal resting place. Evy’s connection to Carnarvon is further solidified by the fact that Lord Carnarvon’s daughter, born in 1901, was named Evelyn. In the film, set in 1923—the year of Carnarvon’s death—Evy’s employer at the Cairo Museum of Antiquities claims that he only employs her because ‘your father and mother were our finest patrons’. The daughter of Howard Carnahan (Howard Carter + Lord Carnarvon), Evy can be seen as a pseudo-princess of Egyptology royalty.

Although Egyptology is thus in her blood, Evy’s character raises another issue prevalent in early Egyptology studies: the nature of Egyptological scholarship. Throughout the film, she continually references the ‘Bembridge Scholars’, a (fictional) society of Egyptologists who refuse to admit Evy into their membership because of her lack of ‘experience in the field’. This is intricately connected to the idea of ‘armchair archaeologists’ or ‘armchair scholars’, the negative connotations of which are described in Roger Summers’ article ‘Armchair Archaeology’:

The adjective ‘armchair’ when applied to any science is usually one of scorn, and conjures up a vision of a lazy gentleman, too tired or faint-hearted to put his theories to the test of experiments. In like manner an armchair archaeologist is conceived to be a dilettante who spins fine theories from inadequate facts and never rolls up his sleeves to do any fieldwork himself.[iii]

Samuel Birch

Samuel Birch: Keeper of Oriental Antiquities (1861-1885)

Keeper of Oriental Antiquities (1861-1885)

Summers’ article goes on to defend the necessary work undertaken by ‘armchair archaeologists’, who laid vital linguistic and historical groundwork for those venturing out into the field. In The Mummy’s Curse (2012), Roger Luckhurst’s description of one such ‘armchair archaeologist’, Samuel Birch—the Keeper of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum from 1866-1885—highlights the invaluable contributions Birch made to the field of Egyptology and to the development of Egyptian exhibits at the British museum. However, there is also a decidedly lacklustre tone to Birch’s career in relation to other Egyptologists of the age:

Yet for most of his career, Birch was the only museum appointment in the field, a low-paid scholar in a black silk chimney-pot hat […] the brim full of ancient dust, slaving away in a tiny office full of ‘weird sounds’ from the heating pipes.[iv]

Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge: Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities (1894-1924)

Sir Ernest Alfred Thompson Wallis Budge: Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities (1894-1924)

Contrasting this to the description of Birch’s successor, the first Keeper of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge, highlights the second type of Egyptologist prevalent in the Victorian era and in this sheds light on the second main character in The Mummy, Rick O’Connell. Luckhurst writes of Wallis Budge’s very active role in physically obtaining antiquities from multiple trips to Egypt, heedless of laws or international mandates saying:

He foiled the outcry over his purchase of a valuable papyrus by cutting it into small sections, hiding it between photographs in an album wrapped in gaudy paper, dodging the Antiquities Service by traveling fourth class to Suez before taking a mail boat out of the country […] ‘It pleased him to be called a “robber” in the interests of his country.’[v]

The yin/yang of Birch and Wallis Budge’s relationship: one scholar’s contributions radiating from the museum outward, while the other’s scholarship brought fieldwork into the museum, is mirrored in the relationship between Evy and Rick. Although Rick is not an Egyptologist, his adventurous spirit and disregard for the sanctity of tombs or artefacts’ rightful place, compared to Evy’s library-bound career at the start of the film and meticulous attention to historical and linguistic detail throughout, can be viewed as foils to these two types of historical figures. Much like Wallis Budge, Rick ‘obtains’ an artefact from the mythical city of Hamunaptra, heedless of the artefact’s safety or condition. This cavalier action instigates the supernatural plot of the film. Both are frustrated at various points with the other’s methods, as were Birch and Wallis Budge.[vi]

In typical Hollywood fashion, Rick and Evy eventually fall in love throughout the course of the film, but instead of viewing this as a traditional romantic trope, I prefer to see an overarching historical narrative woven into Rick and Evy’s relationship. Their characters and distinctive personalities blend together to illustrate the history of figures in Victorian Egyptology. From the scholar deciphering hieroglyphs buried amidst dusty tomes, to the daring adventurer smuggling treasures in the name of scholastic discovery,[vii] to the grandeur of unearthing what can only be described as ‘wonderful things,’[viii] Evy and Rick’s story fuses together distinctive figures and elements that comprise the story of Egyptology itself, a science whose very nature and scope was defined throughout the course of the Victorian era.

Having now reflected on the relevant and critical historical conversation produced by a nineteenth-century viewing of my favourite film, I think the natural next step generated by this discussion is obvious; it is time to watch The Mummy Returns.


 

[i] There is an entire webpage entitled: ‘The Mummy: What They Got Wrong’, written by A. McDevitt http://www.egyptianmyths.net/themummy.htm.

[ii] ‘Remarkable Discovery in Egypt’, Derby Daily Telegraph, 30 November 1922, p. 4.

[iii] Roger Summers, ‘Armchair Archaeology’, The South African Archaeological Bulletin 5.19 (1950), 101-4 (p. 101).

[iv] Roger Luckhurst, The Mummy’s Curse: The True History of a Dark Fantasy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 137.

[v] Ibid., p. 139.

[vi] In fact, Birch was not the only person to be concerned by Wallis Budge’s actions. Luckhurst describes how fellow Egyptologist Sir William Matthews Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) was ‘horrified’ by Wallis Budge’s methods.

[vii] I certainly recognize that Wallis Budge’s actions raise many concerns from the postcolonial perspective. The removal of artefacts from Egypt and the lack of respect for the dead was an issue very much discussed and debated in the Victorian era, and such musings even trickled down to the fictional sphere, to be discussed by authors such as Sir H. Rider Haggard in an article for the Daily Mail entitled ‘The Trade in the Dead’. However, I think in this case a discussion of the postcolonial ramifications of Victorian Egyptology is a subject best left for another post.

[viii] When asked if he could see anything when first viewing Tutankhamun’s tomb, Howard Carter famously replied: ‘Yes, wonderful things.’

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2 responses to “Brendan Fraser and Victorian Egyptology: A Nineteenth-Century Review of Universal Pictures’ The Mummy

  1. I enjoyed this post a lot, thank you! Have you read Elizabeth Peters’ Amelia Peabody books? (I feel like I hardly need to ask that!) I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on them also, given they are probably the closest literary equivalent of “The Mummy” remake.

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