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“Mummies, Asps and Far Too Much Eye Make-up: Ancient Egypt in the Cinema” John J Johnston (EEG Meeting Talk)

I’ll admit I was a little dubious in advance of May’s Essex Egyptology Group meeting – I don’t really watch many films, so a whole talk about Ancient Egypt in the cinema had the potential to be completely incomprehensible or boring or both. Thankfully, it was neither 🙂 And this was down to the fact that the speaker, John J Johnston, was very entertaining and good at explaining what he was talking about even if you hadn’t ever seen the film in question.

His talk had three main strands, which were those listed in the title – mummies, asps (i.e. films about Cleopatra) and far too much eye make-up (everything else). The first half concentrated on films about mummies. I knew there was a film called “The Mummy”, what I hadn’t realised is that there were several films with that name each of which came complete with sequels. Johnston took us through them chronologically, using a few stills and some entertaining descriptions to give us the flavour of each film. He concentrated on how they portrayed the mummy itself and on whether the portrayal of ancient Egypt in the film was even remotely authentic. Most weren’t – more a flavour & a setting than any attempt to get it right. This section also included the only film out of the ones he talked about that I’ve actually watched – Stargate – though I’m not sure how it fit in to this part.

After coffee and cake we were fortified enough to continue on with films about Cleopatra, of which there have also been several each more lavish than the last. I think the first three he talked about were each the most expensive film then made … and that’s before he got to the one where Elizabeth Taylor starred as Cleopatra which was a very expensive film. In this section he was initially concentrating on how Cleopatra was portrayed (politically astute? manipulative seductress?) and again on the level of authenticity. Some of these films did rather better on that than the mummy ones did, but he had some amusing tales of advisers with no apparent credentials just a lot of chutzpah or advisers with credentials but no influence. And then we got onto the Elizabeth Taylor version of Cleopatra, which was originally conceived of as a remake of the very first Cleopatra film from 1917 (which starred Theda Bara). It got off to a rocky start, as apparently Elizabeth Taylor didn’t really want to do it so asked for outrageous sums of money and added all sorts of riders to her contract in the hopes they’d find someone else. But they didn’t, and then she got ill & nearly died and by the time she recovered they had to recast the other parts because those actors had moved on to other films. And the whole thing just kept spiralling out of control – 18 months of filming in Italy, lavish sets and more & more scenes. Eventually it finished at 8 hours long, and the studio had spent far more than they could afford. It did get cut down to around 4 hours before release, and Johnston was pretty scathing about the quality of the whole thing in terms of acting, story & authenticity.

Moving on from Cleopatra we came to “far too much eye make-up”, which is one of the easy ways that a film can indicate it’s about ancient Egypt. And so one of the themes of this section was expectations, and how a film-maker needs to meet these even if doing so makes the film less authentic – people interested in Egyptology aren’t really the target audience, instead it’s the general film-going public. And the other thread that tied this section together was Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments, which spent ages in pre-production and so several other film-makers tried to pre-empt him by bringing out a film about Egypt first. And expectations tripped up some of these films. If you go to see a film about a mummy you know what plot you’re getting (monster! horror!), ditto with Cleopatra. He also used the Romans as an example where there’s a canonical plot (in 1940s & 1950s cultural expectations) – Romans persecute Christians. But there’s no expected plot for a film about Khufu and the Great Pyramid or for Akhenaten, so the films tended to flail around looking for a story. Cecil B. DeMille obviously had an expected plot for his film, Ten Commandments, and also put a lot of effort into authenticity (even if some things had to be changed for story telling reasons). Johnston made the point that this was done to enhance the power of the film’s underlying message, if it’s authentic then this is “how it really was”. And he pointed out some of the ways that DeMille was using this film to preach a message to the audience – for instance all the good guys are played by Americans, some of the imagery for the Egyptian gods is reminiscent of imagery from Communist states (in a subtle way, nothing overt & obvious).

I don’t think I’ve done the talk justice with this write-up, it was both laugh-out-loud funny at times and thought provoking.