Thebes in Film

Ancient Egypt and its monuments have not only attracted the attention of scholars, but Hollywood as well. Filmmakers know that they can make a mint at the box office with Egyptian-themed movies such as the recent Stargate, The Mummy, and The Scorpion King. John Swanson, The American University in Cairo's Assistant Provost for International Programs, is a big film buff and has kindly shared with the Theban Mapping Project the following reviews of some of the most famous (and infamous) films set in ancient or modern Luxor, many of which were also filmed on location.    
Films Set in Ancient Thebes
   
The Egyptian (directed by Michael Curtiz, the director of Casablanca, no less!; based on the novel by Mika Waltari; starring Edmund Purdom and the three actors that every 1950s biblical spectacular had to have: Victor Mature, Jean Simmons, and Peter Ustinov; 1954): Silly but entertaining, and even if the history is a bit off (well, way off), the sets and costumes are fun, and the movie speeds right along with its wonderfully ridiculous plot, which has something to do with the search by a rather boring physician (Edmund Purdom in his greatest role!) for the meaning of life, while an amazingly handsome Akhenaten (played by Michael Wilding) is betrayed by all those around him.    
Land of the Pharaohs (directed by Howard Hawks; written by Harry Kurnitz and William Faulkner?!?; starring Jack Hawkins, James Robertson Justice, and Joan Collins; 1955): One of the all-time stinkers, both as movie and history, featuring some of the worst acting and most ludicrous dialogue in film history. One of the appeals of the movie is that large portions of it were filmed in Egypt in the early 1950s. Another of its charms is that it provides ample "What is wrong with this scene?" opportunities for gaffe-squaders, such as when the king rides into town in triumph during the opening scenes followed by his camel corps, in spite of the fact that camels were not introduced into Egypt until two thousand years after the pyramids were built! Finally, it definitively answers the age-old question: Why were the pyramids built? Why? So as to provide Joan Collins with an appropriate resting-place, of course!    
Queen of the Nile (directed by Fernando Cerchio; starring Jeanne Crain, Vincent Price, and Edmund Purdom; 1961): At some point in the generic history of ancient Egypt, Queen Nefertiti (no, not that Nefertiti; then again, maybe it is, since this is a very confusing film) tries to pull a Hatshepsut and take over. Pretty dreadful, all things considered.    
The Ten Commandments (directed by Cecil B. DeMille; starring Charlton Heston, Anne Baxter, Yul Brynner, Edward G. Robinson, Vincent Price, Yvonne De Carlo, and a cast of trillions; 1956): Rather surprisingly, its Egyptian sets, costumes, and furnishings are reasonably accurate for a Hollywood movie about Egypt. Of the film's three-hour-plus running time, most of it is set in ancient Egypt. It remains a fun movie to see, even if it is interminable, and even if many of the special effects are lost on a TV-screen. Besides, it is a useful lesson in who-was-who-in-the-American-cinema in the 1950s, since one way or another it had parts for just about everyone in Hollywood, including a young John Derek, the man who much later achieved everlasting fame by bequeathing to an unsuspecting world his wife Bo.    
Films Set in Modern Luxor
   
The Awakening (directed by Mike Newell; starring Stephanie Zimbalist, Charlton Heston, and Susannah York; 1980): A not especially scary horror film of the "mummy movie" genre, it has a few good scenes scattered among many boring ones. Stepanhie Zimbalist (in pre-Remington Steele days) is the daughter of archaeologist Charlton Heston, who discovers that the soul of the evil Egyptian queen Ka-ra (whose tomb he has uncovered) is trying to take over his daughter's body. The Awakening is not quite as bad as Sphinx (see below), but it lacks Sphinx's camp value, although Charlton Heston's impersonation of an Egyptologist is wonderfully ludicrous. Substantial parts of the movie were filmed in Egypt.    
The Curse of King Tut's Tomb (directed by Philip Leacock; starring Robin Ellis, Eva Marie Saint, Raymond Burr, Harry Andrews, and Angharad Rees; 1980): I had no idea that Howard Carter (Robin Ellis) was such a romantic figure, and that the daughter (Angharad Rees) of Lord Carnarvon (Harry Andrews) was in love with him! Ah well. Anyhow, in this made-for-TV film, Carter succeeds in discovering the tomb of you-know-who in spite of all sorts of mysterious events, the most mysterious of which is the plot, which has antiquities dealer Raymond Burr trying to spirit the Golden Mask away from the tomb before our dashing hero Howie can stop him.    
Death on the Nile (directed by John Guillerman; starring Peter Ustinov, David Niven, Mia Farrow, Simon MacCorkindale, Lois Chiles, Bette Davis, Angela Lansbury, Maggie Smith, George Kennedy, Jack Warden, and just about everyone else in Hollywood; 1978): Based on the Agatha Christie novel of the same name, the film features many scenes filmed in Egypt: at Giza (where Lois Chiles and Simon MacCorkindale climb the third pyramid), Luxor, Kom Ombo, Aswan, and Abu Simbel, but it tends to jumble together many of the temple sites in order to “improve” them. Thus, for example, the cast disembarks from their vintage turn-of-the-century steamer at Kom Ombo Temple in order to walk into Karnak Temple! The best part of the film is its first hour, in which most of the scenes shot on location are concentrated. The second half of the movie is given over to Hercule Poirot’s (Peter Ustinov’s) resolution of the mystery, which takes place entirely on board the steamer and was not filmed on location.    
The Mummy (directed by Karl Freund; starring Boris Karloff, Zita Johann, and Edward Van Sloan; 1932): Mummy movies became a staple of the horror genre in the 1930s and 1940s, but most were made for about three dollars, and it shows. (Most of them end up with Lon Chaney, Jr. wrapped up in what looks like an over-abundance of toilet paper staggering through the swamps of Connecticut in search of the mummy of his beloved princess Ananka...don't ask, it's not worth it.) The only mummy movie that qualifies as a legitimate classic is the first of the batch. It is very slow-going today, and its sound effects suffer from the fact that it was one of the earliest sound films. But Boris Karloff makes for an impressive mummy (although he in fact only appears for a few seconds in mummy garb), and there are a few good scenes. The only other mummy movies that rear their heads even slightly above the "Grade Z" level are the British Hammer Films remake of The Mummy (directed by Terence Fisher; 1959) and the recent Hollywood block-busters The Mummy and The Mummy Returns (directed by Stephen Sommers; 1999). The Hammer Films' Mummy features archaeologist Peter Cushing discovering the mummy of Christopher Lee in Egypt and then transporting it to a country estate in England, whereupon it comes to life and seeks to commit all sorts of not terribly scary mayhem. The two recent Mummy movies feature Brendan Fraser as an Indiana Jones knock-off, and while neither is a classic of cinema, both are wonderfully silly. Besides, the flesh-eating beetles alone justify the price a rental. None of these movies was filmed in Egypt, however, other than for a few establishing shots in The Mummy Returns. Nor was the prequel to The Mummy Returns, The Scorpion King, a movie which seems to prove that the origins of the civilization of the pharaohs has something to do with the World Wrestling Federation.    
Sphinx (directed by Franklin Schaffner; starring Lesley-Anne Down and Frank Langella; 1981): The kind of careful research that characterized the writing of the best-selling novel (by Robin Cook) on which this film is based, and that also characterized the production of the film itself, is the scene where the heroine (a freshly-minted Egyptology Ph.D. from Harvard (which, by the way, does not offer degrees in Egyptology, but never mind) comes down from her room in the Nile Hilton hotel (I have never met an Egyptologist who could afford to stay in the Hilton) and hails a cab to take her to the Egyptian Museum, which is actually located next door to the Nile Hilton, about a one-minute walk away. Anyhow, after a lot of confusing plot devices, Lesley-Anne discovers that an antiquities-smuggling ring is stealing objects from a secret tomb of Sety I that is located somewhere in the Valley of the Kings. Then, she discovers that the secret entrance to the secret tomb is located in the toilet of the Valley of the Kings resthouse. Then she enters the tomb itself, which is hidden beneath the tomb of Tutankhamen and contains a wealth of objects that are almost as spectacular as the tourist stuff sold in the Luxor bazaars. And then she finds out that the head of the smuggling ring is none other than Frank Langella, who is both her lover and the Director of the Egyptian Antiquities Organization. Well, no one ever said that Egyptology was easy. Anyhow, the movie was filmed in Egypt and has lots of scenes set in Cairo, Khan al-Khalili, Saqqara, and Luxor, which if nothing else, gives the film a real nostalgia value for anyone who has visited Egypt.    
The Spy Who loved Me (directed by Lewis Gilbert; starring Roger Moore, Barbara Bach, Curt Jurgens, and Richard Kiel in his inaugural appearance as the immortal Jaws; 1977): A James Bond movie filmed partly in Egypt, this is the one where Roger Moore/James Bond teams with a Russian spy to bring down an evil shipping magnate. The Egyptian sequences include inevitable and obligatorily embarrassing stereotypes, as when Bond, wearing flowing "Arab" robes that look as if they were bought in the tourist bazaar at Busch Gardens, arrives in Egypt riding a camel across the desert. He is, of course, welcomed to an Oxford-educated sheikh's tent where he is offered "traditional" Arab hospitality, which seems to consist entirely of a bevy of British starlets clad in diaphanous belly-dancing outfits. Thereafter come several scenes filmed in Egypt, including sequences shot at the Ibn Tulun Mosque and the Gayer-Anderson Museum (featuring a splendid roof-top fight with the Cairo Citadel serving as a panoramic backdrop); at the Sound and Light at Giza; in Luxor (primarily at Madinat Habu and Karnak Temples, which the film blends into a single set), and at Abu Simbel. Besides, you have not really lived until you have heard Roger Moore demonstrate his mastery of Arabic by uttering the immortal lines: "fayn al bint?" ("Where's the girl?")    
Valley of the Kings (directed by Robert Pirosh; starring Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker; 1954): Robert Parker is a rough-hewn American Egyptologist excavating at Saqqara around 1900, when a very prim Eleanor Parker asks him to help her find the “lost tomb of Joseph” in the Valley of the Kings. It is a pretty silly movie, all things considered, but unpretentious and fast-moving. Many of its sequences were filmed in Egypt: at Saqqara, at the Pyramids, at St. Catherine's Monastery, at Luxor, and at Abu Simbel, where Robert Taylor confronts the bad guy in a rousing brawl fought on top of the head of one of the statues of Rameses II.    

Published or last modified on: May 28, 2003
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