Visual Metaphors: The Changing Face of Ancient Egypt in American Films

Thursday, January 2, 2014: 4:10 PM
Washington Room 5 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Tasha Dobbin-Bennett, Yale University
From the turn of the twentieth century, American film producers and cinema audiences have been captivated by ancient Egypt.  The cinematic experience created a window through which the American audience could partake in the exotic “otherness” of ancient Egyptian religion (The Prophetess of Thebes 1907, The Mummy 1932), love stories that defied death and time (Antony and Cleopatra 1908, Aida 1911, Cleopatra 1963), the thrill of the mummy’s curse (King Tut-Ankh-Amen’s Eighth Wife 1923, The Mummy 1999), and the adventure of the hunt (Death on the Nile 1978, Raiders of the Lost Ark 1981, Stargate 1994).  While these films serve as vehicles to tell stories, they also reflect the cultural, social, political, and religious undercurrents that American society concurrently negotiated.  For over 100 years, these films have used ancient Egypt as a counterpoint to American culture, juxtaposing East and West, science and religion, exotic and familiar, against a backdrop of ethnicity.  This paper will briefly survey the recurring fascination with ancient Egypt on the Silver Screen, through the changing milieu of the Twentieth century.  In particular, I will continue the discussion regarding the presentation of ancient Egypt to the American audience, consider how Western ideals have been (re)constructed  in opposition to Eastern “superstitions”, and examine the varying archetype of the ancient Egyptian.