Egypt: Cinema of the Sun

by Sherif M. Awad

Introduction

Egyptian History and Films

Interview with Daniel Rafaelic

Insights into the Book and its Beginnings

The Mummy Films

From Banned Movies to Tom Cruise’s Latest Release

The Scorpion King

Different Depictions of an Egyptian King

The Myth of Imhotep

Exploring the Origins and Adaptations

Fascination with Egyptian History

Interpreting the Fictionalized Depictions

Accurate Portrayals by Shady Abdel Salaam

Highlighting Egyptian Filmmakers’ Efforts

Ramses on Screen

From Silent Classics to Ridley Scott’s Exodus

The Significance of Agora

Examining Ancient Alexandria in Contemporary Cinema

Contemporary Croatian Cinema

An Overview from the Head of Croatian Audiovisual Centre

    

Egypt: Cinema of the Sun

Introduction

Egyptian History and Films

by Sherif Awad

Daniel Rafaelic and Sherif Awad explore the fascinating connection between ancient Egyptian history and the world of cinema. Daniel Rafaelic, a renowned film critic and cinema historian, delves into the subject as he prepares to release his upcoming book, “Cinema of the Sun: Ancient Egypt on Film.” This comprehensive study examines the portrayal of ancient Egypt in movies and its impact on the international film industry. From mythical times to modern interpretations, the allure of Egyptian civilization continues to captivate audiences worldwide.

Interview with Daniel Rafaelic

Insights into the Book and its Beginnings

Sherif Awad (SA): Can you tell us the outline of your new book and how it starts?

Daniel Rafaelic (DR): The book begins with an introductory chapter that compares films about ancient Egypt to those about other ancient civilizations like Greece and Rome. It explores the similarities and differences in how these cultures have been depicted on the silver screen. The subsequent chapters delve into the mythical aspects of early Egyptian history and how cinema has attempted to unravel the mysteries of this ancient civilization. The book also explores the influence of Atlantis on the imagery associated with ancient Egypt and its connection to the Atlantis myth. It examines various films, such as “10,000 BC” and “Disney’s Atlantis,” which link Egyptian protohistory with the concept of an advanced civilization. Additionally, it discusses movies like “Hercules” and “The English Patient” that touch upon ancient Egypt’s influence.

The Mummy Films

From Banned Movies to Tom Cruise’s Latest Release

SA: We see that Tom Cruise made a new Mummy film being released worldwide last June. I remember there were two Mummy films (1999) and (2001), and the first one was banned in Egypt with claims by the Egyptian censorship that it was not historically accurate. Then there was the unsuccessful spin-off, The Scorpion King, in 2002.

DR: Early recorded Egyptian history, particularly the beginning of the dynastic period, has provided inspiration for multiple

Mummy films. However, each film takes a different approach. In Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy Returns” (2001), the Scorpion King is depicted as an earthly warrior who gains immense power after making a pact with the Devil/Anubis. This success led to the spin-off film simply titled “The Scorpion King” (2002), set in an amalgamation of uncharted Hellenistic landscapes and the biblical city of Gomorrah. The portrayal of the Scorpion King’s character diverged from mythology to focus on earthly fighting sequences, deviating from the expectations of the audience. It’s interesting to note that imagery from the Gilgamesh epic, including the scorpion-creature, also made appearances in these films.

The Myth of Imhotep

Exploring the Origins and Adaptations

DR: Imhotep, the chief architect of Pharaoh Djoser and creator of the first step-pyramid, has been a revered figure in ancient Egypt. The character of Imhotep came to life in the 1932 film “The Mummy,” famously portrayed by Boris Karloff and directed by Karl Freund. Later, Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” (1999) featured Imhotep as a character living in the court of Seti I, rather than Djoser. These films demonstrate the enduring fascination with Imhotep and his significant contributions to Egyptian history.

Fascination with Egyptian History

Interpreting the Fictionalized Depictions

SA: How do you interpret this fascination with Egyptian history, although it is often depicted with more fiction than historical accuracy worldwide?

DR: The discovery of King Khufu’s solar boats at the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza in 1954 sparked a renewed wave of Egyptomania, similar to the interest generated in the 1920s after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. This fascination with ancient Egypt reached its pinnacle in Howard Hawks’ “Land of the Pharaohs” (1955), which showcased the remarkable mechanical solutions employed in building and sealing the most renowned structure in history. During this era, filmmakers aimed to create the most authentic representation possible, aligning the films closely with the real ancient Egypt. Additionally, the Sphinx, particularly its nose, became a recurring joke among cinematic depictions of ancient Egypt during this time.

Various surviving papyri provide intriguing narratives from ancient Egypt, and some of these stories have been adapted into films. Michael Curtiz’s “The Egyptian” (1954), for example, weaves together fragments of Middle Kingdom stories, demotic tales, and Mika Waltari’s novel “Sinuhe the Egyptian.” The film also references the Amarna period, one of the bravest endeavors in Egyptian civilization. This period has been portrayed in films from different perspectives, with contributions from the USA, France, Italy, and Mexico. The films span various genres, including large-scale spectacles, low-budget sword-and-sandal productions, animated features, and intimate portrayals.

Accurate Portrayals by Shady Abdel Salaam

Highlighting Egyptian Filmmakers’ Efforts

SA: From our side, Shady Abdel Salaam was the only filmmaker who reflected Ancient Egypt in an accurate way.

DR: Modern Egyptians were often disregarded when it came to films about ancient Egypt. However, it is interesting to note how Egyptian filmmakers reflect on their own past and heritage in their films. Although these attempts were unrecognized outside the country and the Islamic world for many years, the highly respected filmmaker Shady Abdel Salaam successfully brought the civilization that preceded modern

Islam closer to contemporary Islamic audiences. His film “Al Moomia” or “The Night of the Counting of the Years” (1969) gained international recognition and was restored by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation. Salaam’s “El-Fallah el-fasih/The Story of the Eloquent Peasant” (1970) also received preservation by the same foundation. Salaam dedicated his life to creating films about ancient Egypt until his premature death in 1986. Additionally, his script and unmatched drawings for the unfinished production “The Tragedy of a Great House” shed light on a potentially superb intellectual sequel to “Al Moomia,” focusing on the Amarna period.

Cinematic Depictions of Ramses

A Longstanding Presence on the Silver Screen

SA: Ramses, aside from Cleopatra, is perhaps the most frequently portrayed Egyptian pharaoh in films. What significance does he hold in the history of ancient Egypt on film?

DR: Ramses, a pharaoh deeply intertwined with the story of Exodus in the Bible, has been a recurring character on the silver screen since the early days of cinema. Films such as “Slave’s Queen” (1924), “The Ten Commandments” (1923; 1956), “Prince of Egypt” (1998), and “Les aventures extraordinaires d’Adele Blanc-Sec/Extraordinary Adventures of Adele Blanc-Sec” (2010) have brought this pharaoh to cinematic life. Ramses’ portrayal often aligns with the Christian narrative, emphasizing the need for the Exodus story and showcasing an exaggerated and distorted view of the inhumanity upon which ancient Egyptian society supposedly rested. However, Luc Besson’s recent attempt offered a different perspective, portraying Ramses as the executor of the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, deviating from the typical villainous depiction. Silent classics like “Das Weib des Pharao/The Love of the Pharaoh” (1922), an Ernst Lubitsch film that was lost for over 80 years but recently restored, also contributed to Ramses’ cinematic presence.

The Importance of “Agora” in Contemporary Cinema

Exploring Alexandria’s History and Hypathia’s Story

SA: What significance does a film like “Agora” hold in contemporary cinema?

DR: Alexandria, Cleopatra’s capital and a fabulous city in its own right, was a cultural center of the Mediterranean world, even surpassing the proud Romans. While the city thrived for 300 years, cinema traditionally viewed Cleopatra’s departure as the end of Egyptian history, thereby losing interest for movie audiences. However, Alejandro Amenabar’s “Agora” (2009) reopened discussions about the rightful and wrongful portrayals of early Christianity, the violent end of the ancient world, and the remarkable story of Hypathia, the first prominent female philosopher. This film expanded the scope of ancient Egypt on film from Cleopatra’s downfall to the decline of Alexandria, providing a profound conclusion to the cinematic exploration of ancient Egypt.

Contemporary Croatian Cinema

Status and Outlook

You are currently the Head of the Croatian Audiovisual Centre. What is the status of contemporary Croatian cinema?

DR: As the Head of the Croatian Audiovisual Centre, I oversee the status of contemporary Croatian cinema. The industry has been experiencing significant growth, with numerous talented filmmakers emerging and producing remarkable works. Croatian films have been receiving international recognition and acclaim, contributing to the country’s cultural and artistic landscape. We are committed to supporting and promoting the development of Croatian cinema, ensuring its continued

success and influence on the global stage.

Thank you, Daniel Rafaelic, for sharing your insights into your upcoming book, “Cinema of the Sun: Ancient Egypt on Film.” We look forward to delving into the rich and captivating world of Egyptian cinema and its connection to ancient history.

Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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