I first saw The Mummy (1999) at the age of eleven. It was by complete chance; a side-effect of my mother deciding one evening that there was nothing to watch and switching our television to a channel she never normally used. I do not think she particularly wanted to watch The Mummy (and I strongly suspect that she did not want to hear about it endlessly from me for months), but I will have to assume it was preferable to the other options that presented themselves that evening. Whatever the circumstances, however, the film caught my eye immediately.
This was primarily because I was utterly obsessed with the Ancient Egyptians. Do not assume I say this lightly. A year earlier, at the age of ten, I entered my class’ story competition with what, at the time, I considered to be a masterful retelling of the gory life and death of the god Osiris. I filled notebooks with detailed, handwritten entries on every aspect of the history I could reasonably find a book about in our local library. I was obsessed.
Admittedly, by this time, I was already a voracious reader. Books had been my primary passion for as long as I could remember, and there was no easier way into my little heart on birthdays or at Christmas than with a new book or, dare I say it, a book voucher. So, I cannot entirely credit a character from The Mummy with the genesis of my interest in stories and storytelling but, in encountering this movie, I consciously realised the power of character within a narrative for one of the first times. Moreso, it was also one of the first times that a film, and not a book, struck me so deeply.
At any rate, it was safe to say that I was quickly interested in The Mummy from the first few moments. Then, some minutes later, enter Rachel Weisz as Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan, surrounded by books as she scaled a ladder in perhaps the most precarious manner possible. Immediately, it was over for me. I was utterly smitten, even as Evy managed to topple a succession of enormous bookshelves by way of a filing incident that, in the moment, I truly thought to be comedy gold.
Evy was a disaster. But she was also a scholar, and a dreamer, and a librarian.
In short, Evy was, and remains to this day, me.
In the years between then and now, I have watched The Mummy and its 2001 sequel The Mummy Returns more times than I would ever want to count. I had yet more notebooks full of printed-out stills of the movies (the pre-smartphone equivalent of saving gifs to your camera roll). I wrote fanfiction. I went on the Universal studios ride and plundered the gift shop.
I also remain entirely happy to admit that, as formative movies go, these two might not be obvious choices.
In fact, there are any number of criticisms I could level against these films. I could cite their near-flagrant disregard for anything skirting near to the realm of ‘historical accuracy’. But, as a counterpoint, I would argue that viewers are not bringing expectations of historical accuracy to a film about an undead mummy, summoned back from the bowels of Ancient Egyptian hell. A better place to start, however, would be with the casting. Two prominent Ancient Egyptian characters are played by a white South African (Arnold Vosloo, who plays the human incarnation of the titular monster) and a Venezuelan woman (Patricia Velásquez).
I could just as easily mention the stereotypes used against characters of colour. Two other Egyptian characters, this time from the twentieth century, are portrayed as cowardly, bumbling, and duplicitous, and each has an all-consuming love of treasure which will eventually prove to be his demise. Again, neither of these characters is played by an Egyptian actor. Beni Gabor, who betrays our films’ hero in some of the opening sequences in The Mummy (1999) and does not survive into the 2001 sequel, is brought to rather two-dimensional life by white American actor Kevin J. O’Connor. Prison warden Hassan is portrayed by British-Iranian actor and comic Omid Djalili. Oded Fehr, of Israel, is the face of Ardeth Bay, a desert-dwelling Medjai warrior. I think there’s a pattern here.
In a film set in Egypt, with a plot loosely based around the country’s history, there are precious few roles of any depth given over to Egyptian characters, and there is not a single prominent role that is played by an Egyptian actor. This is ironic, and certainly a shame, because at their heart, many of The Mummy films portray a bygone era of British colonialism which, amongst other horrors, saw a flurry of antiquity theft under the guise of archaeology and historical study. There was, and remains, an opening here for films like The Mummy, Indiana Jones, or even Tomb Raider (2018) to do something rather clever with the statements they make about which actors they cast and, indeed, which heroes and heroines they centre in their narratives. In The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, our primary heroes are played by white Brits or Americans: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and John Hannah.
This, too, is arguably another charge against these films. They both lack this element of self-awareness, even as in other ways they understand exactly what they need to be to entertain their audiences. They know that their strengths lie in not taking themselves too seriously, not pretending that they have the strongest narrative with which to defy many, if any, tropes of the genre. The relatively quick pacing of these films works in their favour by moving the narrative along rather rapidly, and the action sequences seem to effectively straddle the strange line between comedy and mild horror.
In short, these films are silly, funny, flawed, and at times frankly nonsensical. For anyone with a willingness to suspend all disbelief, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns can be enjoyable adventures without having to be anything loftier than that.
That they fulfil these criteria at the expense of certain groups should never be ignored, but unfortunately it took me a while before I could even see the problem, let alone consider a solution. As I have grown (for it has been much more than a decade since I was eleven years old), I have taken these films with me, learning over time to understand exactly what it is they have taught me; both in what I want to do as a storyteller, and what I absolutely do not.
In a positive light, The Mummy and its sequel taught me that sometimes there is nothing loftier than unabashed entertainment; that storytelling doesn’t always have to be anything more. I think that is when I worked out what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to transport people elsewhere. I wanted them go there – wherever ‘there’ might be – for the sheer, indulgent joy of being told a story that does not have to be anything more than that; a vibrant tale. And I wanted these mysterious elsewheres to be chock full of women like Evelyn Carnahan.
In The Mummy, Evelyn shares a fireside drink with Fraser’s character, Rick O’Connell. She tries to pre-empt a question he might ask but, intoxicated, mixes her words and declares: “You’re wondering: what is a place like me doing in a girl like this?”
To this day, I still wonder something similar. In a film full of whitewashing and stereotypes, Evelyn goes some way to bucking the trend. Taking into account The Mummy’s release date of 1999, many aspects of Evy’s role as the principle woman in the story feel satisfying and well fleshed out. Certainly, they were ground-breaking to me on the night I first met the character.
She is, in many ways, a contradiction. She is meticulous in her studies and driven by an intense need to prove herself as a woman in academia. At the same time, she barrells headfirst into almost everything without thinking. She ups sticks to trek across a desert with two strange men and her hapless brother Jonathan (John Hannah), set to prove that an impossible city might just exist. She is bodily thrown into the Nile wearing only her nightgown, enters into a desert race to reach her destination – a fabled city of treasure – on the back of a camel, and she exercises absolutely no caution whatsoever when reading aloud from a cursed book, thereby resurrecting the mummy. Undeniably, Evy is the person who sets the curse in motion. She is also, the audience understands, the only one with the ability to end it again. She relies to a certain degree on other characters to clear her path, but Evy scarcely doubts her own ability to be a scholar and a hero all at once. Yet, at the same time, Evy is allowed to fail, to be foolish, and to make us laugh with her blunders.
Much like The Mummy and The Mummy Returns as films, Evy is someone we should take seriously – but not too seriously. As a child, this example of female representation beckoned me in.
In a duo of films full of male cynics, gunfighters, double-crossers, and outright villains, Evy quickly becomes the personification of wide-eyed wonder and optimism that I needed. When prompted by other characters to run and hide from the mummy she unleashed, she instead decides: ‘I woke him up and I intend to stop him’. She accepts what she has done, and she simply considers what to do next. Evy is always looking forward and always searching for solutions – no matter how hairbrained or absurd they might be. ‘Can’t’ does not seem to enter her vocabulary, and she approaches everything with a fierce sense of self-belief.
During her aforementioned fireside chat with O’Connell, she gives him a smart dressing down when he implies that she does not belong in the desert, out with these swindlers and adventurers.
‘I may not be an explorer,’ Evy says with great, drunken indignance. ‘Or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter […] but I am proud of what I am.”
“And what is that?” O’Connell asks, utterly bemused.
“I…am a librarian,” Evy exclaims, full of booze and full of pride.
But in truth, she is much more than this. Over the course of the two films, Evelyn fights the antagonists with a mix of scholarly knowledge and gradually accumulated fight moves. She is given more dimension than almost any other character in these films. She is funny without becoming only comic relief, like Hannah’s character. She is spirited and charming without becoming only the love interest (in fact, one might even argue that Fraser in fact plays Weisz’s love interest).
Here it is then, the magic in storytelling as I saw it at eleven years old. These strange, mishmash films that, I think, never entirely knew what they wanted to be; Hollywood adventure or German horror-esque chiller? These films that were culturally tone-deaf and centred the wrong narrative, the wrong heroes. These films that somehow still gave me a woman to aspire to, amongst a cast that is otherwise almost entirely male.
Somehow, I had found her. The woman that, as a precocious, preteen child I would latch onto indefinitely and decide I wanted to become. (That I also wanted to be with her was an epiphany that took a fair while longer).
Alongside sparking a realisation about how I wanted to tell stories, The Mummy and The Mummy Returns taught me just how profoundly a relatable, enjoyable character can impact upon narrative. Anyone who knows me well enough will have seen me, at one time or another, in full flow as I wax lyrical about a piece of media’s character development – sometimes good, sometimes not. I would hazard a strong guess that this is how my passion started; with Evelyn.
The Mummy and The Mummy Returns taught me that, for anyone who seeks them, relatable characters can – and will – be found in the strangest of places. I maintain convinced that Evy should not be here. For all I have cherished these two films I understand that they have punched above their weight with Evy’s character and Weisz’s performance, which also became her principal international breakthrough. Weisz, I think, must have understood Evy from the first moment; both of them passionate, both of them working hard towards their chosen careers.
Which brings me back to that fireside question from the lady herself: ‘What is a place like me doing in a girl like this?” My answer is simply that I don’t know. I don’t know what this progressive-for-the-time heroine is doing in these strange, silly, wonderful movies. I am only eternally glad that she is there at all.