Women of Summer Retrospective: The Mummy

Year: 1999

Runtime: 124 minutes

Director: Stephen Sommers

Writers: Stephen Sommers, Lloyd Forvielle, Kevin Jarre

Cast: Rachel Weisz, Brendan Fraser, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Jonathan Hyde, Oded Fehr, Kevin J. O’Connor, Patricia Velasquez, Bernard Fox

By Joan Amenn

“I am proud of what I am…I am a Librarian!”

-Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz)

In the 1990’s Universal Studios explored the idea of rebooting their perennially popular horror franchise. With a budget of under one hundred million, “The Mummy” (1999), they took a tentative step in that direction and were rewarded with a blockbuster that earned more than four times its budget worldwide. The film was wildly popular and proved to be the rare summer hit that focused on a women hero, Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan, played by the stunning Rachel Weisz.

Evie has ambitions of having a career and in the 1920’s, this was not considered completely acceptable in a young woman. However, both of her late parents were “adventurous” types who loved Egypt and her mother was an Egyptian so the fact that she wishes to continue their work by studying to become an Egyptologist is understandable. The fact that they apparently were wealthy enough to have been patrons of the Museum of Antiquities in Cairo may have helped her gain employment there but sadly, she hasn’t made much traction in being accepted into the academy of her choice to pursue her studies.

The script for “The Mummy” is sharp, humorous and has surprising nuggets of true history tucked away in its dialog. Evie longs to be enrolled in the Bembridge School, which actually existed. Sadly, she is repeatedly denied entrance by a patriarchy that finds every trite reason possible to deny women higher education. She is told she doesn’t have enough experience but she can read and write ancient Egyptian, decipher hieroglyphics and catalog a library worth of research. Seems like that would be sufficient but this is the 1920’s and archeology is a man’s profession. At one point in the film, Egyptologist Dr. Allen Chamberlain (Jonathan Hyde) says, “They are being led by a woman. What does a woman know?”

She knows enough to choose strong allies in her quest to find the mysterious and valuable Book of the Dead. The film does stray from reality in depicting the book as an actual book made of solid gold instead of a scroll of incantations designed to help a departed soul travel through the afterlife. However, the presence of the Medjay as guards over the necropolis where the undead menace lays buried is based in some history.

The Medjay really were an elite police force that guarded the Pharoah’s treasures, major cities and military fortifications. In the film, they guard the title character lest he let loose horror upon the world. Of course, this is what happens but Evie finds that she is as fascinating to the Mummy as his ancient culture is to her.

Rachel Weisz plays Evie with strength, playful intelligence and determination. She has all the makings of a leading lady from the Golden Age of film and “The Mummy” does borrow liberally from the great swashbucklers of the past. References to “Beau Geste” (1939) and “Gunga Din” (1939) are made with a sly wink to movie fans.

Even one of the basic themes of the monster films from Universal is referenced in how the Mummy is played by Arnold Vosloo. By making his motivation his devotion to his lost forbidden love, Anck Su Namun (Patricia Velasquez) Vosloo creates a tragic creature much like the Werewolf as played by Lon Chaney, Jr. Evie understands this monster and why he is pursuing her, but that doesn’t mean she accepts her fate at his hands.

It takes Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) as a quick-thinking ex-Legionnaire with a touch of rogue about him to match Evie in brawn to her brains. They grow to respect each other’s respective skills in their fight against a supernatural villain but it is when Rick gifts Evie with a set of purloined archeological digging tools that we see love begin to form between them. In that gift he shows that he recognizes her talents which no man has ever acknowledged before, accept maybe her brother, Jonathan (John Hannah). Weisz’s face says it all as she literally glows with the understanding of the message behind the gift. It is moments like this that gives the film an unusual depth even as it keeps its tone light with great comedic scenes.

A horror film that has a woman hero who strategizes with the men who are her allies and rallies their individual talents to best effect to defeat the monster is a rare and wonderful thing. “The Mummy” is about a woman who realizes her strengths in the face of a larger than death adversary and finds love with a partner who treats her as an equal, if not his better. It is a shame that Universal couldn’t keep up this theme with other titles in its horror franchise but “The Mummy” is a gem worth returning to for more of Rachel Weisz leading the way to triumph over the undead.

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