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Curse of King Tutankhamen's Tomb, The

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The Curse of King Tut's Tomb
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Directed by: 
Philip Leacock
Eva Marie Saint
Robin Ellis
Raymond Burr
Harry Andrews
Tom Baker
Bottom Line: 

 One of the first big media-driven stories of the Twentieth Century, created and perpetuated largely by sensationalist accounts in the newspapers of the day, the legend of the curse of Tutankhamen’s tomb continues to endure in a legion of Mummy films, spawned first by Universal’s horror cycle of the ‘30s and ‘40s and subsequently revived by Hammer Films in the ‘60s – both becoming major influences on Stephen Sommers’ 1999 Hollywood family blockbuster, as well as many others before and since. The association between Egyptian mummies and the curses that supposedly befall anyone who disturbs their remains has become instant and unquestioned thanks to this constant reiteration in popular culture. This 1980 television film from the august producer/director team Peter Graham Scott and Patrick Dromgoole, was shot on 35 mm film on location in Egypt, and co-financed by HTV West and Columbia Pictures; it was clearly intended as a sumptuous piece of all-star ‘event’ telly, viewers being promised a rare glimpse not just of old-school Hollywood stars such as Eva Marie Saint and Raymond Burr, but of British TV favourite Tom Baker in an even rarer role outside of his customary “Doctor Who”.  Unfortunately the film, based on a best-selling book by Barry Wynne, becomes a rather tepid attempt to tell a largely fictitious tale based on events relating to the famous curse reportedly responsible for sending to their early deaths a great number of the people involved with the opening of the tomb of the boy king Tutankhamen, after it was discovered in 1922 by archaeologist Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings.

The trouble is, the film cannot seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a sober, historical period account of the events in question, a big budget version of a Hammer Horror melodrama – full of all the usual overblown supernatural chicanery that would involve, or a plucky tale of Imperial daring-do and exotic adventure in foreign lands, a la Rider Haggard. It end up plumping for a bit of all three -- a poor compromise that leaves it saddled with a fairly inert screenplay in which nothing ever really seems to kick out of first gear, the whole enterprise becoming a glossy-looking but aimless eighty minutes of pottering about in the desert, with a plot that wanders without purpose and without really ever finding a coherent theme to latch the sensational tale to.

Paul Scofield supplies a sombre voice-over at the start -- one that keeps popping up at intervals throughout the rest of the film. It implies documentary authenticity with its tone, while the actual words themselves cannily distance themselves from making any claim that any of the events depicted actually happened as shown.  Director Philip Leacock fills the screen with tourist brochure images of the Valley of the Kings, suffused in rosy sunset filters, before the scene switches to Highclere Castle, the imposing Hampshire home of Lord Carnarvon (and now familiar to viewers as the main setting for “Downton Abby”), where the Carnarvon family are taking part in a Victorian-style séance being held by a spiritualist medium calling herself Princess Vilma (Wendy Hiller).

At this point the film is signalling Hammer Horror with a vengeance -- only on a much bigger scale due to the vast castle hall setting, stuffed with Egyptian artefacts, antique furnishings and 18th century portraiture. The shadowy Gothic ambience is stoked up further with a melodramatic intervention from the spirit world: speaking through Vilma a rasping voice implores Carnarvon not to disturb its final place of rest as the heavy castle doors suddenly fly open and a violent gust of wind sweeps through the previously still night air.

Carnarvon is, of course, financing the excavations of Howard Carter, whose obsession with locating the tomb of the boy Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, has conspicuously failed to produce results for some time. The character actor Harry Andrews makes an excellent Carnarvon, playing the part in the fruity style of one of Hammer films’ patrician Victorian characters. Carter, played here as a rather starchy romantic lead by Robin Ellis, with a carpet of ‘Hollywood hair’, has only one more season to make his discovery before the Lord withdraws his funding once and for all. In the Valley of the Kings, a young local water-handler that the English archaeologist has nicknamed Fishbait, finally discovers the stone step entrance to what turns out to be King Tut’s burial tomb’s antechamber, and soon a jubilant Carnarvon makes the trip in order to come and see the opening of the secret room personally; but not before a robbery takes place at the castle -- the only thing stolen an apparently worthless piece of papyrus from the Carnarvon home museum’s Egyptian collection. 

The overblown séance, and the midnight raid on Carnarvon’s home both duly signal this as a straightforward piece of horror hokum in the Hammer style with an attractive period 1920s setting -- as do the strange deaths that befall comparatively minor members of the excavation team when a nest of scorpions attacks one unlucky local worker en masse, and another is attacked and bitten to death by a cobra just as the anti-chamber is about to be breached for the first time in front of the world’s press. All this is pretty much made-up boy’s own adventure material. The film shows its age by adding a whole invented ITC-style adventure subplot, which sort of becomes the main plot halfway through, once it becomes apparent that the whole curse shtick doesn’t have enough mileage in it to last the distance.

This involves some Hollywood intervention in the form of Eva Marie Saint who plays a fictitious journalist called Sarah Morrissey, and whose only real function in the plot seems to involve providing an unrealised hint of middle-aged romantic interest for the otherwise rather dry Carter, and a blacked-up Raymond Burr as a duplicitous and untrustworthy Egyptian collector of ancient rarities and artefacts called Jonash Sabastian. It is he who steals the papyrus from Carnarvon’s home because it contains information about the contents of the tomb that reveals its great value. He then plants a similarly poorly blacked-up Tom Baker as a site manager called Hasan in Carter’s camp, to organise a plot to blacken (no pun intended) Carter’s name in the eyes of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities, making it look as though he plans to steal the antechamber’s treasures for his own personal profit. A further hint of melodrama is attempted by giving Howard Carter an attachment to Carnarvon’s daughter Evelyn.

All this is pure invention of course, straight from a Jimmy Sangster script or a Victorian adventure novel. The preponderance of white thespians playing Egyptian characters in blacking up make-up places the film in that ITC adventure drama or Hammer tradition, but by 1980 it felt already out of time as an acceptable mode of drama. A slumming Raymond Burr makes no attempt to hide his American drawl and Tom Baker still looks and sounds like the fourth Doctor -- if only after a particularly heavy tanning session.

Presumably these additions were felt necessary because, after all the overwrought supernatural drama of the previous build-up with the séance, and the initial deaths of the workers involved in the chamber’s excavation, the events surrounding Carnarvon’s actual death are the only real, slim titbits of legend to hang the story on. Thus all the key events – a mix of half-truth and newspaper hokum -- from the established myth of the tale are trotted out, from Carter’s first glimpse of the contents of the antechamber (‘I see wonderful things!’), to the cobra eating Carter’s pet canary soon afterwards; and climaxing with Carnarvon’s infected mosquito bite (which occurs in the film immediately after he and Carter first notice a hieroglyphic curse – ‘Death comes on swift wings to those who disturb this tomb!’ --  on the walls outside the antechamber, are all detailed, along with the newspaper ‘facts’ of Carnarvon’s dog dropping dead at the exact moment of his own death and the lights also going out in Cairo simultaneously (Paul Scofield drops in again to inform us of these alleged occurrences). Carnarvon’s death is played up to maximum effect with the expiring Lord being tormented by King Tut’s rasping voice berating him on his deathbed for ignoring his previous warnings (‘Why, why, why did you disturb me?’) and druggy visions of being entombed in the same manner as the pharaoh himself.

In a Hammer film of course, Howard Carter would be next -- his arrogance and scientific hubris the cause of his inevitable demise for refusing to countenance the ample warnings deriving from princess Vilma and others about the fate that awaited him for not showing enough respect to a culture that should be left undisturbed. Vilma does appear again to proclaim to Sarah that Carter is doomed, but the only trouble is, Carter in fact lived a long and fruitful life, even though he’s the one person the most responsible and the most involved with the tomb’s excavation and the cataloguing of its contents! Thus we get the irrelevant and fictitious business with Jonash Sabastian inserted into the plot as a distraction from this rather annoying spoiling fact, and the film becomes a race for Carter, Sarah and a few other loyal friends, to unseal King Tutankhamen’s burial chamber and open the casket before the authorities who have fallen for Jonash’s plot can escort them off the site.

These two plot strands are obviously in conflict with each other and the screenplay never satisfactorily resolves the tension: in one, Carter is the Western imperialist interloper, trespassing on a culture and in ancient spiritual matters that are of no concern to him; in the other he is a scientific adventurer hero, standing up for justice and truth against greedy foreigners who’re merely out for their own profit. The film performs a non-too subtle volte face -- trying to create suspense out of Carter’s race-against-time to open the tomb before he can be arrested, when it’s just spent the previous hour suggesting that that would be a bad thing! The film tries to reconcile Carter’s survival with Vilma’s predictions of doom for him by disingenuously stating that Carter’s subsequent obsession with Egyptian archaeology, in a sense, did doom him, by cutting him off from other people around him, but even this is untrue since, in real life, Carter retired from the profession soon afterwards!

The curse legend depends mainly on the effect of the recitation of a long list of deaths among a legion of people involved with the excavation, most of which occurred years later when many of them were quite aged and in ill-health. This doesn’t make very dramatic telly, so the plot has been augmented with lots of extraneous fictions while attempting to remain true to the curse story that was circulated in books and articles at the time and in the years afterwards. It would have been much more advantageous to the drama and structure of the film if the screenplay had simply dispensed with this curb on the wilder aspects of the story, and just allowed itself to submit to a full reign of supernatural horrors and fictions, as would’ve been the case in any other horror film of its nature by Universal or Hammer, for instance. Alternatively, there is surly a compelling drama still to be made about Carter’s subsequent battle to have his discoveries taken seriously by a curse-obsessed press and public. Carter was a rationalist who had no time for the sensationalist stories and correspondences of spiritualists that descended upon him in the wake of his discoveries. It would have been interesting to see that story told rather than this unsatisfactory and confused effort, dated by poor, inauthentic native casting decisions such as Burr and Baker, and bland performances by Eva Marie Saint and Robin Ellis – although it would have been interesting to see what Ian McShane would have made of the role of Carter. The film generated its own piece of curse-related lore after McShane was involved in a car crash soon after filming started, and had to be replaced by Ellis in the title role.

The DVD from Network offers an acceptable but not hugely colourful print with quite a lot of speckling evident throughout. The audio is a touch muffled and requires the volume to be cranked up high to be able to understand the dialogue, especially when it’s whispered. The disc comes with a very extensive photo gallery of behind the scenes photos and production stills, with a few of them also depicting Ian McShane’s brief portrayal of Carter before his accident required his recasting. This is another web exclusive from Network, available as usual only from

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