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The Mummy (1959): Banning (Cushing) Ridicules Egyptian Religion

I recently ordered a few items for Christmas from my Amazon.com wishlist which included a DVD of Hammer’s The Mummy (1959). My completed order included a free video on demand rental for the film, I suppose to hold me over until my DVD arrives. I hadn’t seen this film since I was a teenager, and with my recent renewed interest in mummies as horror figures it was a pleasure to see it again. Of course, as an adult I looked for and noticed things that I didn’t as a teenage fan. When I was younger I enjoyed yet another Hammer monster that shambled across the screen. As an adult I continued to enjoy that aspect, but also found more of interest. One particular scene stuck out for me (it can be viewed at YouTube here), and that was a confrontation between the archaeologist John Banning (played by Peter Cushing) and Mehemet Bey (George Pastel), an Egyptian high priest and the one who controls the mummy (Christopher Lee). Banning is not only an expert in Egyptian archaeology, but also in its religion. At this point in the story Banning suspects that Mehemet is connected to the mummy and tries to provoke him through confrontation. This clash comes about as Banning ridicules Egyptian religion, which understandably frustrates and angers Mehemet.

Mehemet Bey: “Does it not occur to you, Mr. Banning, that this religion could inspire a profound and deep devotion?”

John Banning: “It occurred to me but I dismissed it.”

This aspect of the film has been interpreted variously. On the YouTube page where the clip is found some of the comments assume an atheist perspective and that the film is indicative of skepticism of all religion as superstition. Other commentators have read this as an implied Christian critique of paganism allegedly demonstrated by the Victorian background of the film, and religious influences from director Terence Fisher.

In order to answer this question we need to consider the film’s narrative, as well as the cultural circumstances which produced it. In light of these I wonder if a better reading may be that the film reflects the symbolism of the mummy and its association with death and decay with Western contempt for the East, even while it retained a fascination with the exotic aspects of Egyptian culture. Given the West’s continued tensions with the Muslim world in our post 9/11 environment I’m surprised we don’t see more expressions of this in contemporary horror cinema, whether symbolized by the mummy or some other monstrous creature. Beyond this, the scene provides additional food for thought on religious understanding and respect in a pluralistic environment.

At any rate, if you haven’t seen Hammer’s The Mummy in a while it is worth revisiting, and especially in contrast with Universal’s version.

Related posts:

“Jasmine Day Interview – The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English-Speaking World”

“The Mummy (1932): Zita Johann and the Esoteric Tradition”

Comment Pages

There are 3 Comments to "The Mummy (1959): Banning (Cushing) Ridicules Egyptian Religion"

  • Cory Gross says:

    I got a kick out of the assumption of atheism given the context. In any supernatural horror film, the default is anything but atheism. If there is a rational and scientific character talking about the foolishness of ancient superstitions, he is wrong.

    Regarding “Given the West’s continued tensions with the Muslim world in our post 9/11 environment I’m surprised we don’t see more expressions of this in contemporary horror cinema,” I suspect that may be in part because no one has rediscovered Mummies as a sexy teen romance yet, in another part because it’s just too soon after 9/11 to make a horror movie out of it, and in last part because it’s kinda’ racist.

  • Dr Jasmine Day says:

    All of the points raised regarding the religious confrontation scene in Hammer’s 1959 “The Mummy” are pertinent, from questions of atheism to the conflicts between East and West, paganism and Christianity. One of the reasons why horror is so fascinating to viewers and scholars alike is that it is open to multiple, even conflicting interpretations. But if you read the relevant passage in my book “The Mummy’s Curse: Mummymania in the English-speaking World” (Routledge 2006), I raise a point that everybody else has seemed to miss: in order to expose Mehemet Bey’s likely involvement in the recent murders, John Banning uses statements of religious bigotry (a sentiment that seems out of character for him, sure enough) to rouse Bey’s anger. Banning is bluffing and Bey falls for it. From that moment, Banning knows that he must watch his back around the Egyptian, and the reconciliation between the two men at the end of the conversation is stilted and false (no doubt Bey has just made up his mind to eliminate Banning at the next opportunity). Look carefully again at this scene in the film, observe Peter Cushing’s nuanced and brilliant performance and see that he is portraying Banning as a man using words to lay a trap. It took me a while before I figured this one out; I had to watch some other performances by Cushing to realise how well he could play a character who is lying. Compare, for instance, his brief appearance as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: A New Hope, who convinces Leia that he will spare her home planet Alderaan if she betrays the location of the secret Rebel base. Tarkin seems quite reasonable, and for a moment we assume that Leia’s compromise has saved her people – but that is just when Tarkin says quite calmly, “You may fire when ready.” To the protesting Leia he says, “Oh, you’re much too trusting.” We cannot believe a word that Tarkin, or Banning, says when he wants to get his way by fooling others …

  • Jasmine, thank you for these important thoughts. I am flattered that you would take the time to post on my blog. thank you again for your great work on Egyptology and the mummy in horror and popular culture.

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