Thursday, June 21, 2012

Best Archaeology Movies

The Indiana Jones Adventures (1981-2008)

Even if film critics will not, the most impassioned pre-historian may be able to forgiven an alien inclusion in the lastinstalment of this chronicled saga.  If there are any Martians reading, the star of these successful movies is Dr Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones Jr. (Harrison Ford), a leather clad fedora-wearing academic, and adventure archaeologist who cracks quips almost as much as his trusty whip.  An apt place for a discussion of archaeological movie gems to start is, inevitably, at the beginning.  Set in the 1930s Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) pits Indy in a race against the Nazis for the sacred Ark of the Covenant – which is believed to contain the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments.  The film highlights exactly what the franchise does best, by basing a fantastic adventure around initial fact and the unknown whereabouts of the artefact in question.  It’s poetic irony that, in the 1989 instalment IndianaJones and the Last Crusade, one of the most glorified film icons of archaeology puts it to his class that notions of lost cities and digging up the world are greatly exaggerated because “seventy percent of archaeology is done in the library.” It’s a Cadmean Victory for Indy at number one spot, because there’ll also be many archaeologists out there that resent his adventure politics.
The Mummy (1932)

Ask anyone to describe a popular face of ancient Egypt and it’ll inevitably be the mask of King Tutankhamen.  Said to be inspired by the 1922 excavation of Tutankhamen’s intact tomb, in which members of Howard Carter’s team subsequently died after entering, this 1932 cinema classic threatens to chill the bones of all excavators.  The original story focuses on an ancient Egyptian priest called Imhotep (Boris Karloff), who was embalmed alive for attempting to resurrect his loved one.  After being revived by a team of archaeologists Imhotep embarks on a haunting journey for his lover throughout Cairo.  The story of the cursed 3700 year old mummy is one which continues to provide archaeological mystique but also inspiration for more modern cinema.  There have been arguably more entertaining recreations of this now archetypal tale, with four sequels after the original; with Peter Cushing rudely awakening Christopher Lee in 1959 with little thought for the consequences, and through to contemporary adventures with Brendan Fraser beginning in The Mummy (1999).  The greatest achievement of this film today is in comparing the archaeological plundering days of Carter against what we now see as the singular search for truth through science and technology.
The Omen (1976)

Speaking of curses, it’s hard to find a more unfortunate set of events affecting a film’s overall production andsubsequent release than in The Omen.  This is the ultimate archaeologist chiller.  The Exorcist (1973) may have its fair share of publicity too, and narrative nodes hitting similar archaeological discoveries, but with a sheer number of facts relating to hexes and grizzly crew-deaths this is enough to make anyone think twice before digging up the past.  Of course for those in the know this film works as sensationalised science and tabloid Christianity but its sheer appeal and power manage to overcome the knowledge that it’s thriving on embellishment.  Not strictly an archaeological movie but, considering the film’s portrayal of a six-year-old boy as the antichrist is entwined with many paleological motifs, it touches base with an inherent fear/fascination/excitement of the unknown.  Its carefully selected settings testify to that fact.  From the opening excavation in Cerveteri, near the medieval town of Tarquinia, where thousands of 9BCE eerily circular tombs reside, to modern Israel and Megiddo and learning from the New Testament that derivative of the place itself is the word Armageddon.
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001)

It doesn’t seem fair to include the most outlandish impression of an archaeologist Hollywood has to offer without at least mentioning the Yin to his Yang in Lara Croft (Angelina Jolie).  A more modern-day heroine, appearing originally as a 1996 video game character gives a reasonable indication of her sleek, technological savvy compared with the trusty whip and booby-traps smarts of Indy.  Whilst the second instalment Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003) may be far more archaeological in premise, with Thera and the lost under-water temple of Alexander the Great, her debut on the big screen may well have been a mass recruiting drive for many archaeologists about to graduate out there.  Not least a feminist critique would be happy for a counterbalance to the pulling power of masculinity manifested in the rugged and rapidly aging ex-carpenter Harrison Ford.  Where portrayals of actual archaeologists are concerned, Indiana Jones is more myth than man.  And whilst a latex-clad, gun-totting, pony-tailed jet setter might be the preserve of military historians, Lara is a far more modern incarnate of archaeological cool.
The Fifth Element (1997)

We are only what we know, and sometimes having a fictional answer to the greatest of questions is as good as any real one that we may never find.  Fanciful, fantastical and fabulously dressed in Jean Paul Gautier is not normally the sort of statement you’d associate with archaeological science.  But if we discount science fiction from the list then we may ignore the wonderful finds or notions of finds that inspire those SF imaginations in the first place.  Conceptions of Good Versus Evil are as old as recorded time itself, and if anyone should be chosen to kick some ass then why not Bruce Willis? Many films could have filled this slot, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Stargate (1994), or evenJurassic Park (1993).  More SF flush than all of those, this Luc Besson story shares a 20th Century archaeological prelude with2001 and Stargate and then strides forward to paint a fictional picture of the future that is as bizarre and entertaining as it is strangely satisfying. Whereas an air of mystery and inexplicability is why The Omen has its place on the list, it’s a closing down of mystery and meaning to an artist’s vision of the past, present and future that assures The Fifth Element its rightful place here.  
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