Pop Like an Egyptian: King Tut in Popular Culture

In 1922, British archeologist Howard Carter and his team of excavators scoured Egypt’s Valley of the Kings for the tomb of the Pharoah Tutankhamun. After years of setbacks and false starts, the Carter expedition had a breakthrough on Nov. 4 when a water boy tripped on a stone step jutting from the sand.

Three weeks later, Carter stepped down the excavated staircase to the freshly unearthed tomb. Accompanied by the expedition’s financier, Lord Carnarvon, the archeologist chiseled a hole in the stone door. As Carter held a candle to the crude peephole, Carnarvon asked if he could see anything. “Yes,” replied Carter. “Wonderful things!”

As Tutankhamun’s untouched treasures toured the globe, pharaoh fever followed. Around the world, everyone wanted to walk, talk, and dress like an Egyptian. Photographs of Tut’s golden face graced magazines and newspapers, and whispers of a mummy’s curse inspired pulp novels and monster movies.

In the annals of Egyptian history, Tutankhamun is a relatively minor figure, but in his afterlife, Tut cast a shadow larger than any pharaoh before or after. In honor of the 100-year anniversary of the discovery of Tut’s tomb, here are just some of the movies and music inspired by the Boy King.

The Mummy (1932)

In the pantheon of classic movie monsters, the Mummy might not have quite as much star power as the characters of Frankenstein, Dracula, or the Wolf Man, but Boris Karloff’s turn as Imhotep, the undead Egyptian High Priest, has an eerie quality that rivals Bela Lugosi at his best.

Screenwriter John L. Balderston covered the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb as a reporter prior to his career writing monster movies for Universal. Rumors of Tutankhamun’s “Pharoah’s Curse” served as the jumping-off point for Balderston’s script. The 1930’s audience would have recognized Imhotep as a stand-in for Tut and noted the film’s setting in 1921 placed it a year before the Carter expedition.

The Mummy (1999)

This blockbuster remake reimagines the horror classic as an adventure flick in the mold of Indiana Jones. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz star as a roguish adventurer and a plucky librarian, respectively. The movie spawned two sequels (The Mummy. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and The Mummy Returns), a series of prequels, and a beloved rollercoaster at Universal Studios.

Brendan Fraser’s career has seen a revival in recent years thanks to his performances in Doom Patrol and Daren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Why not remember King Tut while celebrating the Brendan Fraser Renaissance (dare we say Brendanssance?)

Tut (2015)

This miniseries from the cable network Spike was an attempt to ride the “Sword-and-Sandal” revival in the wake of 2013’s Vikings. Tut has Game of Thrones ambitions but lands somewhere closer to Stargate SG-1 (not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Still, the three-episode miniseries has its own Soap Opera charms. Sir Ben Kingsley chews the scenery as the Grand Vizier, while Star Trek alum Alexander Siddig is properly slimy as a scheming High Priest.

Kingsley is the highlight of the series, but with a four-hour runtime, Tut offers an afternoon’s worth of entertainment for any history buff with a taste for melodrama.

Old King Tut (1923)

This Tin Pan Alley tune helped to popularize the nickname “King Tut.” (The diminutive stuck long after the song faded from public memory.) Like Steve Martin’s song fifty years later, “Old King Tut” played fast and loose with Tutankhamun’s history to comedic effect. The jokes might be a bit dusty (what mummy wouldn’t be?) but good luck getting the melody out of your head.

Listen to “Old King Tut” and other jazz and ragtime classics on the Boardwalk Empire Soundtrack, Volume 2.

King Tut (1978)

Steve Martin

Beginning in 1972, 50 items from Tutankhamun’s tomb toured museums around the world as part of the Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition. The traveling exhibit renewed public interest in the boy king. A new generation of songwriters and comedians cranked out novelty songs to ride the Tut trend. Steve Martin, the original Wild and Crazy Guy, debuted his ode to Tutankhamun on Saturday Night Live in 1978. Martin’s Tut is a celebrity who was “born in Arizona, moved to Babylonia” and lived in a “condo made of stone-a.” The single went on sell a million copies.

You can unwrap the 1978 original on the Dr. Demento 20th Anniversary Collection or enjoy a string band rendition of Rare Bird Alert, a bluegrass album by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

By Jesse on November 1, 2022