Of Time, Tombs and Tribulations

By Messenger, James R | American Cinematographer, September 1978 | Go to article overview

Of Time, Tombs and Tribulations


Messenger, James R, American Cinematographer


To stand in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt in the dead of night with thousands upon thousands of stars arching over you and the most complete silence you've probably ever heard enveloping you, there becomes no doubt that this place was made for eternity.

That is probably the best way I can describe the feel of the mystery that is Egypt. There's something going on there: it's difficult to put one's finger on the emotion that develops when one confronts the greatness of Egypt. Everything is so much LARGER than would be guessed by the so-familiar photographs. Egypt, it hits you, did design for eternity. The Ancient Egyptians never doubted that their civilization-the richest and most powerful of its time-would go on forever. It was one of their most basic assumptions. And they may be right. Barring any unforeseen events, the pyramids and many of the other monuments of Ancient Egypt will continue to exist many thousands of years from now.

What has all that to do with a film called OF TIME, TOMBS AND TREASURE: The Treasures of Tutankhamun"? Well, when I was preparing to write and direct this film, I had in mind one thought: I wanted to share my own personal enthusiasm for a magnificent and highly sophisticated culture with other people. But such a task isn't as easily accomplished as one might like. The feel of Ancient Egypt encompasses more than one can convey in a mere thirty minutes, despite the versatile nature of the motion picture medium.

I did have advantages. My first goal in life was to be an Egyptologist. Anyone who has become hooked by the grandeur and mystery of pyramids, and by hidden tombs full of treasure will tell you than Ancient Egypt is hard to turn loose of. So my years of reading and research were surely not wasted when it came time to make the film.

When the Exxon Corporation was kind enough to fund us (Exxon is also underwriting the national tour of Tutankhamun's Treasures along with the National Endowment for the Humanities), and we were able to get underway, we were in no way aware of the adventures and crises that were to confront us.

We began our production at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. To prevent disruption of visitors to the exhibition, we filmed at night. It is some sensational feeling, I can tell you, to have those extraordinary treasures to yourself for nearly two weeks! The silence of the evening provided the experience of encountering the objects as if in the silence of Tutankhamun's tomb itself (please-don't refer to the Pharaoh Tutankhamun as "Tut". To the Egyptians it's like referring to our own first President as George Wash).

But the actual filming was not quite a holiday. Objects that are some 3,300 years old tend, naturally, to be quite fragile. (In fact, my crew met a man while doing some filming in Chicago who had been at the tomb site when it was first opened. As the sealed door was broken down, there was a noise heard very much like popcorn popping. It was the wood in the tomb cracking due to the sudden change in humidity.) As a result of this delicate nature, we were required to leave the objects inside their protective lucite cases. This caused enormous problems with reflections when it came to filming. On top of that, we were constantly working to avoid heating up the interior of the enclosed cases with our lights. And for creative lighting purposes, we had to solve the problem of lighting while staying at least ten feet away from the cases-this requirement was to avoid any danger of knocking movie lamps over onto objects.

And, in the middle of production, of all times in my life, I contracted an extremely violent case of the flu. The mummy's curse? Your guess is as good as mine.

Somehow we managed to get all that we needed into the can and were ready for our second phase of production. This was location filming in England and Egypt.

In England, our filming was simple. We were going to photograph Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Earls of Carnarvon, a beautiful estate outside of London. …

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