Streaming Spotlight: archaeology on film

Seven great films about digging up the past

by Jennie Kermode, Amber Wilkinson and Anne-Katrin Titze

Every week, our Streaming Spotlight shines a light on film history. This week we dig a little deeper to bring you films that chronicle the search for ancient history themselves – from rip-roaring adventures to thoughtful documentaries. Dig in!

Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade
Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade

Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade - Amazon Prime

Amber Wilkinson writes: Indiana Jones could certainly lay claim to being one of cinema's most famous archaeologists and his entertaining, boy's own style adventures returned to funny, exciting form in this third instalment of Steven Spielberg's series after the slight dip of Temple Of Doom. This time around Indy (Harrison Ford) is back battling those troublesome Nazis (arguably more scary than in the first film) in a bid to find the Holy Grail - more importantly, he's brought his dad (Sean Connery) along for the ride. Thanks to Ford and Connery, the film packs double the charisma and the pair have great fun as the sparring dad and son. There's also a lovely little origins story - complete with breakneck chase - to kick the whole thing off, featuring River Phoenix as the young archaeologist. A fifth instalment is currently in the pipeline, although it will be directed by Wolverine helmer James Mangold.

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider
Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - BBC iPlayer

With Angelina Jolie now an internationally celebrated megastar, it’s easy to forget that prior to 2001 she wasn’t widely known outside the indie scene, and her big breakthrough came when she took on the challenge of imitating someone who was then much more famous. Countless gamers who had been swooning over ellipsoids finally got to see their dream girl made flesh when she took to the screen as the high kicking, masonry-dodging, puzzle-solving adventurer in very tight shorts. Here, Lara has to collect two halves of an ancient artefact which controls time itself before they fall into the wrong hands and very bad things happen. This was one of Hollywood’s first attempts at taking on a computer game and it sticks a bit too closely to the original, with too much exposition and viewers left frustrated watching their heroine make the wrong choices, but there’s still some great stunt work and thrilling action as we tour the ruins of the ancient world.

Kung Fu Yoga
Kung Fu Yoga

Kung Fu Yoga - Amazon Prime, Apple TV

Here to remind us that there’s more to archaeology than white people ‘discovering’ other cultures’ sacred sites, Jackie Chan takes a turn as a dusty professor tempted out of the lecture hall by a beautiful Indian researcher (Disha Patani) with an ancient map which just might point the way to a famous Medieval warlord’s hidden treasure. Naturally they’re not the only ones after it so it’s fortunate that the professor – and some of his accompanying students – have a few extra skills of a sort not usually included on the syllabus. Cue the parade of stunts you’d expect from a Chan film, including some unlikely zoo adventures and a car chase involving a baffled lion, plus puzzles, traps, potted archaeological lectures and even a musical number. This is a film which wears its homage to Indiana on its sleeve but has plenty of personality of its own.

Luxor
Luxor

Luxor - BFI Player, Amazon Prime

Amber Wilkinson writes: It would be hard to set a film in the Egyptian city of Luxor and not include at least a nod to archaeology and here it acts as a thoughtful backdrop to Zeina Durra's elliptical indie drama about a medic struggling to decompress after working on the Syrian border. Andrea Riseborough is at her enigmatic finest as doctor Hana, who unexpectedly reconnects with her former archaeologist lover Sultan (Karim Saleh) as she takes a break from the frontline. Durra allows the ancient and spiritual elements of the city to seep into the bones of the film as Hana grapples in this liminal space between her past and her future, her measured approach allowing the spaces between the spare scripting to speak volumes.

The Mummy
The Mummy

The Mummy - NowTV

Hollywood never quite worked out what to do with Brendan Fraser, a skilled, sensitive actor in a muscular body, but he found a niche in the Mummy films, bringing comedy and flair to a mercenary adventurer who falls in with Rachel Weisz’s Cambridge-educated scholar. She’s a well read archaeologist but not always smart – as usual, reading from an ancient book in the original language turns out to be a very bad idea, and soon she’s faced with a resurrected Egyptian mummy who wants her body as a host for his dead ex girlfriend’s soul as well as having a side interest in destroying modern(ish) civilisation and taking over the world. Fortunately there’s help at hand from John Hannah as her cowardly but capable brother, an assortment of cats, and Oded Fehr as a one man zombie-slaying army from an ancient cult which specialises in cleaning up after clueless Europeans. There’s action, romance, ancient curses and a crash course in hieroglyphics.

Letters From Baghdad
Letters From Baghdad

Letters From Baghdad - Amazon Prime

Anne-Katrin Titze writes: Fluent in Arabic, Oxford educated Gertrude Bell, turned archaeologist, explorer, writer, photographer, cartographer and suspected spy to be appointed Iraq's Honorary Director of Antiquities following the First World War, had a fascinating life that far too few know about. Zeva Oelbaum and Sabine Krayenbühl's Letters From Baghdad, executive produced by Martin Scorsese's favourite editor Thelma Schoonmaker, through an excellent selection of archival footage mixed with Bell's photographs takes us on a journey with a woman who was determined to make a difference. And she did on her own terms. Tilda Swinton gives her voice to Gertrude, reading her letters sent back to her father in England and those whom she admired (mostly men). The unusual and in this case very effective choice to have impeccably dressed actors talk to the camera in their roles as Bell's contemporaries, gives the documentary a charming playfulness. From being confronted by TE Lawrence to being an Ottoman Empire concern, she overcame a remarkable number of barriers put in front of her. Gertrude Bell left her formidable mark on the world.

Nostalgia For The Ligh
Nostalgia For The Ligh

Nostalgia For The Light - Amazon Prime, Apple TV

To really appreciate what ancient history means, we have to recognise that we might be living in somebody else’s. Patricio Guzmán’s awe-inspiring documentary brings together archaeologists discovering the mummified bodies of ancient traders who were lost on the Atacama salt flats with those searching for the more recent casualties of the Pinochet regime and with astronomers gazing out into space to observe stars whose light has taken centuries to reach us. We never see the present, the Chilean documentarian explains – by the time any light reaches our eyes, the moment it depicts is already gone, so that we are forever gazing into the past. This remarkable film delivers the sense of deep time in which everything that archaeology can teach us zips past in the blink of an eye, yet explains why the past is so important, and worth digging for.

The Pyramids Of Egypt

In this week’s short, a man and his camel make an unexpected discovery.

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