Tut: Heavy on Pretty, Questionable on Accuracy

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So, here’s the problem: none of us know diddly about ancient Egyptian costume. That makes it hard to review Tut, the 2015 miniseries on the Spike (ooo, manly!) channel. I tried asking around on social networks to see if I could call in any guest-ringers, but nobody bit. So, I’m going to review it, A) because I watched it, and B) because I’m fascinated by ancient Egypt, but I here formally declare to know absolutely NOTHING about whether what they were wearing was completely perfect or 1000% made up.

Instead, I’m going to talk about:

Is Tut‘s Plot Historically Accurate?

No, and this is the biggest problem with the feature. King Tutankhamen is probably the most recognized figure from Ancient Egypt due to the discovery of his mostly intact tomb in 1922. And as such, there’s a lot of information out there about him. Granted, ideas about Tut have changed a lot since 1922, but as someone whose knowledge in this category comes from Wikipedia, the Smithsonian Magazine, National Geographic, and a great podcast (Eric’s Guide to Ancient Egypt), even I can tell you: Nope.

The problem here is two-fold. Obviously, given that this film was made for the Spike channel, it needed to be manly with lots of men doing men things and hot C.H.I.X. being hot. But there’s been a ton of research that’s come out over the past few years that tells us important, basic facts like:

  • Tut was disabled and walked with a cane, and so likely didn’t participate in battles. Instead, in this film he’s super manly and battle-riffic.
  • He restored Egypt’s traditional, polytheistic religion after his father revolutionized the country by forcing it into monotheism. Instead, in Tut he becomes increasingly less religious and more intent on making people worship him as pharaoh.
  • He had malaria multiple times and so was sickly. Instead, in the film he’s tough and healthy until events conspire against him.
Tut (2015)

This Tut is ready to rumble.

Now, granted, there’s lots of speculation when it comes to ancient Egyptian history and Tut specifically, and I get that you have to A) throw a dart when it comes to history, and if you’re making a movie, B) pick the more entertaining options. But it seems weird to me that they went with a totally retro view of Tut when there’s been so much press around all the DNA and related research over the past five or so years.

Is Tut Entertaining?

Sure! Again, it was made for the Spike channel, which is kind of the equivalent of Maxim magazine. There’s lots of boys training for war, power-playing against each other, shagging the lay-deeze, and being manly in battle. On the other hand, there are only two important female characters. On the positive side, they are strong and feisty, but on the negative side they are pretty much focused on their relationships to Tut (no Bechtel Test passage here) — and one of them is super scheme-y. I did like that Tut wasn’t just a lady-killer but has real relationships with the women in his life.

Basically, the miniseries is pretty much exactly what you’d think it would be: pretty clothes, pretty people, manly battles, plus some spunky women. And yes, what another reviewer called “young actors often photographed as if this were a shampoo commercial” (TV Review: ‘Tut’).

Tut (2015)

Ankhesenamun (Sibylla Deen) has perpetually gorgeous hair that is always conveniently not falling in her face.

How They’d Do on Ethnic Representation?

Better than most? The good news is that they got that ancient Egypt was, ethnically, a melting pot. There’s really only two main supporting characters who look European (Ben Kingsley as vizier Ay, although he is Anglo-Indian, and Iddo Goldberg as Lagos, who is Israeli), and it’s plausible that they could come from Greek or other Mediterranean stock. Tut and his wife/sister are played by actors of mixed Indian-white descent (Avan Jogia and Sibylla Deen), which means they have a non-white look, which is good … but they’re not Middle Eastern, and that could be a problem. Nonso Anozie (who you may know from Game of Thrones) plays General Horemheb, and he’s English but of Nigerian descent.

Tut (2015)

Horemheb, Tut, and Lagos.

The biggest problem comes with Egypt’s main enemies, the Mitanni. Now, I may totally be talking out of my ass here, but a quick glance at Wikipedia tells me that the Mitanni were based in present-day Syria and Iraq. In the movie, they are played by sub-Saharan looking actors, which pretty much makes it the lighter-skinned Egyptians against the (inaccurately) darker-skinned Mitanni.

Tut (2015)

Prince Tis’ata of the Mitanni

Furthermore, one of Tut’s love interests, Suhad, is one-eighth Mitanni. She’s played by the beautiful Kylie Bunbury and is clearly of mixed African descent. The issue is that, contrary to what I’ve read, where ethnicity probably didn’t matter much to ancient Egyptians so much as culture (i.e., if you were born and raised in Egypt, you were Egyptian), she is discriminated against for being “Mitanni,” even though it was her grandmother who was Mitanni, and she was, indeed, born and raised in Egypt. Tut is the only one progressive enough to argue that she’s Egyptian.

Tut (2015)

Suhad

Are the Costumes Pretty?

Hells yeah. They used gorgeous fabrics and pleated and layered them in beautiful ways. The colors are gorgeous, I loved the way they used bands of trim to highlight the women’s figures, and I basically want them all.

Tut (2015)

I want this.

Tut (2015)

I want this too.

Tut (2015)

I NEED this.

I do question why Ben Kingsley was the only character to always wear heavy eyeliner (other characters did too, but not always, and not as heavy), except that I guess they were trying to make him look more Egyptian … but I felt like it just highlighted his non-Middle Eastern-ness.

Tut (2015)

Why all the guy-liner, Ben?

The costumes were designed by Carlo Poggiolo (Cold MountainThe Brothers Grimm, Silk, and Romeo & Juliet), who according to interviews has long been fascinated by, and wanted to design costumes from, ancient Egypt. He told Fashion Times:

“I’ve always loved the history of Ancient Egypt. As a young student, I had always been fascinated by that time in history and had a large assortment of books in my library regarding that specific era. The start of my preparation for the film began in Italy, so I went straight to Turin, where there is the second most important museum in the world on Egypt, after the one in Cairo. My inspiration started there, where original artifacts were displayed. Real jewelry, real wigs, real fabrics. I had already visited the museum several times, thinking of how I would love to do a film on Egypt, and all of a sudden I found myself with the script for ‘Tut’ on my desk” (‘Tut’ Costume Designer Carlo Poggioli Talks Ancient Egyptian Fashion: Exclusive Interview).

Poggioli and his team certainly brought a high level of craftsmanship to the costumes. He says of the jewelry:

“It was all made in Italy by a jewel house in Rome because the enameling process is very complicated. I think this is the first movie in the world that gives viewers a true sense of the level of refinement of the handmade Egyptian jewelry the nobles in that era wore” (Everything’s Better in Leather: Tut’s Carlo Poggioli Talks Ancient Egyptian Style).

Tut (2015)

Yeah, the jewelry was pretty damn stunning.

In this behind-the-scenes video about the costumes, you can see some of the craftspeople working on the detailed fabric manipulation used for the film:

Poggioli does say that the costumes are not strictly historically accurate:

“When I start a film, I like documenting as much as possible on the historical reality that I am about to face, understanding the forms during that time, how clothing was modeled cut and pleated, how fabrics were dyed. Once I am confident in having assimilated that knowledge, then I start to add on fantasy. For ‘Tut,’ I started with reality in its absolute then added on adjustments to help the actor become somehow modern” (‘Tut’ Costume Designer Carlo Poggioli Talks Ancient Egyptian Fashion: Exclusive Interview).

Tut (2015)

Ankhesenamun’s cape is covered in feathers, and seems a bit fanciful to me, although what do I know?

 

Anyone want to weigh in on the historical accuracy of Tut, story or costumes? Or its prettiness?

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About the author

Kendra

Website

Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

29 Responses

  1. Kelly F

    The chick’s hair is killing me. Royal Egyptian women had such interesting and elaborate wigs and you go with that? Yikes. (Cleopatra is better on this front)

    And the description of the plot makes me want to cry. That has nothing to do with historical Tut. There were lots of Pharaohs who went to war, why would you pick the one guy we know was physically unable to? (inbreeding, not a good strategy yo). I feel like they just gave it the title “Tut” so people would recognize the name as being Egyptian.

    Reply
  2. Kelly F

    Oh, and I love you mention how Pharonic era Egyptians viewed ethnicity. What’s interesting is that they portrayed foreigners differently (Syrians look kinda yellow and have the Mesopotamian beard, Nubians are darker and have short dreads, which is what the Black guy should probably have) while Egyptians are reddish with the hairstyle you associate with Egyptian paintings, BUT if you were an Egyptian politically, you were often depicted looking like an Egyptian even if you didn’t actually look like that. There was one guy who looked what we’d call “Black” who rose to be a general in the Egyptian army, and sometimes he’s shown looking like that in his native garb, and sometimes he’s shown looking like an Egyptian in Egyptian clothing.

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  3. mmcquown

    So why did Poggioli think they all had to look somehow “modern” when they’re supposed to be in ancient Egypt? And why did I not see one person in any of the pictures wearing the kalasiris? That’s the pleated skirty thing you see in all of the Egyptian paintings. No, Poggioli’s assitude is exactly what’s wrong with cinematic costuming.

    Reply
    • Emily Barry

      Yeah, I know, right? He’s all like “oh, I love Ancient Egyptian clothing!” Yeah? Well why didn’t you put any in your dang movie, then?

      Reply
    • MoHub

      It’s very reminiscent of the costume designer for the 2006 BBC Robin Hood series justifying putting late 12th century people in clothes that looked as if they were just purchased at Top Shop. She actually believed modern audiences wouldn’t be able to relate to historically authentic costumes.

      And the result was that many viewers began to refer to the program as Robin Hoodie.

      Reply
      • mmcquown

        They did change the costuming after the second season of RH. For me, the best series ever was “Robin of Sherwood.” Best film is the 2010 origins version.
        And huzzah, Bea, for the link. Both the Met and the Philly Anthro museums have surviving fabric, which I think is pretty amazing.

        Reply
        • MoHub

          Yes, they did get more authentic in the third season, but it was too little, too late, and the plot sucked to boot. Loved Robin of Sherwood, but my heart belongs to The Adventures of Robin Hood with Richard Greene.

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          • mmcquown

            The one thing the recent TV series did get right was Robin’s death, which has seldom ever been shown, except in “Robin and Marian.”

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      • Cassidy

        I kind of loved that, to be honest. The costumes were just ridiculous enough that it worked for me, while still looking well-made.

        Reply
  4. Emily Barry

    If they had stuck with the standard action hero shaved head for the Boy King, instead of the silly man-bun, they would have actually been more accurate!

    Reply
  5. Emily Barry

    And in general, everybody’s wearing waaay too much clothing… Whoa. I don’t think I ever thought I’d be saying that about a modern “historical epic” made for Spike TV…

    Reply
    • Cassidy

      I know, right? My impression is “not enough breasts, and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a cable show.”

      Reply
  6. Duchess McEtiquette

    Intellectually I understand why it’s always Tut or Cleopatra, but why doesn’t anyone make shows about the really interesting ancient Egyptian pharaohs? Akhenaten and Nefertiti? Hatshepsut? Come on people!

    Reply
    • Emily Barry

      Oooooooh! Yesss. I would LOVE to see a (well done) movie about any of them!

      Reply
    • Dee

      Absolutely yes! The one-god Pharaoh and the most beautiful woman in the world? You’d think it was a slam-dunk!

      Reply
  7. mmcquown

    The History Channel has covered a lot of these, but their presentations aren’t always visually all that exciting. Rather like looking at postcards of someone’s vacation. One of the more recent episodes was a speculation that Tut was murdered.
    And Cleo wasn’t even really Egyptian; she was the great—- granddaughter of Ptolemy, who was Greek.

    Reply
  8. Cheerful

    Don’t know about accuracy but the costumes are nicer than the ones in The Cleopatras (1983)

    Reply
  9. Teresa

    I haven’t seen the series, just watched the trailers and read a hilarious review (in an email) by an Egyptology professor who watched the first ten minutes or so of the first two episodes. (He couldn’t take any more.)

    What struck me right away was that the soldiers are wearing nemes headdresses (those are the striped wig covers, as in the photo with Ben Kingsley above). The nemes is a royal headdress, yet over and over in the movies and in the more amateurish documentaries (hi there Discovery Channel!) officials, soldiers, and other commoners are shown wearing it. Meanwhile, a number of scenes in “Tut” show the King running around bareheaded. Probably not, people!

    He wouldn’t have been riding around in his chariot with his hands crossed on his chest, either.

    Egyptians wore clothing of linen, which was difficult to color with the dyes that were available in pharaonic times. So I’m afraid some of those nice colors are wrong. Too bad, I do like to see the hero wearing blue and gold!

    And by the way, Egyptologists and physical anthropologists do not all agree that the young King was disabled.

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  10. Julian Keys

    The show “Secrets of the Dead: Ultimate Tut”—to be found on Netflix, is one of those shows on King Tut that argues that he was not disabled. The show demonstrates that those who took the first x-rays and say, for example, that Tut died from a blow to the head were wrong. Far better and more modern scans show no such injury and show that the fragments of bone in the skull (which made the original examiners think that) were thanks to mishandling of the body back when it was discovered. So, we have to be careful about what conclusions were drawn from what. Older scans on older equipment had led to some mistaken assumptions.

    This show postulates that Tut was healthy enough to fight in battle—or at the very least, to be a charioteer handling the horses and driving that two-wheeled vehicle over rough terrain at pretty quick speeds. Their experts say that Tut died when, after having fallen in some way, he was mowed down by a chariot wheel while trying to get up. His body took terrible damage in the accident, and the corpse was damaged even more thanks to a rushed burial and, thousands of years later, to rough handling by archeologists.

    Of course, other historians who’ve studied the skeleton of Richard III found that he did indeed have a severe curvature of the spine. But when they got a modern young man with a similar disability to put on armor, ride a horse and swing a sword, it turned out he could do it all just fine. So, even if Tut was disabled in some way, it may not have interfered with him driving a chariot or being part of a battle. If he didn’t have to run or jump—if all that was required was balance and upper body strength, then he might have been able to handle a chariot. In fact, like Richard III on a horse, being in a chariot might have allowed him to enter into battle, whereas, on foot, he might not have been able to.

    Reply
  11. Julian Keys

    To add a pet peeve here—I certainly expected wild liberties from Spike tv and barely a wave at historical accuracy (costumes notwithstanding) in this series. Nevertheless, it really bugs me when stories set in historical times don’t bother with the “gestures of respect” common to that time. Things the people of those times and culture would have learned from childhood and did without a second thought like bows.

    In this case, everyone treats Tut as if he’s the dynamic leader of their fraternity rather than a an all-powerful king and LIVING GOD. It’s been a while since I watched the series, but I remember only one person going to a knee before Tut, and the rest just briefly bowed. Commoners included.

    We’ve wall paintings of everyone from family members to slaves bowing to the ground before Egyptian Pharaohs. Yet American (and British!) films about such times seem to think that no one did more than nod at the ruler. I’m not saying that everyone went full kowtow every time Pharaoh appeared, but come on! Commoners especially, on learning who he was, would have fallen right on their face. This man can not only do what he likes to you, but he was thought of as a god; a supernatural being. You don’t exchange “hey, how’ya’doing?” nods with god!

    I’m getting tired of television and movies neglecting such things as if the audience won’t connect to the characters unless they act like they’re buddies hanging out in a bar rather than king and subjects.

    Reply
    • Teresa

      Very good point, Julian! And the requirement for gestures of respect seems to have intensified from earlier times. At the temple of Deir el-Bahri, you can see very high-ranking courtiers bowing before Queen Hatshepsut (Tut’s many-times-great-aunt, about 150 years earlier)–arm crossing chest, bending from the waist. But reliefs and paintings dating from the reign of Tutankhamun’s predecessor Akhenaten show people bowing in a more exaggerated posture, if not actually prostrating themselves. Now, how much of that we can attribute to custom and how much to Akhenaten’s personal demands is hard to say, as is the role of of “decorum” (see Professor John Baines for more–lots more!–on that subject) in art. But you’re right, movie and television directors don’t seem to have much of a feeling for depicting etiquette. Do they think it’s “unrelatable”? Or are they just ignorant? After all, it would have been easy enough to check on the proper spelling of Tutankhamun’s name (misspelled in the wall reliefs in the series); it would have been easy enough to locate the action in Memphis, where the king probably spent most of his time.

      Reply
  12. mmcquown

    History on TV in general tends to suck. I gave up on “American West” in the 2nd ep when we see the James gang in 1868 using guns that weren’t around for another 5 years: the Colt Single Action Army (the ultimate ‘cowboy gun’) and the Winchester rifle, both put out in 1873.

    Reply

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