Action-Adventure Movies You Didn’t Realize Were Based On Real-Life Myths

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Vote up the films with surprising connections to historical mythology.

The action-adventure film genre has been around as long as the film industry has been producing films, and even though these movies come in all shapes and sizes, many of them have one thing in common: They're based on actual historical myths. Action-adventure movies are often based on historical people and events - for example, Indiana Jones is partly based on 19th-century archaeologists, while many details from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies borrow from the Golden Age of Pirates. Other movies in the genre, such as Moana and The Scorpion King, are themselves prime examples of historical myths in movies.

Either way, for a genre that's often provided summer blockbuster entertainment, many action-adventure movies are surprisingly based in fact. Here are 12 action-adventure movies based on real myths. 

  • Although most fans probably know him as just "The Mummy," the menacing, mummified Egyptian from various Universal movies was actually based on a real person - just not one who was resurrected with magical powers. 

    In Boris Karloff's 1932 film The Mummy, as well as 1999's The Mummy and 2001's The Mummy Returns, the mummy in question is named Imhotep. But this version of Imhotep doesn't much resemble the one from the movies - although it's also worth noting that Imhotep lived around 2600 BCE, so his true biography is probably unknowable. 

    But the historical Imhotep is still worth a movie of his own. He started life as a commoner and rose to become a trusted advisor and administrator to multiple pharaohs. His main claim to fame was designing the Pyramid of Djoser, a steeped pyramid that was the precursor to the more famous Pyramid of Giza. On top of that, Imhotep was an expert in medicine, so much so that he was revered as a god 2,000 years after his passing. 

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  • Davy Jones’s Locker From ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Is A Nautical Superstition Dating Back Several Centuries
    Photo: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End / Buena Vista Pictures

    In Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Jack Sparrow faces off against the octopus-faced Davy Jones and his ghostly ship, the Flying Dutchman. One reason Jones makes for a memorable villain is that he was an object of superstition among sailors for centuries. 

    The exact origins of myths about Davy Jones are unknown, but some have theorized he was either a devil figure or an evil god of the seas. He first appears in the written record in the 18th century, but it's likely that myths about him are much older. There were many different legends about Davy Jones. The most common is that he's the captain of a ship doomed to sail across the oceans forever, unable to make port due to the constant rough waters that follow it.

    The phrase "Davy Jones' Locker" refers to the ocean floor, e.g., the resting place for doomed sailors.

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  • In 2002's The Scorpion King, Dwayne Johnson played a bulked-up commoner from Akkadia named Mathayus, who leads a revolt against an invading ruler named Memnon. With the help of Memnon's soothsayer Cassandra, Mathayus eventually overthrows Memnon and becomes the Scorpion King, a title reserved for an Akkadian warrior-king. 

    It might seem like The Scorpion King was an early entry in the transformation of wrestler the Rock into movie star Dwayne Johnson - and yes, it was the Rock's first starring role - but it still took inspiration from history. The title "Scorpion King" comes from a very ancient Egyptian ruler known today only as King Scorpion. King Scorpion lived around 3150 BCE, before ancient Egypt as we know it existed. 

    The real Scorpion King comes from an era so distant that he was thought to be a mythical figure for most of history, but archaeologists discovered King Scorpion's tomb. Inside, artwork indicated that King Scorpion had led a war to unify Egypt and establish the foundations of the ancient Egyptian empire. So maybe he wasn't too different from the movie version after all. 

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  • To many, the Indiana Jones movies are the quintessential action-adventure films, and they follow a simple formula: Indiana Jones has to locate a mythical artifact before the villains do. Most people from a Judeo-Christian background are probably aware that the artifacts in Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Last Crusade - the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail - are based on legendary religious artifacts. But the artifacts in both Temple of Doom and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are based on historical artifacts, as well. 

    In Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones gets sidetracked in India, where he eventually has to recover a powerful Sankara stone that has been taken from a village. It's one of five Sankara stones, and whoever controls them can become "all-powerful." Indy discovers that three stones are already in the possession of Mola Ram, the leader of a blood-drinking underground cult. 

    The Sankara stones themselves are fictional. In the Indiana Jones version of Hinduism, the priest Sankara climbed Mt. Kalisa and met the Supreme Lord Shiva, who gave Sankara five symbols of power.

    But the stones are based on "Shiva lingas," or lingam. In Hinduism, these are sacred stones that hold Shiva's essence. 

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    The Book Of The Dead From ‘The Mummy’ Was An Actual Egyptian Funeral Text

    The Book of the Dead is an important MacGuffin in many films in both The Mummy and The Scorpion King franchises. In the 1999 version of The Mummy, the Book of the Dead is essentially a book of magic spells that has the power to resurrect Imhotep and others. But it also has other spells, such as one that summons the ghostly Warriors of the Book. 

    The Book of the Dead is based on a real-life historical practice, although there was no single Book of the Dead, and the ancient Egyptians didn't call it that. In ancient Egypt, a Book of the Dead was a collection of prayers that would help the deceased navigate the afterlife and reach paradise. They were usually only available to the wealthiest ancient Egyptians and definitely weren't circulated widely. 

    So, the movie version of the Book of the Dead and the historical counterparts don't share many similarities beyond the name. And "Book of the Dead" is itself a 19th-century invention. The ancient Egyptian title translates to something like "The Book of Coming Forth by Day" or "Spells of Going Forth by Day." 

    606 votes
  • In the 2000 Dreamworks film The Road to El Dorado, Kenneth Branagh and Kevin Kline voice Miguel and Tulio, two 16th-century Spanish con artists who stow away on a ship to search for El Dorado, a legendary city that's home to a hoard of gold. In the movie, El Dorado turns out to be a real place that's been lost to time. 

    There most likely wasn't a historical place in the Americas that was called El Dorado, but many Europeans of the 16th and 17th centuries believed there was. Their belief most likely originated from a misinterpretation of a myth from the Musica tribe, located in present-day Colombia. According to the myth, El Dorado, or "The Golden One," was a ruler so wealthy, he covered himself in gold dust every morning and washed it off at night in a lake. Over time, as European conquerors discovered that indigenous tribes really did have precious metals, they began to believe that El Dorado wasn't a person, but a place located somewhere in South America. 

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