Desert films: 10 to try

With David Lean’s Middle Eastern epic Lawrence of Arabia celebrating its 50th anniversary, we recommend 10 other great sand-blown desert classics.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

David Lean on location for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

David Lean on location for Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

“David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago does for snow what his Lawrence of Arabia did for sand,” quipped one reviewer upon the 1965 release of Lean’s wintry Russian Revolution epic. While his point was facetious, it spoke to the fact that – for all Lawrence of Arabia’s other strengths – cinema-goers had truly never seen dunes and desert quite like Lean showed them.

Like T.E. Lawrence, his adventuring protagonist, Lean was a “desert-loving Englishman” and his images of Arabia – captured with astonishing precision and scale in Super Panavision 70 by cinematographer Freddie Young – remain a benchmark in landscape filmmaking.

But Lean was neither the first nor the last director to be drawn to the world’s parched, barren wildernesses. Hollywood itself was built on Californian land reclaimed from arid desert terrain, and its production companies have always capitalised on the proximity of the Mojave and Death Valley for westerns, adventure films, biblical epics, and science fiction.

More recently, filmmakers the world over have used the desert as shorthand in narratives of existential isolation, revelling in empty, sun-scorched topographies where characters can lose themselves mentally and geographically, far from civilisation and at the mercy of the elements.

Bitter Victory (1957)

Director Nicholas Ray

Warfare in the heat and dust has inspired some compellingly desiccated dramas, from Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo (1943) to David O. Russell’s Three Kings (1999). Nicholas Ray’s bleak masterpiece Bitter Victory is one of the most searingly pessimistic, a tale of breakdown and cowardice under the Saharan sun.

Set during the Western Desert Campaign of the second world war, it teams military man Curd Jürgens with local expert Richard Burton on a mission to raid Rommel’s desert HQ. Cinematographer Michel Kelber’s widescreen compositions feel unforgivably stark in black and white, pinioning the film’s feuding protagonists against the infinite undulations of the Libyan dunes.

Daratt (2006)

Director Mahamat-Saleh Haroun

One of several incredible films commissioned as part as of the New Crowned Hope project, celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s revenge drama Daratt is (very) loosely inspired by the themes of Mozart’s opera La clemenza di Tito. Haroun’s film is set in Chad against a background of ongoing civil war, and features Ali-Bacha Barkai as a young man, Atim, bent on revenge for the death of his father at the hands of a brutal soldier.

‘Daratt’ means ‘dry season’, and as Peter Bradshaw remarked in his review of the film for The Guardian: “Everything in the film is hot and dusty and thirsty – the kind of thirst that can only be slaked by blood.” Haroun builds a pressure-cooker atmosphere as Atim’s bloodlust and humanity do battle inside him, culminating in a gripping finale out in the Sahara.

Fata Morgana (1971)

Director Werner Herzog

Ever drawn to the earth’s wild, extreme places, Werner Herzog’s cinematic expeditions to the desert have included his outback drama Where the Green Ants Dream (1984) and his Gulf War fantasia Lessons of Darkness (1992). At the time of writing, he’s at work on a biopic of Middle East adventurer Gertrude Bell entitled Queen of the Desert, starring Robert Pattinson as T.E. Lawrence.

His early film Fata Morgana, named after a kind of mirage, is one of his most beautiful. Shot in the southern Sahara in the late 60s, Herzog’s film was conceived as a kind of non-narrative science-fiction film, with the earth standing in for another planet. With Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack, together with intonations from a Mayan creation myth, it’s a heady concoction, very much of its time. But the succession of images is hypnotic, with Herzog’s eye frequently drawn to the incongruous human detritus that litters the Sahara’s nowhere places.

Gerry (2002)

Director Gus van Sant

Filmed variously in Argentina, Death Valley and the salt flats of Utah, Gus Van Sant’s defiantly meandering Gerry is the ultimate lost-in-the-desert film. Casey Affleck and Matt Damon play two friends, both called Gerry, who set out on a hike without food or water and quickly lose all sense of direction or even purpose.

Made under the influence of the syrup-slow tracking shots of Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr, but also calling to mind Samuel Beckett and Michelangelo Antonioni, Van Sant’s film is either a pretentious bore or a trance-inducing masterpiece, depending on your viewpoint. Watched with patience, it’s as spellbinding as a mirage.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Director Sergio Leone

The list of westerns to have made great use of desert locations is as long and endless as a distant horizon: think of James Stewart being ambushed on desolate salt flats in Anthony Mann’s The Man from Laramie (1955), or the arid vistas in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956), which David Lean reportedly watched over and over in preparation for Lawrence of Arabia.

In the third part of Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars trilogy’, the desert is used as a kind of torture, when bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach), sheltering himself under a frilly pink parasol, sadistically leads the captive Man with No Name (Clint Eastwood) across a searingly hot landscape. Denied water until perilously close to death, Eastwood’s face itself soon begins to resemble parched ground, cracking up with extreme dehydration.

As in Leone’s other spaghetti westerns, the Tabernas desert in Almeria, Spain stood in for the American West.

Greed (1924)

Director Erich von Stroheim

Silent master Erich von Stroheim’s magnum opus Greed begins in early 20th century San Francisco and tells of relationships destroyed by avarice after the winning of a lottery ticket. Adapted from Frank Norris’s 1899 novel McTeague, it was an audacious experiment in physical and psychological realism that for its climax involved the crew filming in the forbidding flats of Death Valley’s Badwater Basin – one of the world’s hottest places.

As local paper The Inyo Independent reported at the time:

The temperature was 130 degrees by a properly shaded thermometer, and the heat radiation from the scorching, sun-baked sand of the desert made the trousers of the men so hot as far up as their knees that many were compelled to wrap bandages around their calves to keep the cloth from touching the skin.

Ice Cold in Alex (1958)

Director J. Lee Thompson

One of the great British war films of the 1950s, J. Lee Thompson’s Ice Cold in Alex is a gripping thriller about an ambulance commander (John Mills) and his efforts to transport two nurses through treacherous, enemy-occupied North Africa – not realising that there’s a German spy in his midst.

Shot in Libyan parts of the Sahara, the film bears comparison with the French truck-driving thriller The Wages of Fear (1953) in its use of inhospitable locations to ratchet up the tension. Particularly memorable moments include the group’s nail-biting traversal of a minefield, peril by quicksand, and the iconic final scene of the survivors sharing a cold beer in Alexandria – possibly the most thirst-quenching drinks in cinema.

Walkabout (1971)

Director Nicolas Roeg

In Australia when an Aborigine man-child reaches sixteen, he is sent out into the land. For months he must live from it. Sleep on it. Eat of its fruit and flesh. Stay alive. Even if it means killing his fellow creatures. The Aborigines call it the Walkabout. This is the story of a Walkabout.

So begins Nicolas Roeg’s solo debut as director. It’s the hallucinatory tale of two English siblings (Jenny Agutter and Luc Roeg), abandoned in the Australian bush by their father, who must then make their way back to civilisation, guided by an Aborigine boy embarking on his own rite of passage. Featuring cutaways to the weird and wonderful flora and fauna of the desert, Roeg’s film is a primal adventure movie in which the edifices of culture and propriety are left in tatters in the outback.

Woman of the Dunes (1964)

Director Hiroshi Teshigahara

“There has never been sand photography like this (no, not even in Lawrence of Arabia),” critic Roger Ebert wrote of Woman of the Dunes. This enigmatic Japanese classic is the story of an insect collector (Eiji Okada) who becomes trapped at the bottom of a vast sand pit, where he is forced to help a lonely widow (Kyoko Kishida) in her endless task of digging away the falling sands.

Though Japan isn’t known for its deserts, 37-year-old director Hiroshi Teshigahara filmed in the rolling dunes of the Tottori prefecture in the west of the country – the terrain that inspired Kobo Abe’s celebrated source novel.

Zabriskie Point (1970)

Director Michelangelo Antonioni

Zabriskie Point is a rainbow-coloured spot in Death Valley, where layers of multi-hued sediment in the jagged crests of rock create the impression of a sand picture given three dimensions. It was a location that enticed Michelangelo Antonioni when MGM lured the hip Italian director to make a film in the States.

The result, which begins almost as a documentary on radical student politics before becoming a story about disillusioned youth and an escape to the nullity of the desert, was rubbished in many quarters as a shallow attempt to get to grips with the hippy scene. Never mind, Zabriskie Point survives as a richly poetic ode to emptiness in American life and landscape, full of indelible images such as a writhing orgy in the dust.

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