Would you include a movie set in the desert on your list of desert-island movies? Or would that just reinforce the isolation? Would you even want to see more sun and sand?
These questions arose after my partner and I recently watched Lawrence of Arabia (the first time I had seen it projected and on something larger than a television), which is otherwise a top contender for movies you’d want to have with you if you were marooned. It’s the ultimate desert movie in its multifaceted embrace of the landscape.
The word “desert,” with no corresponding information, conjures specific sensations and images. It’s a setting of extremes that figures prominently in religion, mythology and art, and one that lends itself to allegory.
Deserts are not always what they seem. Especially in movies, where deserts often serve as stand-ins for Mars and fictional planets in galaxies far, far away. Even Earth-bound deserts aren’t necessarily as they appear; though some of Lawrence was filmed among the story’s historical locations in Jordan’s famed Wadi Rum, much was shot in Spain’s Tabernas Desert, which fills in for northeastern Africa, the Middle East and the southwestern United States in dozens of movies. Some filmmakers draw mojo from real-life locations (Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours was filmed almost entirely in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park, where Aron Ralston’s ordeal occurred), while others employ deserts to more redolent effect (think Gus Van Sant’s Gerry, or maybe don’t).
A desert provides the backdrop for a staggering number of movies spanning myriad genres and subgenres; perhaps too many. Some fine and interesting films (Bitter Victory, Walkabout, Fata Morgana) go overlooked like grains of sand in the shadow of towering achievements (Greed; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; and, of course, Lawrence of Arabia).
So when you’re bored some night and considering Mad Max: Fury Road for the pi-teenth time (that’s more of a note to self), why not visit or revisit a desert-set movie that doesn’t always get its just deserts? Here are 10.
1. Ashes of Time (1994/2008)
A desert has never looked more lurid than in Wong Kar-wai’s bittersweet wuxia, thanks in large part to the painterly cinematography of Christopher Doyle. Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) is a broker for bounty hunters who operates from a desert shack/flophouse (the movie was filmed on the edge of the Gobi in northern China). A swordsman gives him a bottle of wine on behalf of a woman and tells him that one cup will erase his memory (“the root of man’s problem”). He initially dismisses the wine’s purported properties, but his past haunts him to progressively profound effect. A vivid, pulsing swordplay film that offers richer rewards upon repeat viewing, Ashes was nearly lost to time. When Wong learned in 1998 that reels-worth of Ashes of Time’s original prints were literally rotting in a foundering film lab, he tracked down screening prints and spent years restoring the film, the results of which can be seen in 2008’s intoxicating Ashes of Time Redux.
2. El Topo (1970)
The hallucinatory desert of El Topo is not one I am eager to revisit, but Alejandro Jodorowsky’s metaphysical Western is an eruption of visions that stick with you (some regardless of whether you want them to or not). Packed with more symbolism than is worth parsing, Jodorowsky at least never seems pretentious and is sometimes just plain puerile (the anatomic rock). Which is not to say he lacks something to say; in a loaded scene that gives way to the film’s “Apocalypse” chapter, Russian roulette is played in church for miracles (if your faith isn’t fervent enough, however…). El Topo is many things, including aggressively, exhaustively bizarre, but at its most elemental it’s about a gunslinger who finds enlightenment and seeks redemption; a genre premise whose telling blew minds about what the Western could be.
3. Meek’s Cutoff (2011)
Three pairs of husbands and wives cross a barren, high-desert landscape circa 1845, following what they hope is the general Oregon Trail route to the promise of the West. They are led by Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood, grizzled and glorious), a brash, yarn-spinning trapper and guide, whom the party believes with increasing conviction is lost. Desperate for water, the group, at the prompting of Emily Tetherow (a steely Michelle Williams), entrusts a captive Native American to save them. Although most Westerns made after 1953 employ widescreen in part to enhance the scope of the landscape, it’s been widely noted that director Kelly Reichardt filmed Meek’s Cutoff in the boxy Academy aspect ratio to accentuate the perspective of the movie’s primary female characters, who viewed the country through the blinders of broad bonnets. It’s a choice that also emphasizes the travelers’ isolation amid the vast and unforgiving terrain, which seems to consume them, and ratchets up the tension as their situation grows more dire.
4. The Proposition (2006)
“I will civilize this land,” promises Capt. Stanley (Ray Winstone), a British officer assigned to establish order in an outpost plunked down in the Australian outback. The pitiless nature of the sun-scorched, fly-infested terrain is amplified by the fact that it provides sanctuary to a gang of ruthless thieves and murderers led by Arthur Burns (Danny Huston, scholarly and savage), who in the opening have recently slaughtered a family as much for fun as for profit. Stanley has little legitimate claim as law, but he does have Arthur’s brothers Charlie (Guy Pearce), an outlaw with a touch more conscience than his older sibling, and Mikey (Richard Wilson), a mentally impaired teenager, captured in the aftermath of the rampage. Stanley offers Charlie the titular proposition: Kill Arthur, and Charlie and Mikey go free; if not, Mikey hangs and Charlie will be hunted down. Nick Cave’s stark story is visualized with entrancing beauty by director John Hillcoat, often to jarring effect.
5. Rango (2011)
Yes, Rango made hundreds of millions of dollars and won an Academy Award (there was no Pixar behemoth to just hand the Oscar to that year), but five years after its release and dozens of animated blockbusters later it feels underappreciated. As pure cinema, it is one of the best of the modern wave of animated movies. The scenes are established cinematically and the “camera” moves traditionally; Rango rarely has the refined fluidity of other CGI movies. There are wobbly tracking shots that emphasize its Western-movieness, herky-jerky hand-held scenes that plunge viewers into the midst of the vibrant cartoon town of Dirt, lens flares from the omnipresent desert sun. Rango looks and feels like a film. That it is a very funny one fueled by a healthy dose of sociopolitical anger is yet more rewarding, even if the subplot that leads the chameleon hero to his true self leans heavily on Chinatown (one of the joys of Rango is the way director Gore Verbinski and the animators sneak in references to other Westerns and the deserts of John Ford, Hunter S. Thompson, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Chuck Jones).
6. Simon of the Desert (1965)
Simon of the Desert may not quite be the film Luis Buñuel envisioned, but it is one of his funniest. Funding ran out before shooting finished, which forced Buñuel into a hasty conclusion that makes a jarring leap (even by his surreal standards). The result is a punchy, 45-minute affair about an ascetic named Simon who, after six years, six months and six days praying atop a modest pillar in the desert, is gifted a taller tower, an occasion marked by a loose gathering of ministers and villagers (the bishop who dedicates the new column fails to register the significance of the numerical sequence). Atop his new pedestal, Simon (Claudio Brook) is confronted three times by Satan (Silvia Pinal in devilishly comedic forms), who attempts to lure him down to earth, then perhaps lower. Simon is based loosely on Saint Simeon Stylites, a Syrian monk who lived for nearly 40 years atop a platform in the desert and whose story had fascinated Buñuel since his university days, when he was introduced to the tale by poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, who was then a classmate.
7. Theeb (2014)
A brisk, beautiful and brutal tale of a Bedouin boy, the son of a late sheikh, who joins his older brother in guiding a British officer into the Jordanian desert amid the World War I-era Arab revolt against the Ottoman Turks. The harsh realities of war intervene with what is supposed to be a quick trip, forcing Theeb (engaging nonprofessional Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat), whose metaphor-weighted name means “wolf,” to rely on a murderous mercenary in order to escape. Set amid the same environment and conflict as Lawrence of Arabia, Theeb was likewise lensed in the Wadi Rum, though the filmmakers avoided landscapes used in Lawrence due to heavy tourist traffic.
8. Three Kings (1999)
Nineteen-ninety-nine was a good cinematic vintage. By the time Three Kings made it to screens that fall, audiences had already experienced thoughtful blockbusters (The Matrix, The Sixth Sense), impactful animation (South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, The Iron Giant), and influential independent fare (Rushmore, The Blair Witch Project). Then along came David O. Russell’s angry, scrappy, funny heist movie set in the waning days of the Gulf War, visual ideas bursting from film stock that looked like it had been left out in the sun and sandblasted (there was so much concern over the film’s appearance that Warner Bros. added a disclaimer in an effort to prevent audience complaints). Even in the wake of 1999’s other major films, Three Kings felt—and still feels—fresh, a spirited blast of cinema.
9. Tremors (1990)
Tremors is the type of movie for which the word “hoot” was created. It is a great giant-monster movie, the gleeful, tongue-in-cheek tale of a tiny, desert town besieged by giant worms (“Graboids,” one of the characters suggests, recognizing early the creatures’ marketing potential. “You’re gonna be sorry if you don’t give it a name.”). Though Tremors eventually spawned a string of sequels and a TV series, it underwhelmed at the box office and the few critics who wrote about it upon its theatrical release were unenthusiastic. Visually inventive and played just right by a game cast (the archetypal survivalist couple invested with spirit by an against-type Michael Gross and Reba McEntire have a special place in my heart), Tremors built its cult following on the small screen, through home video and cable television airings, where its loose blend of traditional scares and self-knowing humor perhaps play more agreeably.
10. Woman in the Dunes (1964)
The sand seems alive in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s strange and sensual Woman in the Dunes. It swirls and flows as though it has a pulse; it crumbles and cascades when provoked. A dark parable in which an amateur entomologist becomes trapped in a sand quarry with the woman who shovels sand for a nearby village, Woman in the Dunes has been compared to the Sisyphus myth and called an existential horror movie (a description supported by the evocative photography of Hiroshi Segawa and an eerie, influential score by Toru Takemitsu). But what do we make of the conclusion? Does it offer hope, or resignation? Did the man, who was so desperate to escape his predicament, also come to the desert to escape something else? It’s a transportive, intimate, unforgettable film that leaves intriguing questions.
Kind of like what desert movies to include on a desert-island list.