Updated: Mar 11
Around the World in 80 Movies
Sex at Zabriskie Point
In the movie universe, Death Valley’s shining star lies in a galaxy far away. The national park plays Tatooine, the Star Wars planet where Obi-Wan Kenobi meets Luke Skywalker and his metallic buddies R2-D2 and C-3PO. “Set jetters,” those film fans who plan their vacations around locations from their favorite movies, easily find familiar sights from the popular franchise during a brief visit to California’s Death Valley National Park.
My cinematic curiosity goes way beyond Star Wars; I look for any project using locations in a destination that hits my travel agenda—a trait filling chapters in my Around the World in 80 Movies book. Death Valley joined the itinerary when a weekend trip to Tonopah, Nevada put me a couple of hours from the National Park entrance.
Movies or not, I love National Parks. They fulfill my thrill for photographing and hiking through phenomenal scenery. Most parks also graze my love for movie locations by providing dramatic vistas and landmarks that pop with visual delights that lure hundreds of films.
Nearly 100 titles appear on a National Parks Service list of projects filmed at or around Death Valley (some go over the border to Nevada and my territory when I served as a state film commissioner). Just a four-hour drive from Hollywood to the park’s Furnace Creek settlement, Death Valley long hit the radar of movie makers, going back before genius director Eric Von Stroheim went there and created his 1924 silent masterpiece Greed.
During ensuing decades, Death Valley regularly lured filmmakers. Its undeveloped landscapes show up in Westerns like John Ford’s Three Godfathers and the long-running Death Valley Days television series. The Valley allowed wide open space for action adventures set on other continents, like King Solomon’s Mine in Africa and Spartacus in Europe. The valley took on symbolic meaning for Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point. And its space went outer in projects like Robinson Crusoe on Mars. Oh yes, and Star Wars, particularly A New Hope.
All these titles made it easy for me to indulge in one of my favorite trip planning activities—watching movies that filmed there. Watching—the key word. Movies rarely inspire me to imitate them, which proves fortunate when considering screen action in a place with a name like Death Valley.
I want nothing to do with scrabbling on hard-packed sand like the guys in Greed or the Matt Damon/Casey Affleck combo in gerry. Forget crash landings, either from a Star Wars spaceship or the little airplane that downs James Cagney and Bette Davis in The Bride Came C.O.D.
“But how about something like the orgy in Zabriskie Point?” the more salacious-minded might ask. After all, that scene generated lots of attention in 1970 when the cutting-edge art film hit theaters.
In consideration of all potential Death Valley activities, I sat through Antonioni’s film. An arthouse master known for hits like Blow Up featuring an attraction for obscure, choppy, and surreal plotting, Antonioni made movies that sometimes put me to sleep (something I never admitted during my university film studies classes). But I felt a new hope with Zabriskie Point. After all, Death Valley provides gorgeous scenery, and I usually stay awake during sex scenes.
Sure enough, I kept my eyes open, though my jaw fell a bit. Not because of anything sexually shocking. Instead, I stared in wonder as a young couple rolled down a steep, dusty, dirty hill.
My knee would hate that, I thought. And Fred’s hip would shatter,” I continued, envisioning my husband’s wails of pain.
The roll continued.
Her hair must be getting all tangled and knotted, I pondered, recalling the time a windstorm at Burning Man sent alkali across my head and set my “do” in an unkempt, powdered position for the rest of my stay.
The young couple’s clothes disappeared. They kissed, not too passionately from my standpoint, but with wide open mouths. Dirt blew in.
I’d be choking I gagged. Then I considered other orifices. I pictured a time I took one of those “relaxing” mud baths at a Napa Valley spa. I spent the next week draining mud from every imaginable place….
That’s it! I thought. No sex at Zabriske Point!
DEATH VALLEY VIEWS*
The Bride Came C.O.D., 1941 with James Cagney and Bette Davis clashing and crashing in the desert. As reigning stars of the Warner Brothers filmmaking empire, Cagney and Davis fought to break away from the kinds of roles that made them famous. Inspired by It Happened One Night, the gangster and drama queen chose a screwball comedy featuring a pilot and madcap heiress. Like the airplane Cagney flies, the comedy often falters and goes off course. Nonetheless, the movie offers positive points: genuine rapport and good comic timing by its stars, plus a time-capsule look at some classic airplanes and striking Death Valley scenery around the Mesquite Sand Dunes.
Death Valley Days, 1952-1970 with Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, Dale Robertson, and other hosts introducing stories set in the dramatically named desert near Hollywood. Jettisoning sleep, food, and bathroom breaks means binge watchers can spend 10.75 days taking in all 458 episodes of this long-running television show, an ordeal for sure but not as arduous as the trek real life settlers took. The premier entry to Season 1 emphasizes travel travails in an episode called “How Death Valley Got Its Name.” History buffs get the chance to see historic locales like the Furnace Creek Ranch in “Jimmy Dayton’s Bonanza,” which includes an almost unrecognizable young Nick Nolte in a small role. Episodes like “She Burns Green,” “The Big Team Rolls,” “Yaller,” and “Ambush at Stovepipe Wells” filmed in the valley, but the show’s low budget kept its home base in the Los Angeles area. Regardless of actual filming locations, including the name Death Valley in the title ties the region with the Westerns. Other projects cement that link, including Three Godfathers with John Wayne, Yellow Sky with Gregory Peck and Marlon Brando’s One Eyed Jacks. I lean towards The Professionals, with Lee Marvin, Burt Lancaster, and Jack Palance in a chase through Mexican deserts. Richard Brooks earned Oscar nominations for his direction and intelligent screenplay, while Conrad Hall got a nod for his spectacular cinematography that blends several desert locations including Death Valley and Nevada’s Valley of Fire.
gerry, 2002, with Matt Damon and Casey Affleck lost in the desert. Following the mainstream success of Good Will Hunting, Director Gus Van Sant returned to his arthouse roots with enthusiastic participation from Damon and Affleck. Consciously spare on detail, the minimalist script makes a couple of points clear: both characters go by the name Gerry, a term they use to describe big mistakes. They make several gerrys, including neglecting to bring water on a short walk and then forgetting how to get back to their car. This leads to a long trek through unidentified desert, though travel aficionados recognize parts of Death Valley, the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, and areas near Salta, Argentina. The trek feels especially extended since Van Sant uses only about 100 shots for the movie’s 100-minute run time (studies indicate the average film contains more than 1,000 shots). Some might call the movie itself a gerry since it played in few theaters and generated tepid reviews, but it effectively captures the shock and confusion that arises when getting truly and thoroughly lost.
Star Wars (A New Hope), 1977 with R2-D2 and C-3PO crash landing on a planet that resembles Death Valley. Despite a frequent aerial setting, the first film broke new cinematic NPS photo ground with rip roaring space cowboy adventures. Its special effects astounded initial audiences. Movie magic impacted such locations as the planet Tatooine, home to hooded, red-eyed Jawa scavengers. Director George Lucas filmed human stars Alec Guinness and Mark Hamel at the sand dunes and dramatic cliffs of Tunisia, cross cutting what the actors see with shots filmed at Death Valley. For instance, while looking at the Mos Eisley Spaceport, the actors actually spot the vista any tourist can admire from Dante’s View. Just a short walk into Golden Canyon reveals the many crevices where Jawas spied on R2-D2, whose trail also includes a wash visible from the parking lot at Artists Drive. Though many Death Valley scenes involved simple pick-up shots, others required complex elements like elephants costumed to play extraterrestrial creatures called banthas. Benefitting from relatively lax filming requirements before Death Valley became a national park in 1994, the Star Wars team returned in short order to film Tatooine for Return of the Jedi.
Valley of Love, 2015 with Gérard Depardieu and Isabelle Hubert catching key sites at Death Valley National Park. An official selection for the Cannes Film Festival, the movie won a César for cinematographer Christophe Offenstein plus acting nominations for its stars. Writer-Director Guillaume Nicloux sends two of France’s most respected actors on a series of day trips to such iconic park locales as Badwater Basin. In real life, the actors reunite after working together in 1980’s Loulou. In screen life, the script imagines them as a formerly married couple brought back together by the final request of their dead son, who sets a classic park itinerary for them. As suits the travelers’ mantra “It’s the journey, not the destination,” the story takes them to beautiful sites that inspire deep realizations. The film serves as a postcard for trip planners and gives a good view of Furnace Creek and its Ranch at Death Valley lodging, one of the limited non-camping options for staying inside the park. The more expensive Inn at Death Valley boasts a host of famous guests, including Marlon Brando, who preferred Room 107.
Zabriskie Point, 1970 with Michelangelo Antonioni examining low points in the United States. Presenting a story full of imagined action—including a complicated explosion using 17 cameras—the movie never follows logical dramatic flow. Despite some standout visuals and inventive music by Pink Floyd, the project’s muddled elements contributed to box office troubles. So did the movie’s message. The Italian director outraged many North Americans with his look at riots and police brutality covered in the era’s news reports. Many critics took him as a Communist supporter holding anti-capitalist views, and Antonioni’s last scene explosively captures his belief that the country’s extreme materialism represents a nadir. This means filming at the nation’s lowest elevation made symbolic sense (though Death Valley’s official low point lies in Badwater Basin rather than Zabriskie Point). Shortly after the movie’s 1970 release, Antonioni defended himself in a New York Times article, noting, “You ask me if there will be a violent revolution in America? Perhaps in 50 years things will arrive at a crucial point and these forces that are now underneath will explode. Who's to say?” Fifty years later as crowds across the nation protested the George Floyd killing, Antonioni’s imagery and questions remain sadly relevant.
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