Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Screenplays in the Sand

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Screenplays in the Sand

Article excerpt

The desert has played a dramatic role in the history of the cinema

BUSTER Keaton, his hands joined together as if in prayer, entreats a cow, with just the right combination of buffoonery and solemnity, to produce a drop of milk. In the background is the desert, criss-crossed with barbed wire. The film is Go West, the year 1925. The movies have not yet turned landscapes into myth, but in this scene the desert already represents both paradise lost and the urgent need to regain it.

In the early Westerns, the desert underscored feelings, echoed emotions, mirrored character and served as a background to the plot. All of these roles fuse in a single, classic shot in John Ford's The Iron Horse (1924). The foreground is sand. Madge Bellamy and George O'Brien stand face-to-face, holding hands. They are silhouetted against a stark, scrubby background stretching towards the horizon. Here the desert is already a part of the plot as well as a setting. With the unfinished railroad slashing through it, the desert shapes the destiny of the hero in search of his father's killer.

A similar shot features in James Cruze's The Covered Wagon (1923). A wagon train wending its way through a dry, stony wasteland hemmed in by mountains looks pathetically vulnerable in the vast threatening wilderness. In both films the use of the desert as a strategic element lends an epic quality to what otherwise would have been mere adventure stories. In the history of the Western, the desert--and landscape in general--evolved from being simply a counterpoint to the theme into a narrative device, and finally, in two later John Ford classics, The Searchers (1956) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), a character in its own right. In these films, however, the desert is usually portrayed in a conventional way. Its rocky wastes are associated with loneliness, danger, challenge, conquest and endurance--the qualities and imagery that give the Western its epic dimension.

A world of silence

The "Oriental" desert has different connotations in film. Josef von Sternberg's Morocco (1930) was one of a line of films such as The Thief of Baghdad and L'Atlantide that brought to the cinema the glamour, but also the stereo-types, of a triumphant orientalism. Morocco, dominated by the sublime Marlene Dietrich, tells the story of an on-and-off love affair during the colonial period, a time when fascination with the desert inspired films ranging from cliches to masterpieces. The cinema critic Mostefa Lacheraf has described his impressions of Le Diamant Vert, a now-lost film dating from that period. "Almost fifty years ago," he wrote, "to the best of my recollection, this fresco [with its cavalcades, caravans, bedouin splendour and crowds of extras] had the same impact on us, both as a revelation and as a coherent aesthetic experience, as the spectacle the French painter and writer Eugene Fromentin (1820-1876) witnessed with astonishment in 1853 at El Kantara, at the foot of the southern Aures mountains, and which he described in his book Un Ete dans le Sahara." The desert shots in Diamant Vert were more akin to ethnographic description than to the exotic scenes that were common in the movies of the time.

Years later Fort Saganne (1984) featured an unusual treatment of the desert. The film is a faithful adaptation of a novel by Louis Gardel which describes the gradual development of the relationship between the characters and the sand, which shapes their destinies and determines their actions. In its depiction of the Sahara, Fort Saganne shows a rarely seen aspect of desert life--a lyricism that the "people of rocks and sand" experience with great intensity. The film is about conquest, army life and colonization, but in the course of the action the soldiers gradually go to pieces until they have nothing left but the lust for freedom that can sometimes kill more surely than an enemy bullet. The originality of the film lies in its treatment of the characters' difficult physical and, above all, psychological adaptation to the total freedom of the desert, where people used to city life must come to terms with a scale of values that has been turned upside down. …

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