Volume , Issue

Since filmmaking became popular in the early 1900s, there have been more movies filmed in the desert than in any other landscape. There are many reasons for this. The desert was handy to the early studios since many films were produced in California, India, Spain, and Egypt. Also, one didn’t need to build a lot of sets since the desert itself provided most of what you needed. I like to think that the producers had a higher motive, namely the desert itself became a force or in some cases, a character that the protagonist had to overcome that was much more powerful than any mere human.

There is an old saying that philosophers go to the mountains or the desert to get enlightenment. Moses spent 40 years wandering in the desert, Jesus 40 days, and Mohammed many months. The genres of desert themed movies include westerns (of course), war (“The desert is a tactician’s dream and a logistics nightmare,” - Rommel), and action/adventure (survival and the required “dying of thirst” scene). There are some movies that don’t fit a theme such as “The English Patient,” “The Gods Must be Crazy,” “Woman in the Dunes,” and “The Little Prince.” I have my favorite desert movies and several of them have been remade, so someone in Hollywood must think they are worthwhile also (although none of the remakes are as good as the originals in my opinion).

10. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) - Humphrey Bogart gets gold fever, but Walter Huston steals the show.

9. Lawrence of Arabia- (1962) - A true story made even better by cinemascope and Peter O’Toole.

8. Three Godfathers (1948) - John Wayne turns from bad guy to good guy, transformed by a newborn and the desert.

7. Sands of the Kalahari (1965)- The de-evolution of humans, baboons versus technology.

6. The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) - Jimmy Stewart “behaves as if stupidity were a virtue,” but is brilliant in the end.

5. Walkabout (1971) - Two teenagers and an aborigine find friendship in a harsh land.

4. Sahara (1943) - Humphrey Bogart redeems himself and beats the Nazis.

3. Gerry(2002) - Always carry the ten essentials when in the wilderness.

2. Dune (1984)- The Fremen have a lot to teach us (read the book first).

1. My favorite desert movie, and the one that got me interested in the desert at an early age (around eight years old), is “The Living Desert” (1953). This was the first Disney feature length film in the True-life Adventure series and won the Academy Award for best documentary, as well as a Golden Globe and Cannes Film Festival best international picture. While not a fictional representation of the desert, this movie was a pioneer in real life “nature” films that accurately documented the ecology of our planet using time lapse, wide angle, viewpoint of the animal, and other photographic techniques that were later used in all aspects of film making, both fictional and non-fictional. Prior to this film most people thought the desert was a collection of sand and rocks where no living thing could survive. After this film was made the popularity of the desert as a destination for travelers, tourists, and of course filmmakers increased. At our last WMS Desert meeting in Tucson this September, I was hiking with a group and was reminded of the scene showing the barrel cactus flowers responding to time of day to attract pollinators. Definitely a movie worth seeing if you haven’t already (I have a VHS copy that is almost worn out).

There are many other great desert themed movies that have been produced over the past 100 years. The ones above are some that I particularly enjoyed and if you have a favorite, let me know so I can add it to my list.

You Might Also Be Interested in


WMS at the International Commission for Alpine Rescue (ICAR)

Martin Musi, MD, FAWM, DiMM Alison Sheets MD, FAWM, DiMM 3/5/2024

The Wilderness Medical Society was voted by 256 delegates to advance its membership status to an organization with voting rights


Sobering Rise of Urban Bicyclist Mortality

Brad L. Bennett, PhD, Paramedic, WEMT, MFAWMTony Islas, MD, MPH, FAWM, FAMSSM11/16/2023

Is mountain bike riding a safer alternative?


America’s Most Notorious Pitviper Unmasked

Michael Cardwell, MS9/29/2023

Rattlesnake envenomated patients have many different presentations and toxic effects


Wilderness Medicine Research Primer

Geoffrey Comp, DO,FACEP, FAWMWalker Plash, MD, FAWM9/15/2023

Tips for the new researcher