Movies on desert

Lost in the Sand – Movies amid the Desert

The desert, with its expansive loneliness, is often an ideal setting for introspection and soul-searching in cinema, which has not surprisingly captured the evocative metaphor of extreme isolation in so many different movies.

Within its immense and dangerous unpredictability, the cruel beauty of the desert and its sand dunes or endless skies has inspired directors and filmmakers of every generation, challenging them to paint epic adventures and initiatory journeys with their cameras on this perfect canvas as they have explored and celebrated through an equally endless range of genres and styles.

The extreme contrasts of the desert, between the relentless heat of scorching days and the subzero cold of freezing nights, have always been fertile ground for the inner and outer conflicts facing the protagonists of these stories on their painful journey to redemption or enlightenment.

Just like Jesus being lost in the desert for forty days and forty nights, facing temptations and denials, this journey is both a challenge and a transformative step, other central themes of many so-called “coming-of-age” plots through which we see the evolution, for better or worse, of these lost characters.

Finally, despite its apparent lifelessness, each wilderness has a surreal and ghostly charm that is full of mystery and wonder, harnessed to create some of the timeless fantasy worlds and adventures we will discuss today.

Five movies taking us into uncharted territories of the human mind and soul, crawling in search of an oasis that … behold, it’s right there! Or is it just a mirage, like the images projected on the big screen with the magic of cinema?

Let us approach by taking a sip with our hands, hoping to quench our thirst instead of finding ourselves only with a fistful of incandescent sand.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962)

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Movies on desert
Amazon Prime Video

Let’s start with an absolute myth of movie-making where the protagonist, obviously Lawrence, is lost in the Middle East desert during World War I.

Lawrence is an educated and wise man who, because of a mission entrusted to him by his command, is left alone and without guidance through the domains of Prince Faisal, joining his cause to gather fearless warriors from the various Arab tribes and fight the Ottoman Empire together.

Wandering as a stranger and diplomatic peace ambassador, Lawrence meets the valiant Sherif Ali and the mysterious Auda Abu Tayi, well-respected figures from the various tribal factions that for centuries have been fighting from the scorching dunes of the Nejd to the majestic canyons of Wadi Rum to the faraway and mysterious citadels of Damascus and Medina.

However, despite his diplomacy and dialectical prowess, even Lawrence will not escape final judgment and must reckon with the consequences of his actions and the price of his ambition in the barren and unforgiving heart of the desert before finally being able to return home.

The great director David Lean brings unparalleled epic aesthetics and masterful visual imagery to the screen through a combination of breathtaking landscapes and gripping action sequences, transforming the desert itself not just into a lifeless backdrop but a real character that is central to the narrative.

Equally legendary is Peter O’Toole, portraying T.E. Lawrence‘s role with an iconic and magnetic performance, embodying all the vulnerability, as well as the determination and charisma, in his slow transformation from impeccable and elegant British officer to worn-out and dirty wanderer, marked by fatigue and many battles.

In a nutshell, this is a timeless masterpiece, hovering between dream and disillusionment of a restless existence for a man now free of empty and false war and political rhetoric.

The Blood of Heroes (1989)

The Blood of Heroes 1989 movie
Amazon Prime Video

From the distant past of World War I, we move to a hypothetical future long after the last war, which ravaged almost all that was left of human civilization.

The people in this movie live in scattered settlements across the endless wilderness that has become the world, surviving off the scraps of what once was and hunting the few remaining animals as a food resource.

Yet even in the aftermath of the apocalypse, one must kill boredom as well, so there exist the Juggs, nomadic teams roaming from town to town challenging each other in a deadly game, where a runner must score the point while his teammates protect him from rivals willing to eliminate him in any way possible.

One of these teams is headed by the tough Sallow, a former pro who once lived in the aristocracy’s luxurious underground city, then kicked out for a forbidden affair with one of the lords’ daughters.

So when he sees an opportunity for payback, he persuades his team to face a deadly challenge for glory and honor, infinitely more brutal than any match they have faced before.

David Webb Peoples handles all aspects of this movie, entirely set in the unforgiving wilderness of a dying humanity, directing and writing for a solid story of action and personal revenge from the lowest ebb of an outcast fighting against power.

An outcast played by the unsurpassed Rutger Hauer, warrior and restless leader of his Juggs, among whom we also recognize former “Gomer Pyle” Vincent D’Onofrio and the young recruit/runner Joan Chen, always beautiful even though covered in bruises and dust.

Lots of action, fights, and brutal sports also talk about feelings and abandonment because besides new hope for a horizon that, though bleak, always offers new possibilities for liberation and redemption.

The Sheltering Sky (1990)

The Sheltering Sky 1990 Movies on desert
Amazon Prime Video

Let’s tackle a much different desert journey with the next movie, helmed by the great Italian director Bernardo Bertolucci.

The protagonists of this Sahara sands odyssey are the Moresby couple, rich snob Port, and his wife Kit, searching for a spark to revive their dull and empty existences along with their fellow traveler, George Turner.

Tensions rise as they move away from more civilized cities, making evident Port’s jealousy toward the friend for seemingly understanding and satisfying his wife better than their drab, loveless marriage.

After yet another quarrel, Kit and Port flee and remain alone in the desert just when the husband falls seriously ill and dies under the helpless eyes of his wife.

Lonely and lost in the wilderness, Kit joins the gypsies of the mysterious and charming Belqassim, becoming his mistress amidst the jealousy of the nomadic king’s other women, waiting for the time they can take vengeance against her.

At first, we talked about death and rebirth under the desert sun, and there is no better example than this crazy, cruel, and romantic drama to best explain the concept.

Bertolucci brushes a color palette from the vivid, saturated, and intense hues of North African markets to the darker, earthier tones of the desert dunes, underscoring the slow, contemplative pace of the movie with Ryuichi Sakamoto‘s exceptional and unforgettable music.

With nothing to detract from John Malkovich, masterfully flawless in the role, Debra Winger, the unhappy woman searching for meaning in life, shines brightly, finding both love and hate towards the dunes and the strange folk of the ancient Sahara tribes.

Yet, as usual, be careful because when you find what you have been looking for so long, it is by no means a given that it is what you really want.

Broken Arrow (1996)

Broken Arrow 1996 movie
Amazon Prime Video

After such an achingly personal and dramatic story, let us now get on the unbridled merry-go-round of action joy by John Woo, a name that those who read me will notice often recurs in my articles.

This time, the movie takes place in the wide vistas of the Utah desert, where friends and rivals Vic Deakins and Riley Hale are flying in the dead of night to test a new warplane invisible to radar.

However, the peace soon breaks when Vic tries to kill his friend, then crashes the plane not far away as they both glide to the ground in their parachutes.

At that point, Riley, aided by the delightful ranger Terry Carmichel, sets out on the trail of Vic, who has meanwhile joined with his accomplices, a small platoon of mercenaries armed to the teeth.

Indeed, they planned everything to steal the valuable nuclear warheads aboard the plane, blowing up one of them to keep the army away while the gang fled, trying to resell the other bombs on the black market.

But Riley and Terry foil the plan, exposing and forcing him to even threaten the government, menacing to detonate a warhead in a major city.

Broken Arrow is John Woo’s second American movie, following the fantastic “Hard Target” starring the athletic Jean-Claude Van Damme, another $150 million-plus grossing hit worldwide.

Young heroic Christian Slater and an amazing John Travolta are taking center stage this time, the latter evidently having a lot of fun playing this off-the-wall villain who keeps his finger on the red button.

Action and 90s humor with a monster of a director at the helm of nearly two hours of nonstop entertainment… can you find a funnier movie than this one in the middle of the desert?

It Stains the Sands Red (2016)

It Stains the Sands Red 2016 Movies on desert
Amazon Prime Video

Given the mournful inspiration of the desert, I certainly couldn’t pass up the opportunity to put in a good horror movie, with which we conclude today’s little collection.

It all begins with the usual and unfailing zombie invasion on a global scale, of which the young protagonist of this story, Molly, knows nothing yet because she is on the road with her friend Nic.

Indeed, there is no phone signal or radio reception on the long interstate that winds through the desert toward Las Vegas.

So when they stop at the side of the road for a trivial accident, poor Nic does not notice the living dead walking toward him until it is too late and kills him.

Left alone and without a car, Molly has no choice but to flee on foot into the desert, always with the monster on her tail chasing her to finish her meal.

It may seem easy to escape from such a slowly clumsy enemy, but the girl has to pause every now and then to rest, while the zombie feels no fatigue and continues relentlessly, catching up with her each time while she is instead growing tired and hungry.

For some time now, I have been following the dynamic film duo composed of Colin Minihan and Brittany Allen, a couple in life and on the set, where he writes and directs the movies then played by her.

A formula working so well so far, with It Stains the Sands Red marking another solid chapter, with a hilarious horror about the zombie cliché, against the hopelessly dark atmospheres of the alien invasion of Extraterrestrial and especially the fantastic all-female survival What Keeps You Alive, one of the best thrillers I have seen in recent years.

I hope one of my recommendations in this long journey through the desert has given you the right inspiration to give these movies a chance, where the sand flows in and out of the timeless hourglass that is the world of cinema.

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