For more than a century, the cinematic medium has mapped our perception of the world. Through a blur of colour and movement, sweeping vistas stretch out before our eyes: unfamiliar geographies and the grainy contours of foreign lands illuminate the screen and mobilise our gaze. Of all the places viewed, there is no greater landscape to experience on film than that of the desert, and no better example than David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
It is half a century since the release of this Academy Award-winning masterpiece, which charts the adventures of T.E.Lawrence, the enigmatic British officer who led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. Adapted from Lawrence’s book Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Lean’s film is well known for its spectacular depiction of the Arabian Desert, but this month’s re-release - digitally restored and enhanced to magnificent effect - embellishes its cinematic qualities still further. The work’s politically incorrect subject matter, its outdated, orientalist representation of Arab culture and its glorification of imperialism may not have stood the test of time, but its images of the desert are testament to cinema’s potential to open up new vistas, to show us the world and its climates anew.
Recent developments in film studies have shed light on the significance of cinematic spatiality and the ways in which spectators are positioned as “voyagers” moving through space. In her 2002 book Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architecture and Film, Giuliana Bruno writes of the “mobile dynamics involved in the act of viewing films, even if the spectator is seemingly static”. This intertwining of moving and viewing is, for Bruno, bound up with the embodied dimensions of film space, its sensual pleasure and affects.
In Film Hieroglyphs: Ruptures in Classical Cinema (1991), Tom Conley makes rich connections between space, cartography and film in which images, their composition and their movement convey meaning specifically through a form of “tracing, tracking and marking”. The re-release of Lean’s film enables us to think afresh about the notion of the “desert” film and its spaces, “journeyed” through by the protagonist as well as the viewer, as Bruno would put it. Here, the desert is not only a real location but a canvas on which to imprint a kind of potent visuality, wholly cinematic and, indeed, sensuous. As we shall see, the desert is also given very different meanings by different directors.
Lawrence of Arabia offers a striking example of how the cinema can “discover”, and literally put on the map, previously unknown territory. Following in its protagonist’s footsteps, Lawrence of Arabia was partially filmed in Jebel Tubeiq, 250 miles east of Aqaba, Saudi Arabia. According to press material accompanying the release of the film, the site was discovered through aerial reconnaissance by Lean and production designer John Box; until photographs and sketches of the area had been made by the film crew, the place was unmarked on any map. Thus, Freddie Young’s cinematography not only brings Jebel Tubeiq to life but marks it out as an especially cinematic territory. Most memorably, fields of brilliant red sand dunes frequently frame star Peter O’Toole’s rakish silhouette as the white heat of the sun settles on the horizon.
In his memoir, Lawrence himself appears to be rapt by the desert, recalling “the sweep of open places, the taste of wide winds and the sunlight”; upon the release of Lean’s film, audiences experienced Jebel Tubeiq viscerally, perceiving it through Young’s lens, its fluid motion and carefully composed rhythms. Indeed, Young’s cinematography calls to mind Bruno’s notion of cinema as a conceptual “atlas” in which it operates as a form of “site-seeing”, a kinetic journeying through visual movement. Lean’s film utilises the desert as a “site” synonymous with its protagonist, emphasising his masculine, heroic and iconic identity through its formal style, propelling viewers towards the vibrant world he is situated within.
Perhaps the other most celebrated film drenched in desert imagery, which like Lawrence of Arabia won Academy Awards for best film and best director, is Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (1996). However, while Lean’s desert is, essentially, a patriarchal domain, Minghella tends to evoke a sensual space that accords with the beauty of the female body. The film opens with the soft, rhythmic strokes of a paintbrush tracing inky lines over a translucent surface - the outline of a female form is gradually revealed, before smoothly dissolving into the contours of the Sahara desert. The curves of the woman’s body are thus mirrored in the undulating topography of sand dunes, at once making apparent the link between sexuality, gender, land and the sensuous mapping of such territories that will be crucial to the film’s narrative and the map-making endeavours of the “English patient” (Ralph Fiennes).
While Lean’s and Minghella’s films reproduce the space of the desert in largely gendered terms, the various hardships of the desert climate and its enveloping spaces provide a powerful backdrop to the French film-maker Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1999), a loose adaptation of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd.
Denis’ film is a rather more explicit exploration of male sexuality. The action takes place in Djibouti, and Denis’ cinematographer, Agnes Godard, uses a combination of slow tracking and close-ups to “wrap” the space of the desert around her protagonists (soldiers in the French Foreign Legion): encircling them, caressing their skin as if they were enmeshed within the elements of the location, the camera embodying the binding whirl of desert winds. As an erotic gaze develops between two of the soldiers, Godard’s camerawork emphasises the desert as a space of existential possibility in which knowledge of oneself and one’s deepest desires surfaces unrelentingly.
The desert must also be journeyed through in the Iranian film-maker Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards (2000). But while Lawrence of Arabia, The English Patient and Beau Travail depict the desert as a transformational place for outsiders (a perspective that some might criticise as orientalist), Blackboards is closer to an insider’s view, its imagery calling to mind a more naturalistic experience of the stark terrain. The film follows a group of Iranian teachers across the Kurdish mountains as they search for children to teach. With blackboards strapped to their backs, they trek through a still and desolate landscape, their dark, angular bodies like staves on a sheet of music, each footstep weighted by the strain of their equipment and the uneven contours of the land.
Unlike the spectacles offered by Lean and Minghella’s or Denis’ abstract imagery, Makhmalbaf’s desert is a poetic yet raw space, politically charged and enlightening. In stark contrast to the grandiose Maurice Jarre score employed by Lean, Makhmalbaf’s use of ambient sound and her focus on everyday moments rather than epic encounters emphasises a culturally specific representation of the desert freed from its exotic connotations, nothing more than the ground beneath her protagonists’ feet.