The Jordanian desert of Hollywood legend
You’ve seen this desert before. It’s so otherworldly that in film, it frequently stands in for other planets. It’s served as Arrakis in Dune (2021), various Star Wars desert worlds, and Mars in more movies than you can count. Its real name is Wadi Rum, the “City of the Pillars”—also known as the “Valley of the Moon.”
But the movie that inaugurated that cinematic tradition was the epic Lawrence of Arabia (1962). In the classic film, the moment when T.E. Lawrence (Peter O’Toole) watches a match burn down marks the transition between his time as a British intelligence officer in Egypt and his mission as liaison to the Arab Prince Faisal, one that will see Lawrence transform into the larger-than-life “Lawrence of Arabia,” the British archaeologist-turned-spy who fought alongside the Bedouin tribes in their war of independence against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. In the film—as the match goes out—director David Lean masterfully jump-cuts to the stunning landscape of Wadi Rum, where towering chimneys of sandstone rock emerge from dunes of red-orange sand. It was here that the myth of Lawrence was born, a desert so striking it seemed the inevitable setting to generate a persona as historically controversial and challenging as that of Lawrence.
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