Movies in the Desert
Written by Steve Davey
Imagine Morocco and you probably think of souqs and tagines, not celluloid and stuntmen, but for film aficionados, Morocco is rightly famous for its film industry.
A surprising number of films have been shot in Morocco over the years, and a vibrant film industry has sprung up around the desert town of Ouarzazate.
More surprisingly though, the one film that you would have expected to be filmed in Morocco, the classic Humphrey Bogart epic Casablanca, was actually shot entirely in Hollywood.
I first became aware of the Moroccan film industry on a visit to the city of Ait Benhaddou, where a series of ruined fortified houses are built into a steep rocky hill: an impossibly photogenic place. I was heading towards a small road and market with a gold-topped mosque outside the main fortified town, when I was turned away by a security guard who told me that the entire street had been built by a film company shooting Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and was completely off-limits until it could be dismantled.
I later discovered that Ait Benhaddou has been used as a location for a number of films: Gladiator, The Living Daylights, and even The Jewel of the Nile. I even spotted Ait Benhaddou in the background of a scene while watching the Rudyard Kipling classic The Man Who Would Be King.
Formerly a desert trading post, Ouarzazate expanded massively under French rule as a base for the Foreign Legion. The town promotes its film heritage in a big way with massive film-themed sculptures on the way into town, including a clapperboard. There are two film studios that you can visit here: CLA Studios and the more interesting Atlas Corporation Film Studios.
Hailed as being the largest film studios in the world, at Atlas you can see sets that have been used in countless films and TV productions, and a number of iconic props, including a cart that was used to transport Russell Crowe in Gladiator, the F-16 jet used in The Jewel of the Nile, and a galleon which featured in Asterix & Obelix: Mission Cleopatra.
It is even possible to stay at the adjacent movie-themed Oscar Hotel. Signed photos decorate the walls, movie cameras and lights fill obscure corners, and it is easy to imagine film stars lounging by the pool between takes. The hotel and much of the studios may be closed if filming is actually taking place though, so it’s best to check in advance (studiosatlas.com).
One of the best things about the Atlas sets is that they are continually changing. A set that was originally constructed for one film will be subtly changed for a subsequent production. You can walk up a set of steps leading to an Egyptian temple that has featured in Mission Cleopatra, Return of the Mummy, and Alexander.
A number of films have been shot in Marrakech, especially in the iconic main square, the Djemaa El Fna, which has been used in films as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 classic The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Mummy. The square resembles a film set at the best of times, as snake charmers, drummers, African dancers, story-tellers, and fortune-tellers all vie for your attention.
The Mummyalso had scenes filmed in the rolling sand dunes of the Sahara Desert near the town of Erfoud, where some of the most atmospheric dunes in the country can be found next to a series of comfortable hotels. You can be relaxing by a pool one minute, and stomping through seemingly endless waves of sand on a camel the next.
The epic series Game of Thrones has made a couple of forays into Morocco too, although with all of the computer-generated imagery (CGI) that goes on, you might find it hard to recognise. A fort in the Atlas Studios, which was originally constructed to represent Jerusalem for Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven, has been reused in the TV series. Ait Benhaddou has doubled as the city of Yunkai and the ramparts of the coastal town of Essaouira became the mythical city of Astapor.
Not all of the film locations in Morocco are for such well-known productions, however. Leaving Ouarzazate on the remote Route 10 road, I came across what looked like the remnants of a 1950s American diner and fuel station. Stopping to investigate, I discovered it had been built for the 2007 horror film The Hills Have Eyes 2. Kept open as a mini museum, the set is an incongruous and somewhat unsettling find in the middle of such a deserted location, but must have been even more frightening when flesh-eating zombies were prowling around.
Other film locations
Al Khazneh (the Treasury), Petra, Jordan
The iconic façade of the Treasury was most famously used in the 1989 film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Harrison Ford and Sean Connery make their escape down the winding gorge of the Siq on horseback.
Mehrangarh Fort, Jodhpur, India
Sometimes a location makes a brief but still rather striking appearance in a film. In The Dark Knight Rises, when Batman manages to escape from the subterranean prison called ‘The Pit’, he looks up to see the imposing bulk of the fort perched precariously on a cliff.
Ta Prohm, Angkor Thom, Cambodia
This was famously a location for the 2001 Angelina Jolie flick Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Uniquely for a modern movie, there was very little trickery involved in the filming: Ta Prohm really is this consumed by the surrounding jungle!
Distance: 5,736 km
Flight Time: 8 hours
Frequency: Daily via Tunis