EntertainmentThe Real-Life Desert Used For Dune Had Already Made...

The Real-Life Desert Used For Dune Had Already Made Hollywood History

British archaeologist T.E. Lawrence introduced Westerners to Wadi Rum in his 1922 memoir, “Seven Pillars of Wisdom,” which recounted his experience as a military advisor to the Bedouins during the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire between 1916 and 1918. The book would inspire the film starring Peter O’Toole, and Lawrence’s own description of Wadi Rum as “vast and echoing and God-like” now reads like an advertisement to location scouts seeking out an ethereal backdrop. The endless expanse of sand is best captured by “Lawrence of Arabia” cinematographer Freddie Young, whose wide lens isolated O’Toole among red dunes and below towering cliffs. Even in epic battle scenes, human masses and herds of camels are dwarfed by the sheer size of the desert.

Despite its legendary place in cinema history, tourists and filmmakers alike temporarily abandoned Wadi Rum for greener (or drier) pastures. By 2015, the fallout in neighboring countries from the Arab Spring and war against the Islamic State had gutted Jordan’s tourism industry, cutting visits to Petra (another site frequented by Lawrence, as well as fictional archaeologist Indiana Jones) in half. 

The Jordanian government and the Royal Film Commission tried to capitalize on the country’s supernatural landscape as a ploy to attract British tourists with a U.K. media blitz declaring that their country was “literally out of this world.” The slogan was a shrewd move by Jordanian officials, and it’s clear the government sees Hollywood as a potential cash cow. In an effort to compete with Abu Dhabi’s 30 percent tax rebate, the Jordanian government announced in 2014 that certain productions could receive tax exemptions, and in 2019, the government raised the cash rebate on qualifying productions from 20 percent to 25 percent.

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