Lights, Camera, Action, Couscous
By Carol L. Bowman
Quarzazate—the Hollywood of Morocco
“I’m shocked, shocked, to find out that film making is going on here!”—From the movie Casablanca
Of the hundreds of movies, TV series and documentaries that have been filmed in Quarzazate, the Hollywood of Morocco, ironically the movie that is most associated with images of Morocco—Casablanca— is not one of them. When director Michael Curtiz filmed this blockbuster in 1942, the countries of North Africa were mired in the throes of World War II. Instead of shooting the scenes on the intriguing streets of Casablanca, Curtiz had to settle for locations of Flagstaff, Arizona and the sound stages of Warner Brothers Burbank Studios.
Mid-point in our three week circumvention of Morocco, we explored this film capital. Starting out in Casablanca, we headed east to Rabat, Meknes and Fes, turned south to Erfoud, and bobbed by camel caravan into the Sahara. We emerged in the Berber city of Tinehir, then after Quarzazate, traveled over the High Atlas Mountains enroute to Marrakech, and completed the circle back in Casablanca, where a clone of Rick’s Americain Café waited.
Despite a journal full of entries, Quarzazate jumped to the front of stories to tell. Of all the preconceived impressions that I had of Morocco—couscous, head-scarfed women and skull-capped men dressed in long flowing robes, Bedouins, ubiquitous mosques—I never anticipated standing where Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif raced their camels across the desert in David Lean’s 1962 classic, Lawrence of Arabia.
Nicknamed the ‘door to the desert,’ modern day travelers use this largest town in Saharan Morocco, to procure provisions before setting off into an expanse of swirling dunes and multicolored landscapes stretching into desolation. Thousands of years before, Quarzazate served as a crossing point for African traders on their way to Northern Morocco and Europe. But in 1897, Louis Lumiere, French film pioneer, filmed Le ChevrierMarocain here, changing the complexion of Quarzazate forever.
For 115 years, international film makers have flocked to this location to make movies requiring a desert setting. The exceptional natural lighting, eight hours of sunlight caught in the shadows of the snow-capped High Atlas Mountains, the outstretched sand dune hills, and the architectural gems of ancient Kasbahs, make ideal photographic conditions and production crews, which cost a fraction of filming in the US or Europe.
West of town, we hop-scotched across stones that dotted the semi-dry Draa River bed to cross over to Ait Benhaddou, a picturesque, mountainside fortified city (ksar), which features one of the best preserved Kasbahs in the entire Atlas region. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it offers a striking example of southern Moroccan earthen architecture. Discarded movie set props littered the landscape. In fact, we entered the city through the main gate which was specifically constructed for Lewis Teague’s 1985 sequel to Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile starring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner.
We trudged along the village’s adobe walled corridor until we reached the home of a 90 year old woman who has lived in this Kasbah her entire life. She invited us into her earthen floor quarters and directed us up three flights of pitch dark stairs to her sunny rooftop bedroom. From this vantage point, we watched Atlas Studios, one of the world’s largest movie production companies, film a British movie just across the river. The real treat loomed inside. Every wall was plastered with pictures of her and the actors starring in films made on location here. The breadth and depth of the film history this simple woman had experienced came to life.
Among her treasures—Orson Wells, filming Othello in 1952, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956, The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring James Stewart and Doris Day, John Huston’s 1975, The Man Who Would Be King, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine, Sodom and Gomorrah, Robert Aldrich’s 1962 film, starring Stewart Granger and Pier Angeli, Ridley Scott’s gem, Gladiator(2000) with Russell Crowe and Joaquin Phoenix, Body of Lies (2008) with Leonardo Di Caprio and Russell Crowe, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) with Liam Neesom and Black Hawk Down (2001). The photos, hung with straight pins around the room, captured an entire era of film.
The scanning of these historical nuggets continued with candid shots of Martin Scorsese, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) with Willam DeFoe, Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole and Anthony Quinn, grinning on the set of Lawrence of Arabia, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu during the filming of Babel (2006), and Oliver Stone standing with Anthony Hopkins on the set of Alexander (2000). The picture of George C. Scott in Patton (1970), took on greater meaning when we stayed at the Imperial Palace Hotel in Casablanca, General Patton’s actual headquarters in WWII. The list grew, my eyes blurred, the images overwhelmed me.
“Here’s looking at you, kid.” —Again from the movie Casablanca.