The film was the result of “patient tracking” in the desert, requiring the shooting and editing of some 200,000 feet of film. Speculation about the manufacturing methods of Walt Disney’s “The Living Desert” began almost immediately after its release. The film was Disney’s first “True-Life Adventure” feature and was a box office sensation and won numerous accolades, including the Academy Award for Best Documentary for 1953.
The film grossed more than “Gone with the Wind” in Japan, won the International Prize at the 1954 Cannes Film Festival, an award at the Berlin Film Festival, and received a special award at the Golden Globes.
The film delighted children and their parents and served as the definitive introduction to the wilderness for generations. Filmed primarily in Arizona’s Monument Valley, the film would not be considered a documentary by today’s standards.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times reviewed its opening: “Here, in this beautiful color image, the Disney cameramen’s frame of reference is the great arid plain that stretched from Oregon to Mexico, downwind of the barrier The Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges are essential. And the objects of their observations are the many varieties and forms of wildlife that inhabit the region and are rarely seen by the eye of man.
The close-ups of kangaroo rats, rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions, toads, centipedes, wasps, and beetles are set to music and crafted into an anthropomorphized narrative that’s less than scientific.
Crowther continued, “Indeed, if there is a sense of overabundance to be felt as the picture progresses, it is because of the similarity of deadly conflicts that occur in the various scenes. Individually, the fighting and depredation that takes place among the inhabitants of the desert is fascinating and exciting… but the repeated incidents of violence and death end up overwhelming the awakened senses.
Another contemporary account speculated that the filmmakers weren’t just lucky in what they captured on film. “A more likely theory is that our pictorial geniuses picked themselves out a nice, cozy piece of desert not too far from town and built a neatly ‘wired’ little animal enclosure with hidden cameras.”
And that’s probably how some scenes were obtained. Despite inquiries, “the company that made the movie may be keen to tell us the secrets of Mother Nature, but apparently isn’t so keen on revealing the secrets of Father Disney.”
Crowther agreed, “There is another weakness of the Disney boys highlighted in the film. The general public will not object, but studious naturalists will. It’s their playful disposition to edit and arrange certain scenes so that it seems like the wild life within them is behaving in a humane and civilized way.
The film was deeply personal to Disney. Despite high reviews, the film was commercially successful. Disney loved the desert, lived here, and wanted to share their fun with the world. He had been a fixture in the desert since the 1920s; he played polo, rode horses and was involved in the community. He participated in the Desert Circus, taking the Disneyland stage to the desert to carry the children in the parade. He socialized with locals involved in business and architecture. He felt invigorated by the natural surroundings, and the film would pay homage to his deep appreciation for all aspects of the glorious natural wilderness.
Crowther acknowledged, “Mr. The Serious People at Disney have done an outstanding job of collecting extraordinary imagery and its editors have put it together well for excitement and fascination, more than for education.
Inspired by 10 minutes of footage shot by UCLA doctoral student N. Paul Kenworthy, Kenworthy’s footage of a battle between a tarantula and a wasp intrigued Disney, who decided to expand the concept, funding the production of the feature film and reportedly said, “This is where we can tell a real, sustained story for the first time in these images of nature.
Increasing sequences of artificial animals, the beautiful desert skies at sunset, the accelerated flowering of cacti and the rain-soaked terrain producing flash floods were the real story, although less interesting for children than creatures and their struggles for life and death. Two scenes, in particular, were authentic and worthy of all the accolades.
The first features a bobcat interacting with a pack of peccaries and having to climb a massive saguaro cactus to avoid being gored. The cat’s ascent to terrifying heights is as remarkable to watch as it is captured on film and makes for a truly remarkable image of the cat balancing on the cactus.
The second is a long sequence featuring the desert tortoise. Ancient creatures are emblematic of the desert itself. The filmmakers capture two men in combat, apparently for a woman. The drama is deadly and gripping.
The film resonated with the Coachella Valley in a way that Disney itself would no doubt applaud. In 1970, a group of Desert Museum trustees took on the name “Living Desert” for a nature trail and preserve in Palm Desert to cultivate appreciation and lessen the impact that resort development would have. on the desert ecosystem. The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens have evolved and expanded since then.
Appropriately, the scouts helped clear the first three-mile nature trail; 1,000 acres of untouched desert were preserved in their natural state, and the diversity of desert plants was celebrated with a botanical program. Today, hundreds of thousands of visitors roam the estate each year to discover the flora and fauna adapted to the extreme environment. The name “Living Desert” is now associated with the reserve more than the film that inspired it.
Equally inspiring, the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee was formed in 1974 under the direction of Ron Berger “to promote the welfare of the desert tortoise in its native wild state in the southwestern United States, to establish a or more reserves where the habitats and ecosystems will support it and to provide and disseminate information, education and research concerning the ecosystems essential to the desert tortoise and associated plant and animal species Dozens of other organizations also work to protect the desert tortoise and its habitat (Read more at tortoise-tracks.org.)
The development of the desert far exceeded the wildest imaginations over the following decades. The Coachella Valley has grown exponentially, making the notion of conservation more urgent. Interestingly, Disney’s company is back in the wilderness, specifically Rancho Mirage, with a new subdivision that has been making headlines recently. Those working on the project are inevitably aware of Disney’s own reverence for the desert and its distinct desert heritage as they write the next chapter in the “Living Desert” story.
Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Memories Thanks column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected].