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I came across this film c. 12 years ago, while channel-hopping on what was quite probably a Bank Holiday weekend. I'd missed the first twenty or thirty minutes, but got hooked into the perilous-trek-across-the-Sahara storyline, and the tensions between the three main characters. Although the desert setting is physically expansive, its extreme character and the isolation of the three people trekking across it make it essentially an example of the cabin-fever genre - my liking for which I have documented previously.

And as a cabin fever story, it's decent enough, though I wouldn't say stellar. The three characters are clearly-defined, but perhaps a little too much so. Their adventure is put into train by Paul Bonnard (Rossano Brazzi), who sets off with an idealised vision of his father and a great sense of piety to find a lost treasure and use it to help the needy, but ends up losing his faith in both his father and God, and going a little crazy as a result. Acting as his guide is Joe January (John Wayne), a rough diamond who presents as cynical and pleasure-driven, but whose simple ethics turn out to be more durable and consistent than Bonnard's. And finally, there is Dita (Sophia Loren), a hot-headed thief and prostitute who insists on accompanying them after a night spent being evangelised at by Bonnard, but develops a deeper attachment to Joe January as the journey unfolds. Along the way, they face hostile Touregs, diminishing water-supplies, sand-storms and each other's idiosyncracies, with plenty of moments of tension and each character developing in interesting ways as a result.

So that was enough to keep me watching that Bank Holiday afternoon twelve years ago. As I say, though, all three characters are a little too simplistically sketched, and the ending when it comes seems fairly inevitable. What made the film stick with me, though, and made me put it on my Lovefilm list as soon as I saw that it was available on DVD, was the setting. Bonnard's lost treasure, you see, is buried within a lost city. He believes it to be a Biblical city, but Joe January (who, despite being a small-town low-life crook, turns out to be able to read Latin) identifies it as the Roman city of Timgad. Although he's correct in script terms, and a copy of the foundation inscription from the real Timgad has been set up in the town to back up his claim, the location used for filming was actually Leptis Magna.

That's what really excited me the first time round. I had, in fact, written an undergraduate dissertation comparing Leptis Magna with Trier (in north-east Gaul) about a year or two earlier, not to mention a Masters dissertation comparing the suburbs of Timgad with those in Lincoln in Britain a year later. It meant that I knew both cities very well - more than well enough to spot the difference between them instantly - and knew how exciting the remains at both were. They are two of a number of Roman cities in North Africa (other examples include Volubilis, Thugga, Djemila and Sabratha) which are amazingly well-preserved, basically because they were abandoned at the end of antiquity, never seriously plundered for their stone, and simply left to disappear under silt and / or wind-blown dust and sand. Because of their location, though, they are not very easy to visit. Timgad is in what is now Algeria, and Leptis Magna is in Libya - both almost completely inaccessible then, and still hardly on the main tourist drag now. So I was thrilled at the thought of seeing either one in moving images, because it would be at least some chance to experience what it actually felt like as a city, rather than simply as a series of plans and photographs.

And lo, indeed, the second half of the film (once they have found the city) includes some great footage of the three characters moving (and fighting!) amongst the Roman ruins. Recognisable sites include the Theatre, the Severan Basilica, the Market and its western approach. They do seem to be interspersed with what must be studio sets, though - scenes within a sort of large roofed hall, a crypt, a cistern and some baths don't quite match any of the actual surviving remains, though they are a good pastiche, and anyway are sometimes rather clunkily integrated with real location footage.

The script gets good story value out of the idea of a lost city. The isolation of the three characters is emphasised as they rattle around this enormous city, full of buildings that were clearly once designed for multitudes. The motif of abandoned splendour in the middle of the desert also fits well with the themes of the film - human greed comes up sharp against human frailty as the adventurers almost die seeking rubies for lack of water, while Paul Bonnard's glorious dreams of helping the poor soon crumble in the face of more prosaic desires.

And the decision to call the city which they find Timgad, even if it isn't really, is an intelligent one, because it is at least vaguely in the location specified by the film's script - whereas Leptis really isn't. The adventurers set out from Timbuktu (not, of course, to be confused with Timbuctoo), going mainly north and a little bit west, cross the Tropic of Cancer, and encounter the city not long after doing so. In other words, the lost city of the film must be somewhere in the region of the word 'ALGERIA' on the following map:

Timgad, then, is roughly in the right direction, and, though hardly actually in the Sahara, is at least in the mountains which border its northern edge. Obviously, no-one in their right mind would ever set off to find the real Timgad from Mali, but if we simply imagine that it is set a couple of hundred miles further south, then it all works out pretty well. Meanwhile, the decision not to shoot in the real Timgad was, I presume, determined by the fact that the film was made slap-bang in the middle of the Algerian war of independence, so it was probably a rather hostile location at the time. Leptis, meanwhile, was in the (at least temporarily) rather more stable United Kingdom of Libya, not to mention being pleasantly located on the Mediterranean coast, and looking pretty much exactly like Timgad to the casual glance anyway. So I can entirely understand the substitution, and indeed am pretty impressed that they thought to make it, and to back it up with a suitable inscription to boot!

It's great to be able to see this film again after so long, and three cheers for this modern world of IMDb and Lovefilm, which allowed me to identify and then watch it without having initially remembered what it was even called. I do think, though, that it is about time I made more of an effort to see at least some of the North African cities in real life rather than just on film. I've wanted to ever since my final year at Bristol, and now at last I seem to be living in a time when there are a) companies like this who will take people there and b) enough pounds in my bank account to pay them. It'll take some careful research to make sure I'm getting a decent deal - but I can't think of anywhere else I would rather go on holiday.

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( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 1st, 2009 07:05 am (UTC)
Have you seen The Black Tent, a contemporary film set in WWII, where Lepcis again stands in for a Roman city rather further south than its actual location, though not quite so far this time.
Sep. 1st, 2009 08:54 am (UTC)
No, I'd never heard of it, but thanks for the tip. I've just added it to my Lovefilm list, but apparently there could be a 'long wait' before I get it, so it may be some time until I have the pleasure!
Sep. 1st, 2009 09:13 am (UTC)
It comes up fairly regularly on Film 4 in the daytime, so keep an eye on the listings, in case there's a showing that coincides with you not having to be in the office.
Sep. 1st, 2009 09:49 am (UTC)
Thanks - also a good idea. In fact it's quite likely I've skimmed past it a dozen times, as I wouldn't have picked up any particular significance from the title. I'll keep an eye out now I know.
Sep. 1st, 2009 03:43 pm (UTC)
an example of the cabin-fever genre - my liking for which I have documented previously.

Y'see, I love this film because I'm a complete sucker for "lost city" films. As soon as someone says something like "the lost city in the jungle" I down tools and watch avidly. Heck, I paid good money to see Congo! :-)
Sep. 1st, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, this is great. I went to:


to see if there was an IMDB keyword for "lost city" so I could find more lost city films. Sadly, it appears there isn't :-(

However, the *is* a keyword for "Babe scientist" which might keep me just as occupied :-)
Sep. 1st, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
Hehe - there are some great keywords in there!

I do agree about the appeal of the 'lost city' (or indeed 'lost world') genre, though. That is part of the romance of the real North African cities I mentioned in my post - most of them really did lie largely unknown (by westerners at least) for centuries, so reading about their rediscovery is very exciting.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )

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