By Craig Leask
In this, the final in my series on Armchair traveling, I’m following up on the articles on Italy, France, Great Britain and Sand and Surf with movies filmed in and featuring exotic locations. My definition of exotic locations includes those countries or areas that contain a certain mystique not generally found in regular vacation destinations. As established in Part One of this series, these selections are not based upon cinematic excellence, but on the view and attractiveness they portray of the country and in the visual escape they provide. Organized by release date.
Death on the Nile (1978)
As mentioned in my piece on Evil Under The Sun (1982), several of Agatha Christie books turned into films in the 1970’s and 1980’s were star-studded travelogues wrapped up into a good and entertaining mystery. Death on the Nile follows this formula beautifully with a complicated murder plot set against the spectacular backdrop of ancient Egypt.
Death on the Nile is based on Agatha Christie’s 1937 novel of the same name, directed by John Guillermin and starring Peter Ustinov, as the Belgian detective Hercule Poirot who investigates (and solves) the murder of Linnet Ridgeway Doyle (Lois Chiles ). The all-star cast of suspects includes Bette Davis as Mrs. Van Schuyler, a titled widower with a penchant for kleptomania; her reluctant and sarcastic companion Miss Bowers (Maggie Smith); Linnet’s lover Simon Doyle (Simon MacCorkindale); his bitter and vengeful jilted lover Jackie De Bellefort (Mia Farrow) and the flamboyantly boozy romance novelist Mrs. Salome Otterbourne (Angela Lansbury). In keeping with the Christie formula, all the characters have both strong motives to kill Linnet , along with airtight alibis.
As eluded to in the title, Death on the Nile is set 1937’s Egypt, with action predominantly occurring on Nile traversing thee paddled steamer, the S.S. Karnak, (the historic 1921 Thomas Cook operated Nile steamer, the “PS Sudan” was secured for use as the Karnak in the film).
The filming schedule included seven weeks on locations throughout Egypt, four of which were spent filming on the S.S. Karnak as it sailed the Nile. The remaining three weeks of filming was completed at famous and spectacular, historical sites throughout Egypt: the Great Pyramids, the Sphinx, and the temples at Abu Simbel and at Karnak. The ability to film at these highly protected cultural sites were chosen with the full support of the Egyptian government who were great fans of Agatha Christie and were ensured that the story would be in no way political. Desert locations including Aswan, Abu Simbel, Luxor, and Cairo required shooting to commence each day at 6 a.m. and wrap before 11:00 a.m. to ensure scenes were completed before the mid-day temperatures reached their average 130 °F.
Death on the Nile premiered in New York City, on 29 September 1978. The date chosen to coincide with the tremendous publicity surrounding the “Treasures of Tutankhamun” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, scheduled to open the following December 15th, which had created worldwide interest in all things Egyptian. On October 23, 1978, the film premiered in London, at the ABC Shaftesbury Avenue Theatre, with Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and Earl Mountbatten in attendance.
A remake of Death on the Nile is currently underway with a targeted release date of October 9, 2020 and planned distribution through 20th Century Studios. The remake is being directed by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed and starred in the financially successful but unremarkable remake of Agatha Christies Murder on the Orient Express (2017).
Out of Africa (1985)
Out of Africa is the filmed version of Danish author Karen Blixen’s 1937 memoir (written under the pseudonym Isak Dinesen) which diarized the 17 years she lived in Kenya, at the time was identified as British East Africa. The book’s title was taken from the name of her 1915 poem, “Ex Africa,” which is an abbreviation of an ancient Latin proverb by Aristotle ,”Ex Africa semper aliquid novi”, which translates to “Out of Africa, always something new.”
Her memoir follows the life she created with her husband at the time, Swedish Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke, her second cousin, as they moved to, and established a coffee plantation, in the African Ngong Hills southwest of Nairobi in 1913. The memoir captures a relatively undocumented portrayal of African colonial life in the final decades of rule under the British Empire, paying particular attention to the relationship between the Europeans and the local Kikuyu tribes people. In the memoir, Blixen (played by Meryl Streep) chronicles her struggles surrounding the creation of her farm, her philandering husband (Klaus Maria Brandauer), and the romantic involvement she developed with suave English aristocrat and local hunter Denys Finch Hatton (Robert Redford).
As he planned out the film, director Sydney Pollack became obsessed with capturing the essence of Blixon’s passion for Africa and its people. The decision was made to take full advantage of the area’s natural beauty and film on location in the African nation of Kenya itself. Pollack kept the pace of the film deliberately slow, mimicking the rate to which life occurs in that part of the world, and in so doing allowing the audience to concentrate on the most striking component of the film, that being its breathtaking cinematography. For authenticity, and out of respect for the author, the decision was made to incorporate the direct descendants of the Kikuyu tribe, referenced in the book, as characters in the film.
Filming locations for Out of Africa were chosen not only for their cinematic value, but also to ensure a respectful truth to Blixen’s memoirs with much of the filming at her actual home and lands in the now known “Karen / Lang’ata” area. Blixen’s actual farmhouse – “Mbagathi” – at the time of filming had become a local nursing school. As a result of the movie, her 1912 constructed, and 1917 occupied home has now been developed into, and continues to be operated as, the “Karen Blixen Museum”. Other iconic locations include the Shaba National Game Reserve, with its abundance of rare animal populations. This location became the focus of many outdoor and safari scenes on the savanna. The beauty of the Maasai Mara National Reserve is particularly noteworthy for becoming the location depicting the iconic endless fields used as the movie’s poster branding shot. The picturesque Mara River, which flows through the reserve before draining into Lake Victoria, is the location for the innocent, yet sensually iconic scene where love interest Hatton shampoos Blixon’s hair. Scenes depicting the Kenyan “Government House” were completed at the 1902 constructed Nairobi School as the architectural styling is a near perfect representation of the British colonial governors’ residence. For the train sequences, a long section of abandoned track was located and utilized some sixty miles from Nairobi.
Out of Africa became the fifth-highest grossing North American film of 1985. Pollacks efforts were acknowledged with 11 Academy Award nominations and seven wins – Best Picture and Director (Pollack), Best Writing, Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Sound and Original Score. Other nominations included Best Actress (Streep), Supporting Actor (Klaus Maria Brandauer), costumes and editing.
My Life in Ruins (2009)
My Life in Ruins (which was titled Driving Aphrodite for its UK release) is a somewhat formulaic romantic comedy film, beautifully filmed on location among the ruins of ancient Greece. The film is about Georgia, a passionate Greek-American teacher and historian (Nia Vardalos) who, having been laid off from her position at a local college, has resorted to guiding misfit groups of tourists throughout mainland Greece to make ends meet. Although bitter and disheartened by her employment situation and wasted talents, she is continuously exasperated by the lack of interest of the tourists who are more interested in shopping for knock off trinkets and T-shirts then learning about Greek history and culture.
Throughout the tour, various entanglements, comedic personality clashes and cultural situations, seem to all go wrong. Fed up and on the verge of quitting her position, Georgia gradually connects with the oddball tourists and the previously creepy and now newly cleaned up (and extremely attractive) coach driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis). Spurred on by one of the senior tourists, Irv Gideon (Richard Dreyfuss), Georgia begins to relax and have some fun, becoming more engaging and relatable to the tourists and more accommodating to the group’s needs, even deviating off the planned tour route to include ice cream, souvenir markets and beach excursions. With her passion rekindled, she begins to enhance her narratives on the Parthenon, Delphi, Epidaurus and on the origins of the Olympic Games at Olympia. Georgia’s regular dialogue has now become tales of romantic winds blowing through the columns of the Acropolis and ancient women crossing the country to hear the cryptic predictions and wisdom of the Oracle at Delphi on Mount Parnassus.
In planning the film, the Canadian-born Nia Vardalos, was able to negotiate rare permission from Greek authorities to film at ancient architectural monuments, relaxing long-established restrictions which banned the commercial use of historical sites. This was the first time that a foreign film studio was permitted to film on location at the Acropolis. The authorities vetted the film script to ensure respectable accuracy, and after conferring with a panel of senior archaeologists, gave approval on the condition that the production treat the sites as they exist without adding additional props or enhancements. The sites were to be experienced through the film as they are in person. My Life in Ruins was the first major project to receive assistance from the Hellenic Film Commission, the newly created division of the Greece’s Culture Ministry to attract international film production.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) & The Second-Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2015)
Based on the 2004 novel These Foolish Things, by Deborah Moggach, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a British comedy-drama film directed by John Madden and features an all-star ensemble cast including: Judi Dench, Celia Imrie, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton. The plot follows a group of British pensioners who, taking a leap of faith, decide to live out their golden years at a retirement hotel in India. Producers Graham Broadbent and Peter Czernin immediately saw the potential in Moggach’s book in developing a film which explored the idea of removing a group of older strangers from their familiar and safe lives and exposing them to the challenges and opportunities of living in a completely foreign environment. A fish out of water story, but one with beautiful and colorful surroundings.
Each of the characters in the story have their own unique reasons for their attraction to the highly advertised “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”, a planned retirement resort “for the elderly and beautiful” in Jaipur, India … at bargain pricing.
Evelyn Greenslade (Dame Judi Dench) is a recently widowed housewife who is emotionally and financially struggling, having sold her home to cover debts; married couple Jean and Douglas Ainslie (Dame Penelope Wilton and Bill Nighy respectively) lost a great deal of their retirement savings investing in their daughter’s internet start-up company and, as a result, need to considerably reduce their retirement lifestyle; Muriel Donnelly (Dame Maggie Smith), a highly racist retired housekeeper, is in desperate need of a hip replacement which can be done immediately in India, avoiding the months long waiting list through the British health care system. Madge Hardcastle (Celia Imrie) needs to create a new life away from her married daughter and son-in-law who treat her solely as a live-in babysitter; Norman Cousins (Ronald Pickup) is a lonely man who desperately wants to find a companion, which he has not been able to do in Britain using his usual pick-up lines and moves; and Graham Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) is a recently retired judge who grew up in India with a desire to seek out and reconcile with his long lost first love.
Upon their arrival, they find that the hotel’s enthusiastic proprietor Sonny (Dev Patel) has greatly exaggerated the condition and the luxury of the hotel, preferring to represent it as his ultimate and completed vision rather than its existing present state. The guests are each overwhelmed by the unfamiliar environment upon their arrival requiring them to adapt their lives to this new reality and face their own personal issues. Ultimately this makes each of the guests personally stronger as they find their new equilibrium, their sense of happiness and their self-esteem.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel airport and sightseeing locations were filmed throughout the cities of Jaipur and Udaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan. In Jaipur, production designer Alan MacDonald focused filming on streets around the City Palace, at the Marigold market, and the Stepwell Pond at Panna Meena ka Kund near Amer Fort, famous for its golden stone steps.
The 12-suite equestrian hotel Ravla Khempur, originally built in the 1620’s as a palace for the tribal chieftain of Khempur, was used as the film’s hotel. Director John Madden indicated that the building was chosen as it had to appear as having gone downhill, but still contained elements of its former glory, which made this location perfect. The tired potential of the hotel had to still be visible and had to represent rooms that didn’t portray the modern western concept of what a room would be, but couldn’t be so foreign and disagreeable as to compel the guests to immediately seek out alternative housing.
The film became a surprise box-office hit grossing nearly $137 million worldwide on its relatively meager $10 million budget. Based upon this success, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, began production in January 2014, and released on 26 February 2015 also taking advantage of the natural beauty of the Indian country in choosing its filming locations.
A Passage to India (1984)
A Passage to India is an historical drama based on the 1924 E.M. Forster novel documenting his experiences in India, its title having been derived from Walt Whitman’s 1870 poem “Passage to India”. Set in the 1920’s, the film explores the cultural and prejudicial separation between the British ruling class and the Indian native population, through the first-hand experiences of Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee), Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft), Adela Quested (Judy Davis), and Cyril Fielding (James Fox).
Newcomers to India, Moore and Quested had anticipated experiencing India’s culture with the great excitement that accompanies the unknown, quickly becoming exasperated, however, by the reality of the separation between the British community and the Indian populous. The separation between the British Ruling Class and the growing Indian independence movement reaches its peak here with the wrongly accused Aziz in an attempted rape charge involving a British National, Adela, within the popular Marabar Caves. Director David Lean does not shy away from the exploration of the dark realities of imperialism, religion and racism and its effects on society, which he used as the underlying themes in the film.
No stranger to epic location films, David Lean had previously directed The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) which he filmed in Sri Lanka, Lawrence of Arabia (1962) filmed in Middle East, North Africa and Spain, and Doctor Zhivago (1965), filmed in Spain (due predominantly to Russia’s resistance to the production). For A Passage to India, Lean shot the film entirely on location throughout India. The Marabar Caves in the film are actually fictional, but are based on the very real Barabar Caves, north of Gaya, in Bihar. During pre-production visits, however, it was determined that the Barabar Caves were not overly attractive and, due to the prevalence of local bandits, were relatively unsafe. As a result, the cave scenes Instead were filmed at the hills of Savandurga and Ramadevarabetta near the capital city of Bangalore, where principal filming took place in shallow cave entrances carved out by the production team. Other scenes were filmed in nearby cities of Ramanagaram, Udhagamandalam and in Srinagar, with interiors shot in in the Bangalore Palace.
A Passage to India received 11 Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress for Judy Davis (as Adela Quested), winning for Best Supporting Actress (Peggy Ashcroft) and for Best Original Score (Maurice Jarre). A Passage to India was Lean’s last completed film.
- Seven Years in Tibet (1997): a biographical war drama based on the 1952 book of the same name. Written by Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer (Brad Pitt) on his experiences in Tibet with Chinese People’s Liberation Army during the invasion of Tibet in 1950 and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud. Seven Years in Tibet was filmed on location, extensively throughout Argentina and Tibet.
- Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989): In the third installment of the Indiana Jones franchise, Indiana (Harrison Ford) searches for his father (Sean Connery), who has been kidnapped by Nazis. Like all installments in the “Indiana Jones” franchise, shooting of the action-adventure film occurred in locations around the world including Petra in Jordan, Arches National Park, Utah, USA; Parque Natural de Cabo de Gata-Níjar, Andalucía in Spain; Chiesa di San Barnaba, Campo San Barnaba, Dorsoduro and the Palazzi Barbaro in Venice, Italy; Schloss Bürresheim, Mayen and the Rhineland-Palatinate in Germany; Rickmansworth Masonic School, Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire and Blenheim Palace, in England, among many, many other worldwide locations.
- Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000): an Ang Lee-directed action-drama about a warrior (Chow Yun-Fat) in 18th-century Qing dynasty China who has been tasked with retrieving a pilfered mystical sword. The production was filmed on location in Beijing, and the Anhui, Hebei, Jiangsu, and Xinjiang provinces of China as well as in the Gobi Desert.
- Sex and the City 2 (2010): In the second film based upon the popular television series of the same name (1998 – 2004), Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker), Samantha (Kim Cattrall), Charlotte (Kristin Davis) and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) continue their sexual conversations while experiencing the beauty of Abu Dhabi. The government of Abu Dhabi felt the film was “too sexual” and thus did not allow the film to proceed. As a result, production took place throughout Morocco, predominantly at the Marrakech Amanjena Hotel and throughout the surrounding desert.
From as far back as Craig can remember he has been passionate about architecture and the atmosphere that can be created through a well-designed building. In movies, he fulfills this passion by gravitating to films where the production infuses the location into the plot as one of the characters. Be it the long dark shadows of mysteries and haunted house films, to classics of the 40’s and 50’s set in big old houses, grand Italian plazas, or remote villages. It’s the locations Craig is drawn to, so much so that, on occasion, he has even been accused of overlooking plot failures and weak directing, having been so engrossed in the set design and location. What he hopes to accomplish with his writing is to share this passion and encourage others to see for the first time – or revisit – movies where the architecture plays as pivotal a role as a character in the plot.