My Favorite Fake-umentary

20 August 2014 by Susan E. Swanberg, posted in Blog Posts

The controversy over Shark Week and nature films that some call “fake-umentaries" got me thinking about a nature documentary I watched as a child, Walt Disney’s “The Living Desert.” I loved that film. Its portrayal of the amazing and exotic creatures inhabiting the American Southwest left an impression on me.

Ahead of its time, “The Living Desert” was one of the first of Disney’s “true-life adventures” and a winner of many awards, including the 1953 academy award for Best Documentary Feature.

"The Living Desert" might also have been one of the first fake-umentaries.

I just had to watch “The Living Desert” one more time to see how it compared to modern nature flicks. I downloaded the hour-long film (for a reasonable fee) and waited patiently through a few frames of classic Disney animation.

Penicereus greggi, the Night-Blooming Cereus. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

Penicereus greggii, the night-blooming cereus. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

Much of the footage is breathtaking, especially the time-lapse photography of the night-blooming cereus. The filmmakers captured rattlesnakes, kangaroo rats, and javelina (peccaries, not pigs) going about their business. Also documented was a battle between the Pepsis wasp and the tarantula — an arthropod wrestling event with a deadly outcome.

My favorite desert creature, the horned lizard, also made an appearance.

The regal horned lizard (Phrynosoma solare) a resident of the Sonoran desert. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

The regal horned lizard (Phrynosoma solare) is a resident of the Sonoran desert. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

The film has a number of obvious flaws. A few of the scenes were clearly staged on sandy movie sets. (The substrate of the Sonoran Desert is not that consistent in texture or color.)

The scorpions’ mating dance, a rarely seen event, was marred by square dance music accompanying the vignette and the reverse-action playback of some footage.

The story arc, or shall I say story arcs, were primarily repetitions of the “Nature, red in tooth and claw” theme, except for the fact that small furry mammals usually outsmarted the wily predators, which were often made to look foolish in spite of their venomous or toothy advantages.

In spite of its weaknesses, the film was fun to watch.

This movie was probably one of my first exposures to the desert and its inhabitants. Although not a perfectly accurate portrayal of its subjects, the film accomplished its purpose of entertaining while informing. Later, when I became a real scientist, I developed a more discerning eye.

Having seen the film again, I had to find out more about it. The landscape looked eerily familiar.

It turns out that much of the movie was filmed in Tucson, Arizona, at a famous resort that celebrated its 100th birthday several years ago. I hopped in my car (I live close by) to see what the resort had in its archives. A helpful desk clerk brought out a binder with photos, timelines and pamphlets that spanned the resort’s history, from its origins as a family ranch through its transition to a desert resort.

One of the most famous images to come out of “The Living Desert” was the iconic photo of a bobcat at the top of a very prickly saguaro cactus.

The cat was at least thirty feet above the ground. In the documentary, the bobcat climbed the cactus to escape pursuing javelina.

Much to my dismay, one of the photos in the resort’s album showed a still of that image, with three men and a dog — some sort of a hunting dog — at the foot of the saguaro. The clear implication is that the dog “treed” the bobcat, not the javelina as the film portrayed.

Barrel Cactus Flowers

The barrel cactus flowers during monsoon season in the Sonoran Desert. Credit: Susan E. Swanberg

This revelation, along with all of the improbable stories of survival portrayed in the film, didn’t make “The Living Desert” any less dear to me. In spite of its flaws and its exaggerated, anthropomorphic view of nature, the movie had done its job.

After seeing “The Living Desert” thousands of children, myself included, saw Nature in a different way. We began to regard the desert plants and animals, whose lives are so raw and so fleeting, with a new respect.


Author's note: I'm trying to obtain permission to share with you the photo of bobcat, hunters, dog and saguaro. Stay tuned!


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