As Disney branched out beyond animation in the late 40s, it produced a series of nature documentaries called, True-Life Adventures. While previous documentary shorts had been released by Disney, The Living Desert was the first one to be feature length.
As the name implies, The Living Desert is focused on the flora and fauna of the western deserts of the United States. There are a couple of aspects that give it a Disney feel, namely the use of animation and musical choices. Similarly to Victory Through Air Power, animation is utilised to illustrate the prologue as well as segues between some scenes. There’s also some matching of music to movement – most notably the movement of mud.
This actually won the Academy Award for Documentary Feature, but it is also a nature documentary from 1953, so. . .
The good part of it being 1953 is that fundamentalism hadn’t quite made talking about the fact that the world is more than 6,000 years old as controversial as it is in the United States now. Sure, they use the word ‘creation’ here and there, but they also don’t dismiss that the deserts were formed from millions of years of geological and climatic change, and life there is the product of evolution.
The bad parts? Well. . .
This film doesn’t shy away from the fact that animals have sex – but it’s 1953 and the way they talk about the attempts of males to woo a mate was, well, very much written by men from 1953. Highlights include:
- “A nice dilemma: Stay a bachelor at the waterworks or chase after the women and maybe die of thirst. A coy glance from the sidelines soon settles that question.”
- “When he gets a bit bolder, the lady – as usual – gives him the run around. After all every female wants a choice in the matter.”
- “A lady takes her cue and swoons. A bit theatrical perhaps but it’s a technique that always works – even for tarantulas.”
- There’s a full minute of scorpion footage manipulated to look like a square dance which ends with “Take your gal to you-know-where.”
- “He’s the forceful type.” [We don’t even want to know what that’s supposed to mean to a man from 1953, but we could probably guess.]
It also seems that any animal who was seen to be nurturing/focused on feeding young got called ‘she’ or often ‘Mrs’ (because you know humans aren’t the only ones who aren’t supposed to have sex outside of marriage). For example, Mrs Tarantula: “She’s forever cleaning her parlour for guests who might drop by for dinner.” Animals who were hunting tended to get called ‘he’.
In his 1953 review of the film, New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther (which is the name I would make up for a NYT art critic from 1953) said:
Also there is another weakness of the Disney boys evidenced in this film. The general public will not object to it, but the studious naturalists may. That is their playful disposition to edit and arrange certain scenes so that it appears the wild life in them is behaving in human and civilized ways. For instance, there is a most clever and amusing sequence in which two scorpions are shown in the act of courtship as though the whole thing were performed to square-dance calls. The footage is cut, reversed and timed to a jolly square-dance score—all very humorous and beguiling. But it isn’t true to life. Neither is a merry sequence in which some kangaroo rats seem to jump with glee, after scoring a triumph over an enemy, to the tune of “A Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” However, Mr. Disney’s earnest people have done a remarkable job of collecting some extraordinary footage and his editors have assembled it well for excitement and fascination, more than for education.
Count us as ‘studious naturalists’. We agree with all of this, although he might be overstating how entertaining the square dancing scorpions are.
To be fair, Disney is pretty up front about his intentions (at least some of them — keep reading):
This is drama. There’s a story told on PBS’s documentary about Walt Disney where he is watching seals with his daughter and telling stories using the seals as the actors. This formed much of the inspiration for the True-Life Adventure films. Unlike animators, seals and desert critters don’t organize for fair pay and better working conditions. In fact, making these films was more profitable for Walt (and the investors) than the animated features during the early 50’s.
Applying human characteristics to non-human animals is something that is cautioned against in a lot of circles and was one of the major critiques of Disney’s True-Life Adventure films. In reality, there are probably good and bad ways to go about it. If we completely shy away from anthropomorphising a non-human animal, we are dismissing the interiority and subjectivity that that animal has and are assuming that animals are automatons. It is perhaps anthropocentric of us to assume that we are so different and superior to other animals that our experiences, perspectives, and intelligences are the only ones of merit or the metric by which the rest of the living world should be measured.
We know animals have varieties of intelligence and have evolved under similar conditions to our own. So it is not unreasonable to take our own subjective experience of fear, loss, happiness, etc. and consider that the experience of non-human animals might include these features. Fostering this helps us to build a sense of commonality and respect for our fellow earthlings.
Calling a female spider “Mrs Tarantula” and implying she fusses about her ‘parlour’ like a stereotypical 1950’s housewife, however, is probably a less helpful anthropomorphism.
But there is also a terrible lie in the above title card. The film wasn’t made by the ‘patience of skilled photographers’. Nature didn’t set the stage. The film makers did. Sets were built, animals were put in danger – some were killed. In 1982, the CBC ran a report that exposed Disney’s True-Life Adventures were mostly staged and that the animals were frequently put in mortal danger and often died to get the right shot (Disney part starts at about 16:20). That shot of a bobcat being chased up a tall cactus by a group of peccaries? Yeah, that was basically staged. The bobcat was later donated, with several other animals, to a Tucson zoo once production wrapped.
- Diminutive dinosaurs that dine on daisies
- Picking on peccaries
Rating vs Joe vs the Volcano:
MLE: Thumbs down
Ricktopher: Thumbs down
Should you seek out this movie?
No. Don’t pay money for a film that was built on animal cruelty. Nature documentary-making has come a long way. You have other, better options that manage to include drama while being more educational and more ethical. We recommend Our Planet – you can probably find it on Netflix.