From The Beach to The Great Escape, here’s six destinations that doubled as dramatic sets for big screen movies. Let us know your own favourite film set spots below.
The great escape, Poland
At first sight the area of pine forest stretching south of Żagań betrays few signs of the iconic place it occupies in popular culture. Yet this tranquil corner of western Poland was once home to an archipelago of German prisoner-of-war camps, most famous of which was Stalag Luft III. Built to intern escape-obsessed allied airmen, the camp went on to inspire two of the best-loved tunnel-digging movies ever made. The first of these films was The Wooden Horse (1950), a true story of how plucky prisoners used a vaulting horse as a cover for their tunnelling activities. This was eclipsed in 1963 by The Great Escape, the all-star, epic retelling of a mass break-out that occurred in March 1944.
A museum at the edge of the forest recalls the history of the camps in disarmingly understated style, focusing on the fates of all of Żagań’s POWs rather than the heroics of the few. The real-life Great Escape was masterminded by RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bushell, who aimed to get hundreds of prisoners out of the camp via three tunnels codenamed Tom, Dick and Harry. The first two were discovered by the Germans, but on the night of March 24, 1944, a total of 76 prisoners made their way out of Harry and into the surrounding woods. The site of Harry is marked by an engraved boulder a half-hour’s walk from the museum. It’s a popular spot for laying wreaths and to reflect: only three of the great escapees ever reached the UK; of those recaptured, fifty were executed by the Germans to serve as an example to other prisoners.
Zagan is a lengthy but enjoyable day-trip from the city of Poznań, from which you can take a bus or train to the town of Zielona Góra, followed by a local bus to Żagań. The Concentration Camps Museum (Muzeum obozów jenieckich; Tues–Fri 10am–4pm, Sat & Sun 10am–5pm; www.muzeum.zagan.pl) is located 3km south of town.
The English Patient, Egypt
The Cave of the Swimmers depicted in the film The English Patient exists, in the far southwest of Egypt – the most arid corner of the Sahara, and an area even nomads avoid. Discovered by Count Laszlo de Almasy, the real “English Patient” in 1933, a couple of “swimming” figures survive on the flaking walls, and today rock-art sites depicting long-extinct animals and abstruse rituals are still being discovered. This is the Gilf Kebir, unoccupied since Neolithic times. Legends abound of lost oases and invading armies swallowed by the sands. On the desert floor, World War II fuel cans mingle with the earliest pottery and Paleolithic stone axes, from a time when humans first took to their feet.
For information on tours to the area, see www.sahara-overland.com.
The Wild West in Monument valley, Arizona
When you think of the American West, it’s hard to conjure a more iconic image than Monument Valley, with its awesome mesas, spires of jagged sandstone and arid, desert-like plains. This is the Wild West of popular culture – a vast, empty landscape that dates back to antiquity and can make you feel at once tiny and insignificant and completely free and uninhibited. These qualities have made it the perfect location for Westerns, which is perhaps why it seems so familiar: Stagecoach, The Searchers and How the West Was Won are among the numerous movies that have been filmed here.
But while Hollywood favours heroic cowboys on stallions, you won’t be restaging the gunfight at the OK Corral while here (head south to Tombstone, Arizona for that). Instead, this is sacred Indian country managed by the Navajo Nation, and to visit the area today is to experience the West through their eyes. From the Anasazi petroglyphs in Mystery Valley to the traditional hogans still inhabited by local Navajo, every rock here tells a story. The valley’s most famous formations – like the twin buttes of the Mittens, with their skinny “thumbs” of sandstone, and the giant bulk of Hunt’s Mesa – can be seen from the circular, seventeen-mile track (starting at the Visitors’ Center) that’s usually smothered in red dust. Navajo guides, who fill you in on local history and culture, lead 4WD rides around the track, as well as longer, usually overnight, expeditions by foot.
Monument Valley Visitors’ Center (www.navajonationparks.org) is off Hwy-163, near the Utah border.
The Field of Dreams, Iowa
“If you build it, they will come.” So runs the memorable line from the movie Field of Dreams, an idealized ode to America’s national pastime in which an Iowa farmer is inspired to construct a baseball diamond slap bang in the middle of his cornfield. And ever since the movie’s set was carved across a pretty little family farm at Dyersville in Iowa, that’s exactly what they’ve done. Within a few weeks of the movie’s release in 1989, and with the diamond still in place from filming, the first visitor arrived, travelling over 1000 miles from his home in New York just to sit in the bleachers behind right field.
Since then, over a million people have come to this tiny corner of the rural Midwest, drawn by some strange compulsion to bat a few balls, play a little catch and fulfil a dream or two. Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa, a place where, for a few hours on a soft summer’s day, you can enjoy the simple pleasures of a little make-believe.
For more on playing ball at the Field of Dreams, visit www.fieldofdreamsmoviesite.com.
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bolivia
No one really knows how Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid spent their final days. Rumours still abound, enhanced by the 1969 Hollywood classic starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. But this much is true: the outlaws pulled their last heist, stealing the $90,000 payroll of a mine company, in Bolivia. To pick up their trail, start in the easy-going southern Altiplano town of Tupiza, set in a lush valley that slices through striking desert.
It was in the leafy main square that the gunslingers devised their plan to overtake the payroll transport, and locals can show you where they lived – in a house just behind the mansion of the mining family they were to rob. From there, take a scenic jeep tour 100km northwest to the dusty village of San Vicente, where Butch and Sundance, the military hot on their heels, sought shelter. It is here, according to the prevailing belief, that the pair met their end inside a simple adobe home after a gunfight with a small military patrol. But will a close inspection of the hut and a visit to their unmarked grave in the cemetery be enough to convince you?
Tupiza Tours, inside the Hotel Mitru (www.tupizatours.com), can organize trips to San Vicente.
The Beach, Bacuit Archipelago, The Philippines
If you thought Alex Garland’s tropical-island classic The Beach was inspired by Thailand, think again; it was the Philippines, particularly the spectacular islands and lagoons of the Bacuit archipelago in Palawan, where tourists are still relatively thin on the ground but surely won’t be for long. It’s not hard to see why Garland was so bewitched by this place: 45 stunning limestone islands rise dramatically from an iridescent sea. Most have exquisite palm-fringed beaches, so you shouldn’t have too much trouble finding your own piece of paradise for the day. All you need to do is pack yourself a picnic, hire yourself an outrigger boat – known locally as a banca – and ask the boatman to do the rest.
Start by chugging gently out to Miniloc Island, where a narrow opening in the fearsomely jagged karst cliffs leads to a hidden lagoon known as Big Lagoon, home to hawksbill turtles. A couple of minutes away, also at Miniloc, is the entrance to Small Lagoon, which you have to swim through, emerging into a natural amphitheatre of gin-clear waters and the screech of long-tailed macaques.
Other islands you shouldn’t miss? Well, take your pick. Pangalusian has a long stretch of quiet beach; Tres Marias has terrific snorkelling along a shallow coral reef; and Helicopter Island (named after its shape) has a number of secluded sandy coves where your only companions are monitor lizards and the occasional manta ray floating by.
There are daily flights from Manila to El Nido, departure point for the archipelago, with SEAIR (www.flyseair.com) and Islands Transvoyager Incorporated.