Following my previous post, I had known from a few early tie-in books that parts of STAR WARS - EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE film had been shot in California’s Death Valley. However the details were sketchy at best. There was some mention of sandcrawler and/or landspeeder shots, and also something else about an elephant in a Bantha costume. However, there was nothing terribly specific. It wasn’t until the mid-1990’s that I happened upon something more definitive.
I think it was around 1996 or 1997 that I found myself idle in the lobby of a local auto shop while my car was receiving new tires. As I paged through one of the issues of Autoweek magazine that were laying about, I happened across an image that I immediately recognized, but until that very moment had no idea was actually a real place.
The image in question was an overview of a desert landscape and was part of an article about testing new cars in the extreme environment of Death Valley. The picture was small and grainy, but it was unmistakable to my eye. I recognized it instantly as the view of Mos Eisley from STAR WARS. The specific location wasn’t mentioned in the Autoweek article, but some internet research at the time on the subject of Death Valley revealed the answer: Dante’s View.
The version in the film was a matte painting – originally painted on glass and later digitally altered for 1997 special edition of the film.
“Originally there was a shot in Tunisia where we were looking over Alec Guinness’s shoulder at the town, but we ended up not using it because there was a jiggle on it [which rules out using a matte painting]. So they went to Death Valley and shot a valley with nobody in it, a straight point-of-view shot. On this one George kept saying, ‘I want the buildings bigger and taller, I want to see them more.’ And I kept saying, ‘You wouldn’t see the buildings at that distance; they’re just little specks way out there.’ But he said, ‘Yes, you do - go out to Mulholland Drive on a clear day, you can see tall buildings and big.’ So I kept making the buildings bigger and bigger, but not as big as he wanted, so he kept saying, ‘Make them bigger!’ I think we came to a happy compromise.” - Harrison Ellenshaw (matte painter)
- Excerpt from The Making Of Star Wars, p. 261, by J.W. Rinzler
Dante’s View happened to be the first stop on my first visit to Death Valley in 2008. The weather was cloudy that day, so my view was a bit more moody than what was reflected in the film. I also didn't get up to Dante's View until the afternoon. The image used in STAR WARS is from earlier in the day.
If you are inside the park, from the Death Valley Visitors Center, travel 12 miles east on HWY 190 (past the Inn at Furnace Creek, Zabriskie Point, and Twenty Mule Team Road) to Furnace Creek Washington Road (the turn-off to Dante’s View). Alternately, if you are coming from Death Valley Junction, Furnace Creek Washington Road is 18 miles from the intersection of HWY 190 and HWY 127. From where it meets HWY 190, Furnace Creek Washington Road travels 13 miles up to Dante’s View. See also wikimapia | googlemaps
As with all roads and attractions in the park, check with the Death Valley National Park website for road closures prior to your trip. Dante's View is at 5,476 ft above sea level and directly overlooks Badwater Basin below (at 279 ft below sea level). That's a difference of over a mile in elevation! Even when it's warm (or even hot) at Badwater, it can be cool and windy up at Dante's View. It doesn't hurt to bring a coat or sweater just in case.