Star Wars In Death Valley – The Sandpeople Attack

Desolation Canyon

This location - just north of Artist's Palette - is where the shots of Sandpeople with their Banthas were filmed for STAR WARS - EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE in early 1977. In actual fact, there was only one Bantha. A second was realized by duplicating the first via optical compositing. The Bantha was an elephant in costume. Apparently the original plan was to use two elephants for the pair of scripted Banthas, but for whatever reason (likely budget and/or logistics), only one was brought to Death Valley.

The shots filmed in Desolation Canyon were combined with shots filmed the previous year in Tunisia's "Star Wars Canyon." The scene in question involves Luke looking through his macrobinoculars at two Banthas and a single Sandperson before he (and C-3PO) are attacked by second one. All the shots with Luke and Threepio were realized in Tunisia, while all of the Bantha shots were done in Death Valley. The Sandpeople (aka Tusken Raiders) were filmed in both locations (though with different performers in the costumes).

Lucas was leading the second unit, and had called in Mark Hamill for their pickups. Hamill was driving himself out to the location in mid-January, the Friday night before the rest of the crew left, when he had a bad car accident. According to Kurtz, Hamill was taken to County General and then, because of the severity of his wounds, to Mount Sinai Hospital. “They operated from about nine o’clock in the morning until about four in the afternoon,” Kurtz says. “I saw him at four thirty, and Mark said, ‘Oh. I’m sorry I got delayed. As soon as I get out of here this morning, we can go.’ He evidently had no idea what he looked like.”

With Hamill out, Lucas and his crew set up their gear to capture footage of banthas, Tusken Raiders, and whatever they could. “There were a lot of things I wanted to shoot with Mark that we had to do without — bits and pieces, at least ten close-ups — but that was just fate,” Lucas says. “We ended up using a double for the landspeeder shot.”

“I was real concerned about the elephant wearing the bantha headgear,” Rick Baker says. “It weighed something like three hundred pounds.” 

The “bantha” was named Mardji, a 22-year-old, 8,500-pound female Asian elephant, who was normally a resident of Marine World Africa U.S.A. “It took six men to build up [her costume] and they worked for a month,” says Ron Whitfield, director of general theater at the amusement park. The base was a “howdah,” or elephant saddle. The curving horns were made from flexible home ventilation tubing. Mardji’s shaggy coat was created from palm fronds, while the head mask was molded from chicken wire and then sprayed with foam to give it shape; the beard was made from horse hair. Although she was able to water-ski for spectators at the park, the bantha tail, made of wood and covered with thick bristles, gave Mardji problems - but her handler gave her apples, which compensated for the costume.

“We all fell in love with Mardji,” Lucas adds. “It was the first time she’d ever been out in the real world. They led her down to a creek in Death Valley and she just loved to play around in that creek.” Fortunately, the elephant was good-natured and her shots were recorded without incident.

- Excerpt from The Making Of Star Wars, pp. 249-251 by J.W. Rinzler

This wasn't Mardji's only Star Wars performance. For the sequel, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, several members of ILM shot footage of her to use as reference for the movement of the Imperial Walkers.

Mardji died in November 1995.

Getting There

Desolation Canyon isn’t noted on most maps, but it is noted on google maps if you zoom in enough. The turn off to Desolation Canyon is 5 miles from the Vistor Center at Furnace Creek.  From the Vistor center, head southeast on HWY 190. Just before you pass the Furnace Creek Inn, turn south on Badwater Road. The turnoff (Desolation Canyon Road) is an unmarked, unpaved road, on the east side of Badwater Road about 1 mile north of the Artist’s Palette Drive exit. It is about ½ mile from the turn off to the unimproved parking lot. From the parking lot, walk east (not south) another ½ mile or so into the canyon. As with all roads and attractions in the park, check with the Death Valley National Park website for road closures prior to your trip. See also wikimapia | googlemaps


Further Thoughts

As I understand it, the road into Desolation Canyon used to go at least twice as far as it currently does. Flooding in 2004 washed out that portion of the road. But it's not a long or technical hike in by any means. Most of the shots involving the Bantha(s) were done right at the mouth of the canyon. The exception is the shot for Luke's macrobinoculars. To find that one, you only need climb the small rise immediately south of where the Bantha(s) were and then look back to line things up.

Next up... The Jawas Hunt R2!