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The Living Desert

The Living Desert(1953)

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Teeming life exists in the seemingly barren lands of the Great American Desert, which encompasses the area to the west of the Missouri River and to the east of the Rocky Mountains. The Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges block trade winds, creating a desert wasteland that includes both the highest point in America, Mt. Whitney, and the lowest point, Death Valley. After discussing the landscape from the Painted Desert to Monument Valley, with its mirages and the bubbling mud of the Salton Sea, the narrator turns his attention to the animal life. Birds, such as the red-tailed hawk and the woodpecker, make their nests among the spikes of the towering cacti, which provide a defense against predators. In this arid region, animals must go for months without water. As a result, some species, such as the tortoise, manufacture liquid inside their bodies from foliage. One tortoise attempts to court a lady tortoise, who bites him, after which her mate attacks. The mate upends the tortoise, which is in danger of dying until he manages to right himself. The coati mundi, a raccoon cousin, can eat the scorpion because it is almost immune to the sting. Baby coati mundis play in hollow logs and steal eggs from unguarded vulture nests. Wild pigs called peccaries abound, a vicious breed that travel in packs and fight off a bobcat, which races up a cactus to avoid them, wounding its paws. Next, a rattlesnake is shown using its sensitive tongue to track a pocket mouse. After the mouse mistakenly heads down a tarantula hole, the snake attacks the spider while the mouse burrows into the ground to escape. At night, millions of bats fly out of a cave, pursued by a hawk, which captures one. Although millipedes exude an odor that repels the tarantulas, they are eaten by toads, while snakes serve as prey for owls. Mating rituals flourish, including those of the tarantulas, scorpions and longhorn beetles. One beetle suffers rejection from the female, a fight with another male, and a battle with a tarantula, only to be eaten by a toad. Another nocturnal animal, the kangaroo rat, gathers food and buries it in the sand. A mother guards the babies in a nest, moving them out the back tunnel when a king snake threatens. After losing the scent of the rats, the snake attacks a gecko, biting off its detachable tail. The side-winder rattlesnake, with its ability to achieve traction, is able to go where others cannot, thus allowing it to trap rodents and lizards. After it misses a kangaroo rat, the rats seem to celebrate. The early hours of the morning bring cooler weather, prompting the ground squirrels to emerge, followed by a road runner. A skunk sprays one of the squirrels, after which a Gila monster approaches. The squirrels, including one dubbed "Skinny," fight back until the Gila monster retreats. Meanwhile, a tarantula fights a tarantula wasp, which manages to paralyze its larger foe and drag it into a nest, where it lays an egg that will feed off the spider. Later, a storm results in a flash flood, creating a river that rages over the sand until it runs out of strength. As a result, dormant seeds bloom, creating a bed of vibrant flowers. Although they soon die, they symbolize the cycle of birth and death constantly occurring in the desert.