10 iconic abandoned movie sets
Would you believe Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket,” mostly set on the battlefields of Vietnam, was actually shot on the grounds of an abandoned coal factory north of London? Or that the desert planet Tatooine in “Star Wars” was filmed near its namesake, the Tunisian city Tataouine?
Giggster looked into the history of iconic movie sets and highlighted 10 that were abandoned after production(s) wrapped or decommissioned after years of service. The films on this list of iconic sets are famous for their production design, either for their enormous scale or elaborate detail. Some were constructed and used for only one film while others were used for a myriad of projects across decades.
Whether turned into a tourist mecca where you can eat and drink or forgotten and overgrown on private property, all sets on this list have retired from cinema. Read on for the often weird and surprising stories about movie-making and the sets that were obsessed over and then abandoned or destroyed—and sometimes preserved.
Travelers, take note! Your next destination may be inspired by one of these sets in exotic locales.
British coal factories turned into Vietnamese cities for ‘Full Metal Jacket’
Beckton Gasworks was an abandoned coal plant built on the River Thames in 1870. It became a stand-in for the war-torn city of Huế, Vietnam, in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 picture “Full Metal Jacket” due to its dilapidated, industrial look. The film was shot exclusively in England, mostly in north London. The production team, led by Anton Furst, brought in a huge number of palm trees, which required intensive care and had to be lifted by cranes and frequently watered.
The coal factory became an elaborate recreation of Huế in the long sniper sequence at the tail end of the film. For production, the destitute factory was decorated with Vietnamese signs and advertisements, along with a skyline and backdrop often disguised with fire and smoke.
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The ‘Old West’ at Paramount Ranch
This “Old West” movie set replete with a full town and a country church was destroyed in the 2018 Woolsey Fire, which ravaged over 97,000 acres across California.
Due to its gorgeous, scenic natural landscapes and its numerous Western structures, the location was the setting for hundreds of iconic films and TV shows, starting in 1927 with W.C. Fields’ “Two Flaming Youths,” during the late silent film era and continuing through the last days before the 2018 fire. It was the shooting location for such Westerns as 2015’s “Bone Tomahawk,” starring Patrick Wilson and Kurt Russell. The two actors play frontier men who take to the open trail and mountainous terrain endemic to Paramount Ranch alongside a ragtag posse to free settlers captured by cannibals.
Paramount Ranch was also the setting for the HBO TV series “Westworld,” and though most of the ranch was completely destroyed, the church—a major setting in season one—survived. Paramount Ranch is part of the National Park Service that announced the train depot, which also remains, and plans are in progress to restore the location.
Plaszow concentration camp replica from ‘Schindler’s List’
A replica of the Plaszow concentration camp in Krakow, Poland, was built for 1993’s “Schindler’s List” only a few hundred meters from its historic location before it was razed after the war. The film is primarily shot in and around Krakow with stark art design and black-and-white cinematography eliciting a sense of authenticity around the events of World War II.
The fastidiously recreated set was built near the Liban quarry that provides the rocky cliffs seen at a distance in the film. The crew also replicated an enormous camp including the front gate, barracks, towers, and SS commandant Amon Goeth’s (Ralph Fiennes) home on a cliff above. Goeth’s villa had a balcony overlook where the notorious Nazi war criminal shot prisoners below. The set was demolished post-production out of respect for the victims of the horrifying atrocities that occurred in places nearby and depicted in the movie.
Pioneertown is a recreation of a Western outpost complete with a saloon and stacks of prop dynamite located in Yucca Valley, California. Pioneertown originated in 1946 as the brainchild of several Hollywood actors, including those who frequently played cowboys, such as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. At that time, filming Westerns usually involved long treks into the California desert where the crew had to live without modern amenities.
Conceptually, Pioneertown could offer movie set facades while doubling as a more convenient place to live and work. The town was frequently used as a set piece for movies and TV shows, including 1950’s “The Cisco Kid.” In recent times, while used far less as a set, it has become increasingly “settled” with residents in addition to being a busy tourist attraction and wedding destination.
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The barn from ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’
In the emblematic Clint Eastwood Western, “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” the interior sets mark a sharp contrast to gorgeous, open terrain around Paria, Utah, where it was filmed. The movie lures you inside weather-beaten homesteads and an old barn where sunlight shines through the slats. The lighting creates a mystique around Eastwood’s character, Wales, a farmer turned gunfighter, whose family was murdered by Union soldiers and is now obsessed with vengeance.
Tambi Larsen was in charge of the production design, while Charles Pierce decorated sets filled with frontier relics suggesting an arduous life. Kanab, Utah, near Paria, is also known as “Little Hollywood” because numerous movies were filmed around the area—especially Westerns or occasionally science fiction films looking to create a Martian desert, as with 2012’s “John Carter.” You can visit the ranch house and barn from “Josey Wales” at a tourist attraction—a museum of abandoned movie sets including discarded props and worn-down structures that seem much smaller in real life than they do in the expansive, widescreen vistas of the film.
Hobbiton from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ trilogies
Dan Hennah was nominated for Best Production Design Oscars, along with Grant Major and Alan Lee, for all three “Lord of the Rings” films and again, with Ra Vincent and Simon Bright, for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” The J.R.R. Tolkien novel adaptations are known for their spectacular recreation of fantasy locales.
The Hobbiton Shire, where the main characters of both trilogies dwell, was used for all the Peter Jackson-directed Tolkien films. A family sheep farm overlooking a lake was chosen by production scouts on an aerial search of Waikato, New Zealand. Verdant green hillsides and abundant natural beauty made an ideal backdrop for the intensive construction of dug-in domiciles with rounded doors and beautiful gardens. The Shire set enjoys a post-production life as a major tourist attraction, complete with tours, a restaurant, and a recreated pub from the films, The Green Dragon Inn, which serves ales and ciders.
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Tatooine from the original ‘Star Wars’
The structure that served as the iconic Mos Eisley cantina in the original “Star Wars” from 1977 was once a bakery in southern Tunisia, where many of the desert scenes were shot. The movie’s desert planet even took its name from a Tunisian city, Tataouine, used by the crew during filming.
The North African coastal nation is mountainous with a Mediterranean climate, except for its southern desert that’s part of the vast Sahara. Recall the iconic shots of the droids making their way across the rolling, barren sand hills after they crash land. Shots of Tatooine capture the isolation and beauty of the rural Skywalker homestead when Luke gazes out at the evening glow of twin setting suns, making the first “Star Wars” like a Western but set in another galaxy far, far away.
You can check out this set piece in Nefta, Tunisia, along with several other locales used throughout the franchise that is now a part of the local tourism scene.
The summer palace from ‘Anna and the King’
1999’s “Anna and the King” starred Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat and earned Academy Award nominations for production designers Luciana Arrighi and Ian Whittaker. They painstakingly imagined the 1860s court life of the Thai monarchy in the resplendent summer palace, which was rebuilt on a Malaysian island. The Thai government refused to let the film shoot in its country due to Yun-fat’s depiction of the real-life King Mongkut, which was deemed a false portrayal.
The popular story (based on a British woman’s memoirs) has been adapted several times, as in the 1956 musical “The King and I” (banned in Thailand). Like “Anna and the King,” these portrayals rely on the romantic fantasy of an exotic emperor becoming civilized by a white lady who likewise influences custom and politics. The elaborate summer palace was built on Pantai Kok Beach on the island of Langkawi and remains a popular tourist attraction there today.
The coastal village from ‘Popeye‘
Robert Altman was known as an auteur of the American New Wave cinema for such iconic 1970s films as “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” and “Nashville,” which had a sense of realism. Altman’s 1980 adaptation of the classic cartoon “Popeye” into a live-action musical was an abrupt turn from his usual Westerns and contemporary satires.
“Popeye” is notable for its extraordinary production design that replicates a cartoon world. The seaside Sweethaven Village was elaborately built on Malta’s coast under the production design of Wolf Kroeger, with original and whimsical set decoration by Jack Stephens. The movie set seems lyrical and otherworldly—the perfect setting for Robin Williams’ animated performance as the comic strip character with giant, muscled forearms. Today, the set is a restored tourist attraction, a theme park ready for visitors looking to experience cartoon magic.
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The unearthed set from ‘The Ten Commandments’
Cecil B. DeMille is famous for directing elaborate Hollywood epics, using spectacular scale with small, army-sized casts and crews. DeMille’s tour de force was 1923’s silent-era hit “The Ten Commandments,” shot at the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes about 150 miles north of Los Angeles. The film’s centerpiece was an elaborate, colossal Egyptian city designed by Paul Iribe that was abandoned post-production and buried under coastal sand. The forgotten set became the subject of a 2017 documentary, “The Lost City of Cecil B. DeMille,” that explored the decades-long efforts to unearth the set.
DeMille reportedly blew up the enormous set with dynamite so that it could never be used again after a madcap three-week shoot where more than 5,000 cast and crew members were housed in a tent city nearby. The sphinxes and other set pieces were built with plaster but lasted while buried due to the mineral composition of the area’s dune sand.