Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Once upon a time in Almería

As chronicled here last time, we spent what is known here as the Halloween break (from school) on the Costa del Sol in Spain. This was meant to be a pure break, i.e. not like our usual holidays where we spend most of the time on the road. A strangely high percentage of what has historically passed for our vacation time has actually been accounted for by visits to relatives in California, Nevada and Ireland. And, when in recent years we have gone on real holidays, we have tended to cover lots of ground in a short amount of time, rather than savoring any one particular spot. We spent hardly any time at all in the nice mountain villa (with pool) that we rented in Tuscany last spring, spending our week instead driving all over Chianti, Florence, Pisa and other corners of the province. Our holiday in Spain was going to be different. We weren’t going to rent a car. We would only wander as far away from the hotel as we could attain on foot or on local transit, devoting most of our time to the pool and the beach. Relaxing, unwinding, resting. Those were our aims.

Yeah, well, that lasted a couple of days. The truth is, even though we aren’t exactly the most athletic, or even active, family around, we are not that good at just sitting around and relaxing either. We need to be doing something all the time, even if that something is sitting in a car or on a train. The Munchkin was content to spend full days in the pool, but the Missus and I were itching to see something besides central Marbella. We thought about going to Gibraltar, which was close enough to see when the air was clear. We even thought about a day tour to Tangier. (The northern tip of Morocco was also close enough to see across the Mediterranean most days, as the sun set in the evening.) But in the back of my head, there was one name that was always tugging at my mind: Almería.

The province of Almería occupies the southeast corner of Spain. Its eponymous city is a port that is believed to have been founded by the Phoenicians and subsequently controlled by Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Muslims and, off and on for the past few centuries, the Catholic monarchs. Its landmarks include Spain’s major Muslim fortress, built in the 7th century. To the city’s north is an arid, mountainous zone that is said to be the only true desert in Europe. Its harsh landscape drew at least one or two European filmmakers there in the 1950s, but a real trend was started in 1961 when English director Michael Carreras (who would go on to produce various Hammer horror films and write the screenplay for She and One Million Years B.C.) came there to film a Spanish/U.S. production. It was a western called The Savage Guns (Tierra brutal, in Spanish) and starred Richard Basehart and Don Taylor, as a veteran of the War of Independence, living a quiet life on his farm in Sonora near the Arizona border, who has his vow to foreswear violence tested by a gang of thugs. From that point on, the inland desert landscapes of Almería would be locations for filmmakers looking to create everything from the American southwest, Mexcio, various North African and Middle Eastern countries, ancient mythical lands and even other planets.

It is estimated that more than 300 westerns have been partially or totally filmed in Almería. The most notable of these were the so-called spaghetti westerns of Italian director Sergio Leone, which consist of his Clint Eastwood trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly plus his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West. (For this last film, Leone went to the effort and expense of also shooting a few scenes in the American Southwest’s Monument Valley, as a tribute to the “authentic” westerns that had inspired him.) Other westerns filmed there include Django, which starred Franco Nero as ruthless gunfighter dragging around a coffin with a machine gun in it; Sabata, with Lee Van Cleef; The Legend of Frenchie King, with Brigitte Bardot; Red Sun, about a samurai in the old west, with Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune; A Town Called Hell, with Robert Shaw; and Valdez Is Coming, with Burt Lancaster.

If the term “spaghetti western” started out as a sarcastic joke, it was because a lot of the Spanish-filmed flicks simply weren’t very good. In fact, often the best thing about a spaghetti or paella western was its name. Among of the more interesting titles (in the English language versions, anyway) are these:

  • Go Kill Everybody and Come Back Alone
  • A Present for You, Amigo… A Coffin From Sartana
  • Those Dirty Dogs
  • I’ll Kill Him and Return Alone
  • When Satan Grips the Colt
  • Sartana Kills Them All
  • Guns Don’t Talk
  • A Man Called Rage
  • Raise Your Hands, Dead Man, You’re Under Arrest
  • A Town Called Bastard

    The Magnificent Seven’s second sequel, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, with George Kennedy taking over the Yul Brynner role, was filmed in Almería. (The original film did its shooting in Mexico.) Brynner did go to Almería two years later to star in Catlow with Richard Crenna and Leonard Nimoy. But spaghetti and paella westerns are not the only movies to have done location shooting in Almería. Its desert landscapes graced such Hollywood epics as Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton; David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, starring Peter O’Toole; and Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton, starring George C. Scott. Almería was one of several Spanish and European locations used by Michelangelo Antonioni in The Passenger, with Jack Nicholson. John Milius filmed The Wind and the Lion (with Sean Connery) there and returned to the region seven years later to film some of Conan the Barbarian, starring the future governor of California. Connery was back in Andalusia in the late 1980s to film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Harrison Ford for Steven Spielberg. Less memorably, the 1986 scifi flick Solarbabies did filming there, as well, as did the strange 2002 Scottish movie Morvern Callar.

    With a cinematic pedigree like that, Almería was place that was irresistible to me. The good news was that it was only a few hours away by car from Marbella. The bad news was that it was a few hours away by car from Marbella. I suggested it to the Missus, and she agreeably went along with the idea. I arranged to hire an automobile, I mean, rent a car (this is the sort of language usage issue, in Spanish, that made the Spaniards think I had escaped from a Chilean time capsule) for the following day. We had just the one day to get there and back. Would we actually be able to get there before dark and see the fabled desert landscapes of Almería in daylight? Already there were signs of trouble. The rental car wouldn’t be available until 9:30. The Missus was coming up with ideas for stops along the way. Would my spaghetti/paella western dream remain nada más que un sueño?

    To be continued.

    -S.L., 17 November 2005

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