The spaghetti Western once rode tall, so we decided to revisit its Spanish origins, where sets still molder in the dusty desert amid the magic of the movies made there.
By Andrew McCarthy
“No one will set foot in this hell. Except you and me.”
—Tuco, in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
What was he thinking?” That’s my first impression upon seeing the Desierto de Tabernas, in Spain’s southeastern Almería region. The only semidesert in Europe, Tabernas averages only three days of rain annually, and with temperatures reaching 118°F in summer, it can seem a stark, unwelcoming place. But for 15 years, beginning in the early 1960s, it served as a mecca for filmmakers. It was here that Italian director Sergio Leone popularized the spaghetti Western (his father had made Italy’s first Western, in 1913) and filmed his operatic “Dollars Trilogy”: A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and—cue the Ennio Morricone score—The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as well as his classic Once Upon a Time in the West. In the process he rewrote the rules of how the Western was made, revived a stale genre, and made a young TV actor named Clint Eastwood a movie star.
Tabernas has been the setting of hundreds of films, including Antonioni’s The Passenger, Patton, and even parts of Cleopatra. But it is the spaghetti Western that is near and dear to my heart and the reason I am in the Spanish desert exploring the old “Western towns” Leone built as sets. They still stand, baking in the sun. Now I want to see if the ghosts of Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, and Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” continue to resonate in this sere land where so much film history was made, 6,000 miles from Hollywood.
But at the moment I’m standing in the middle of this seemingly impenetrable landscape, surrounded by scrub and dust and not much else. I’m wondering what Leone saw in the place.
Three moldering sets/towns—Western Leone, Mini-Hollywood, and Fort Bravo— lie within a few miles of one another in the heart of the desert. All are mock-ups of typical Western towns: Fake storefronts put a face on hollow saloons, banks, hotels, and jails. All try, with varying degrees of success, to cash in on their history.
My first stop is Western Leone. As I bounce up the long dirt road in my car, choking on desert dust, I feel a thrill of recognition upon seeing the large red homestead that sheltered Claudia Cardinale and was so central to Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. On closer inspection there’s not much else, other than a few faded facades and a haunting wind. On this day, Western Leone is deserted, save for a man, dressed as a Union Army sergeant, asleep outside the homestead, from which a sign reading “Saloon” egregiously hangs. A windblown door wakes him, and upon discovering my presence, he slowly rouses and disappears inside. The sound of an old generator sputters to life. As the man reemerges, the theme music from For a Few Dollars More swells from a massive speaker. I don’t catch the “sergeant’s” name—maybe it’s the Andalusian accent or maybe he is just trying for a little of the old Eastwood mystery—but he does offer, without much conviction, to photograph me period-style in hat, spurs, and a sixshooter for a mere seven euros.
Despite the sun-blistered attitude, this place does retain a certain aura. You get the feeling, like in a deserted American West mining settlement, that “something happened here.” All that is missing is some tumbleweed.
My next stop: Mini-Hollywood, where much of The Good, The Bad and the Ugly was shot. No longer a movie location, it is now a theme park. Costumed cowboys and “working girls” parade its paved walkways. There’s a video arcade, and storefronts tout cheap trinkets. Mini-Hollywood is clearly courting the package-tour trade, as evidenced by the huge parking area with spaces built for buses. I don’t linger long.
I’m not sure what to expect as I head for the last location, Fort Bravo, but instantly upon arrival, I relax. Maybe it’s the classic Western Main Street, with blacksmith, jail, and hotel. Maybe it’s the fully operational saloon with horses loitering out front. The place feels familiar, in the way only a location you haven’t been to before can. There’s a lazy charm to Fort Bravo. It even boasts its own gallows.
The ramshackle set was bought nearly 30 years ago for $6,000 by Rafa Molina, a sandy-haired, easygoing stuntman from Valencia, “to make sure that if a film was going to be shot here, I knew I’d have work.” It is the only one of the three towns that is frequently used as a film set. Broke and out of work in the early ’80s, Molina opened the place as a tourist attraction. He charged 25 pesetas (10 cents) a visit, and let folks wander around the deserted facades and storefronts. A few years later he began to stage espectáculos—mock shoot-outs and barroom brawls. It gave the tourists something to hang around for—and Molina a chance to sell them beer.
The shows are kitschy, but played with an innocence and joy typical of the people I meet here. And they allow my outlaw fantasies free rein. Late in the day, with most everyone gone, with the desert still and the shadows long, I walk slowly down the middle of the street, hands hanging by my sides, wanting to see, maybe, Eli Wallach’s menacing “Tuco” exit through those swinging doors, or Lee Van Cleef’s “Angel Eyes” crouching on that rooftop.
As Molina and I hang around the saloon, in wanders Paco Barrilado, a stocky Andalusian, former boxer, stuntman, and a veteran of numerous Sergio Leone Westerns. “He was strict,” Barrilado says of Leone. “You did what he said, or there was trouble.”
“Did you?” I ask.
He shrugs. “I was young. Sergio would always have a dollar coin in his hand, and when he became angry, he would roll it between his fingers. That was bad.”
The two men swap war stories. Both claim they worked on Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, shot 20 miles to the south where the Tabernas desert extends toward the sea. “I must have been killed ten times in that film,” says Molina.
“I was blown up in a German tank and crashed a plane in that one,” counters Barrilado.
“We made so many movies then. You’d be contracted for a film with an English title, and then it would come out in Spain with a different name. I can’t tell you how many times I went to the cinema and said, ‘Hey, just a minute, I’m in this movie.’”
Not to be outdone, Barrilado claims: “I’m the one who bought the poncho Clint Eastwood wore in the Leone films.”
“Wait a minute,” I say, “I saw an interview with Eastwood, and he said he bought it in the San Fernando Valley in California.”
“I bought it for him, in Níjar, a few miles from here,” Barrilado insists.
Molina looks at me and rolls his eyes. “I also taught him how to roll that cigar in his mouth. He didn’t smoke, you know?”
It’s getting too thick for me, so I decide to head off to Níjar in search of a poncho.
Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra Alhamilla Mountains ten miles to the south of Fort Bravo, Níjar is a village of 3,000, with square white houses and narrow lanes typical of this part of Almería. And while I see no ponchos, I do discover a town famous for its artisans. Local pottery clutters windowsills, and jarapas—rugs made from rags—hang in nearly every shop.
Isabel Soler, a black-haired, dark-eyed native of Níjar, has been weaving rugs all her life. “My granny was a weaver, and my mom. And my dad weaves.” Her husband, Matthew, came to Níjar 18 years ago from England and found his way into the local trade of throwing pots.
“You still need only to ask for ‘the Englishman’ and anyone in town can point the way to our shop. I was invisible here till the kids were born, then instantly I became integral. The kids belong to the village.”
We follow the family dog, Henry, out of their home/studio/shop into the blistering heat.
“Could you imagine ever going back to the U.K.?” I ask. He shakes his head slowly. “It’s just too dark.”
I look up the valley. Matthew follows my gaze. “That’s Huebro. It’s nice up there. Different. There’s a place I go for lunch sometimes. Casa Enriqueta.”
Matthew said I couldn’t miss it. But a walk around Huebro reveals nothing. In truth, it’s a stretch to call Huebro a village. It is just a dozen or so small, box-shaped homes gathered around a church perched on the side of a mountain. I see not another soul, save for a few dogs asleep in whatever shade they can find—and there isn’t much. The only sounds I hear are the bells of goats and the bleating of sheep. I look up. The animals cling impossibly to the sheer mountainside, tucked into the rock behind the church. They all look at me. Are they calling for help?
I try the church door. Locked. I give up and am ready to retrace my tracks toward Níjar, down through the almond groves, when I hear what sound like voices, and I spot the small blue plaque that reads “Casa Enriqueta.” How did I miss that?
I part the beads that seem to hang in every doorway in Almería, and enter. As my eyes adjust, I see the place is nearly empty. Just six men around a table in the back, smoking, drinking coffee. An old man at the bar watches TV. It seems a prerequisite in Spanish bars that the TV be on, loud, whether anyone is watching or not.
A dark-haired woman in her 60s stands, unmoving, behind the bar. She stares at me.
“Is it too late for lunch?” I ask.
She squints her eyes.
“What do you want?”
She shakes her head at me now, and from her look of tolerant disapproval, it is clear that this is a woman who raised children. She won’t let me go hungry.
“Cordero y patatas?” she offers.
No fool I. “Sí!”
She lowers her head, mutters something I’m grateful I don’t understand, and stomps into the kitchen. Twenty minutes later, Enriqueta slams down a rustic-looking plate of lamb chops and fries.
Once she sees I enjoy her cooking, which is simple and delicious, she allows herself to be drawn into conversation. A mother of five, Enriqueta has lived in Huebro, a village of “15 or 20” she tells me, for 35 years. Her children are “gone, scattered.” I feel a pang of sympathy for this formidable woman, until I find out a few minutes later that her kids are “scattered” as far as Níjar, less than three miles below. Then she whispers with an unguarded smile: “But up here, it’s a different world.”
Back at Fort Bravo, Ray Murray and I are on horseback, riding into the badlands of the Tabernas desert. A police sergeant in England, Murray came to Spain 11 years ago. It’s difficult to see the cop he was, so much a part of this place is he now. He runs a local school that promotes ethical business practices, as well as a horseriding concern out of Fort Bravo. As we move through the desert, conversation drifts easily in and out of silence, our topics ranging from sustainable living to children and, invariably, to the movies and how they affect our lives. Of course, we talk about the Western. “I don’t think I’d be the man I am if I’d never seen High Noon,” says Murray. “It gave me the ethics I have.”
As we crest a ridge, he gazes out over the valley. “Look familiar?”
“Should it?” I ask.
“We’re standing right where Leone did the famous first shot of For a Few Dollars More, where the rider is shot off his horse.”
We ride on, into a ravine, and come upon a spring bubbling out of the earth. It’s the only water we’ve seen, and the horses stop to drink. The desert cliffs rise high above us on either side. We move on, my saddle creaking rhythmically. I realize that I am a lot calmer than I have been in a long, long time.
“Maybe Leone wasn’t that crazy after all,” I offer.
Murray considers me and nods.
Then, up ahead, I see a strange sight. The dry riverbed opens out and I spot several sun-blasted palm trees, swaying just slightly in the faintest of breezes. It’s the last thing I expected in the middle of the desert.
“What is this? An oasis?”
I look at him. “I was joking.”
“They created it for Lawrence of Arabia,” Murray says. “I’ve heard about it for years. I knew it was back this way.”
This desert is revealing one surprise after another. In 1961, filming for director David Lean’s classic Lawrence of Arabia was forced to relocate from Jordan in midproduction. My interest is piqued. Why did Lean come to Tabernas? In search of an answer, I find my way to the bar of Hotel El Dorado, in the seaside town of Carboneras, 33 miles southeast of Fort Bravo. The El Dorado is a faded palace papered with photos of old Hollywood.
It is Eddie Fowlie’s creation.
Fowlie was Lean’s location scout, prop man, special-effects expert, and all-around right hand. At 85, he’s still a lion.
“The big thing we needed was Aqaba,” Fowlie says. “We needed a spot where the desert came right down to the sea. The minute I saw this place, I knew we had something, and we built Aqaba right here.”
He liked the location so much, he bought the land, built this hotel, and never left.
Fowlie was beside Lean for all the big ones. Doctor Zhivago, Ryan’s Daughter, The Bridge on the River Kwai.
“We shot that one down in Ceylon.”
I can’t resist. “I think it’s Sri Lanka now.”
“Don’t be a smart-ass,” Fowlie barks and continues without missing a beat.
“One day David Lean said to me during Lawrence, ‘We need an oasis.’ For the scene with Anthony Quinn. We couldn’t find one, so I built one. That’s what you saw. I’d heard it was still there. They even had it on maps for a while.” Fowlie waves away the waitress. “We blew up the trains for Lawrence down the beach in Cabo de Gata.”
He leans in close to me.
“What do you need to blow up a train?”
He slams his fist on the bar.
I leave Eddie as I found him and head south. It’s a short hop along the coast into Cabo de Gata Natural Park, where the desert extends over the coastal mountains and down to the Mediterranean. These beaches aren’t the white, velvety blankets of sand found in the Caribbean. They are raw, wild, untamed. Scrub and chumbo cactus give way to high dunes, which end in calm blue water.
While I don’t see any smoldering trains, I do find the beach at Los Genoveses, where Spielberg blew up Rafa Molina and Paco Barrilado repeatedly in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But it’s another beach in the park that really interests me. I’m standing atop dunes on the tip of eastern Spain. In front of me, the sea. Behind me, desert.
Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” tumbled down these same dunes, broken with thirst and sunstroke in what looked on film like the heart of the desert. But had Leone turned his camera in the other direction, we would have seen the broad vista of the Mediterranean just a few yards away.
As I look inland, I realize that somewhere along the way, this place has touched me. This Mediterranean desert has emerged as a strong, subtle, changing thing, not the lifeless tract I had first perceived. It has worked itself under my skin. The Good. The Bad. And the Ugly. All of it. I came looking for a movie “fantasy camp,” and found something more.
I gaze out over the sea, then turn away from it. Sliding down the dunes, I head back. Back into the heart of the desert.