The Good, the Bad & the Spanish

7 October 2015 Katherine Smyrk

The Good, the Bad & the Spanish

Spain has a secret. Hundreds of kilometres southwest of sparkling Barcelona, east of crumbling Granada and south of heart-thumping Madrid, lies the region of Almería. From its ragged coast, if you have very good eyesight, you can see Africa.

The water that hugs the coastline is shimmering and cobalt blue. The houses are all painted white, with sprays of impossibly pink bougainvillea draping the fences. During summer, every day is 37 degrees with still, endless skies. You have dreams of rain, or maybe just clouds. It’s not these towns that are the secret – they were discovered long ago by sunburned English retirees and wealthy, topless Spanish tourists.

But if you get in a car and drive inland, these romantic little places soon disappear. There are no sprinklers here, chugging non-stop in a desperate fight to keep the grass green. Brown, bald mountains loom ahead. The flowers are replaced by cacti, rationing water in the heat. Your car is quickly covered in a layer of dust. The atmosphere is so dry it feels on the point of spontaneous combustion. The south of Spain, a gorgeous Mediterranean destination for so many fleeing the unpredictable weather of northern Europe, is also the site of Europe’s only desert.

Up ahead you see a little town, plonked on the dry earth. It looks abandoned. Upon closer inspection you see horses, swinging saloon doors. You half expect to see Clint Eastwood strolling by, cigarette perched on lip, but you dismiss the thought. This is Spain.

But, if you had been in this spot almost 50 years ago, that could have been exactly what you’d have seen. These days, most of the Tabernas Desert is a manufactured tourist destination. But in 1966, this was the set of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (or El Bueno, El Feo y El Malo to the locals). The movie may have given the impression that you were traversing through the wilds of untamed America, but you were really just a few kilometres away from Spain’s Mediterranean coast. As Eastwood was firing guns at bad guys, people were sipping sangria not far away.

The secret is Spain’s central role in the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s. The list of films made in Almería from the 1960s onwards is extraordinarily long and varied. But Westerns are what truly belong here, and iconic films such as Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965) can all be claimed by the Spaniard film teams.

Locals will brag that it’s the exotic location and Spain’s famously long hours of sunlight that drew Hollywood here so often. But the memoirs of cinematographer Eddie Fowlie (David Lean’s Dedicated Manic: Memoirs of a Film Specialist) suggest that, in fact, a dictator by the name of Francisco Franco had more to do with it. Yes, tax cuts offered by the decades-long dictator lured filmmakers with tight budgets across the North Atlantic more than the perfection of Almería’s desert. But once there, the film crews found something they liked, and they kept coming back.

Although Westerns are the region’s chief claim, some surprising titles have been made in Almería, or at least had their desert-like scenes shot there. Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963), Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are among them. More recently, Ridley Scott’s Exodus (2014), starring Christian Bale, found its way to the south coast, and the Game of Thrones circus will be arriving in October to shoot scenes for the sixth season.

The sands of the Spanish desert are laden with memories from so many important films over the last 50 years. But as soon as you start driving back towards the coast, the glittering beach life distracts you. The memories of those dusty Western sets wobble and then disappear in your mind, like a mirage.

But later, as you lie on the beach, baking in the Mediterranean sun, you might smell a waft of cigarette smoke, a car might backfire, or an inland wind might blow in a swirl of desert air. Then, suddenly, Eastwood will be standing there, scowling at you. That famous theme music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly will start racing through your head and you will remember it all again. You will remember that southern Spain is the true home of the Western.

 » Katherine Smyrk (@ksmyrkis the Staff Writer/Editor for The Big Issue.

This article first appeared in Ed#494 of The Big Issue.