It was in the late 1950’s that the Desierto de Tabernas (Tabernas desert), in the southern Spanish Province of Almería, first became the unlikely star of one of Hollywood’s most blooming of genres – the Western. In fact, what are now known as the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, for their overwhelmingly Italian directorship, could probably equally be termed the ‘Spanish Westerns’ because of their shooting locations. Right from the beginning, the dusty backdrops of scorching arid desert and breath-taking vistas were not the stuff of the American plains and prairie, but rather the desert lands of the Spanish Levante, nestled deep in the Mediterranean coastlands of Europe.
The production of two markedly successful westerns, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw and Savage Guns, took place in Spain in 1958 and 1961 respectively. Some of the world’s most renowned directors then soon realised the Spanish potential, where dramatic scenery and low budgets went hand in hand. By the middle of the 60s, Spain had established itself as a leading player in the international film industry, offering a cheaper alternative for directors looking for exotic locations with an authentic character that allowed them to create rich historical backdrops with ease.
In 1962 however, David Lean made use of the Tabernas Desert in an altogether different genre. His historical epic Lawrence of Arabia, culminates in a scene filmed in the Cabo de Gata-Níjar, now UNESCO biosphere reserve area on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. Just two years later, the neighbouring desert lands were also chosen as the location for the filming of Cleopatra, one of the most expensive films ever produced by MGM. Having been used with immense success to depict both, the vast deserts of Asia Minor in historical saga films, and the Texas-Mexican borderlands required for the dusty westerns of the day, the dry lands of the Almería Province was thus established as a fantastic option for set designers and directors alike, a reputation that was only to increase in stature.
Perhaps the most famous of films to make use of the Spanish hinterlands, and one that gave rise to an entire tradition of films that were to make Spain their theatre of action, was Sergio Leone’s 1964 western, A Fistful of Dollars. It’s widely regarded as the film that gave a certain Clint Eastwood overnight notoriety, but it’s often forgotten that all the Spaghetti Westerns that followed (and there were a lot) owe their unique flavour and style, to the dusty and enigmatic expanses of Spanish Arcadia. Leone chose the sleepy rural town of Los Albaricoques in the Cabo de Gata-Níjar natural reserve, as the setting for the film’s climatic shootout. The low, white-washed bungalows and quiet narrow street ways mean the curious mix of tension and placidity that characterises the scene still resounds there today; while the welcoming silhouette sign of Eastwood, gun drawn, mid duel, means the tradition of film making in Almería is all but forgotten.
The success of the first of what was to become known as Leone’s ‘Dollars Trilogy’, meant that the Spanish country was to star in many more Hollywood films. Leone himself was to return throughout the next 2 years, to film two more productions starring Eastwood, For a Few Dollars More in 1965, and, now widely regarded as one of the most accomplished westerns of all time, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, in 1966. In the latter, Leone adventured further into Spain, and used the northern mountain plateaus around the city of Burgos; they were greener and less arid, and allowed Leone to take his narrative deeper into ‘states’, weaving his characters around the overarching, dialectical theme of the American civil war.
Today visitors can go and see ‘Mini Hollywood’, just outside the Andalusian town of Tabernas. It’s a fully constructed western town stead, nestled on the fringes of the southern Spanish desert lands, that was used in Leone’s productions of For a Few Dollars More and The Good the Bad and The Ugly. In fact, the town is still in use by film crews, and more recently it’s been featured in productions for the BBC.
This isolated and relatively sleepy corner of the Spanish country, where quiet villages dot the desert landscape, was perhaps an unlikely contender for Hollywood glory. However the unique character Spain’s climate and lands, so versatile in its ability to mirror a veritable myriad of the world’s geography, meant that it was propelled to the forefront of Hollywood productions in the mid-19th century, and has provided the backdrop for some classics that will never be forgotten - perhaps precisely because of their, albeit esoteric, Spanish character.
Today Almería is home to a particularly thriving film-tourism industry, and is still attracting production from the industry globally. Indeed, more than 70 films were shot in the region since 2000, with, no doubt, plenty more to come.