Welcome to the Wild Wild West, in Spain
A European paean to an American idea, passed from generation to generation, lives on in Spain half a century after the filming of a classic spaghetti western trilogy.
( Roads & Kingdoms )
The show began, as the movies it mimics often do, when a stranger rode into town.
The horses reared, kicking up dust. Punches were thrown, shots fired, insults slung. Three sheriffs stood against three outlaws: dark waistcoats versus khaki duster jackets. A sheriff heaved himself off a balcony onto a bale of hay on the ground. An outlaw swung off his saddle and clung sideways to his galloping horse. Another flailed from the hangman’s noose, and, before going limp, waved goodbye to the tourists who had clustered to watch the shootout from the porches and balconies of the bank, the sheriff’s office, the saloon, and the hotel surrounding the square. Music by the Italian composer Ennio Morricone, all coyote howls and soul-shaking leitmotifs, blared from loudspeakers while kids in cowboy costumes shook toy guns at each other.
As the gunfire continued, some of the kids laughed, others cried. “Oye! Estamos jugando!” a sheriff yelled. Hey, we’re just playing!
Welcome to Oasys MiniHollywood, a movie set-turned-Wild West theme park in Southern Spain, on the fringe of Europe’s only desert. The Tabernas Desert could be mistaken for New Mexico, Texas or Arizona—and for years it was, most famously as the solitary expanse at the heart of the Italian director Sergio Leone’s classic Dollars trilogy: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For A Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966). With their ironic humor, moral ambivalence, and mock-operatic scope, the films not only made Clint Eastwood a poncho-wearing, gun-slinging icon, but also came to define the spaghetti western. Like the movies of other Italian directors who populated the genre, Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy was an audacious ode to an America that he had first known through the Hollywood films of his childhood in Rome.
There are two other Wild West theme parks in the Tabernas Desert besides Oasys: Fort Bravo, the largest of the three and which still operates as a movie studio; and Western Leone, originally built as the town of Sweetwater for Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Sergio Leone’s elegy to the western. They are all a short drive from a town also called Tabernas, a sprawl of whitewashed houses with a population of 4,000, in the province of Almeria. A silhouette cut-out of Clint Eastwood hangs on a building in the central plaza. Rumors swirl about the parentage of one resident who bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Henry Fonda, who played the villain in Once Upon a Time in the West. Even death here is said to echo the movies.
“You know, there's a saying that when someone wants to commit suicide in Tabernas, they hang themselves like in the westerns,” said Diego Garcia Sr., one of the originators of the show at Oasys almost two decades ago, and who has since retired into a managerial role. He laughed heartily, but his son Diego Jr., a 34-year-old who plays a sheriff in the current iteration of the Oasys show, said his father was only half joking.
Managed by a hotel group, Oasys was initially built as the town of El Paso for the second film in the Dollars trilogy, For a Few Dollars More. The sets from the movie remain remarkably recognizable, though their names have changed. The Saloon Hotel, where Clint Eastwood’s Manco watches Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer light a match against the neck stubble of a sputtering bit villain, is now the Yellow Rose Saloon; and the El Paso Bank, which was robbed by El Indio’s bandits, is now the First City Bank. In The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, Oasys also stood in as the town of Valverde, where Eli Wallach’s Tuco waits impatiently for Clint Eastwood’s Blondie to shoot him free of the noose after they made a pact to split the bounty.
For most of the day, the actors at Oasys remain in character for the tourists—posing for photographs, taking families on cart rides, offering western-style makeovers. Alicia Ruiz brings a stoic grace to her role as the high-kicking lead dancer at the saloon, watching protectively over her troupe of university students. In her early forties, Alicia looks every inch the worldly barmaid who has outlived any number of foolhardy cowboys who have swaggered through the doors of her saloon. For almost two decades, she has lived a double life: performing can-can and cowgirl routines while moonlighting as an emergency tele-operative at a hospital in the city of Almeria.
“When we were children, there were only two television networks here in Spain, and every Saturday at noon they would broadcast westerns. That was just what we watched on Saturdays," she said. "When I’m cooking at home and listening for music I can use for our show, my son is yeeehaah-ing around the house, and when I’m out shopping for clothes I realise I pick those with typical western touches. The culture has a way of creeping into your everyday life."
Diego Jr.’s childhood was even more closely tied to the cinematic world. “When I was a boy, we would have a fiesta at night after my father and the men finished the show, and then we would ride the horses out into the desert,” he recalled. Now, when he can steal some time away on quiet days, he will swap his cowboy boots for his trainers and make a run for the desert he knows so well, spread out like a frozen ochre sea, while techno thumps in his ears.
Surrounded by the Filabres and Alhamilla mountains, the Tabernas Desert receives about 300 days of sunshine and 15 days of rain a year. The desert’s compact 280 kilometers are cut through with choppy waves of badlands and dry riverbeds called ramblas, a whole world of surreal landscapes all within easy reach of the A-92 highway, which connects Almería to Granada and on to Seville. Cristina Segui, a guide with Malcaminos who runs jeep tours in the area, said that 12 million years ago this was the Mediterranean seafloor. If you squint hard enough, you can still see the curves of fossilized waves on rock.
Film production began in Almería in 1951, but it was the box-office success of films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963), and Sergio Leone’s westerns that fueled a movie boom during the 60s and 70s. By 1968, Almería went from being one of Spain’s least developed regions to having an airport, hotels, and infrastructure that could meet the demands of Hollywood. The Tabernas Desert would continue to serve as a dramatic backdrop for films like Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), but already by the late 70s waning interest in westerns and cheaper competition from countries like Morocco and Turkey had brought Almería’s golden age as the “Hollywood of Europe” to an end.
Rafa Lopez, who is 52 years old, plays an outlaw in Oasys’ Wild West show and has lived all his life in the Tabernas Desert. As a child, when his father was on the team of construction workers that built Oasys, Rafa lived inside the theme park, when that was still allowed. Growing up in that golden age, he had big dreams, but the realities of the film industry eventually got the better of him. Twice in his career, he quit Oasys to pursue acting; and when that didn’t work out, he waited tables, worked in construction, and tried a stint at Fort Bravo. Then, ten years ago, Spain’s economic crisis forced him back to Oasys—a place he had never really left. Now, Rafa is the most veteran of all the theme parks’ working showmen.
“When you’re young, you think you’ll always be young and life is beautiful and you don’t worry about the future,” Rafa said, echoing the melancholy of a Sergio Leone antihero. “When you’re my age, every part of your body hurts when you get roughed up. I enjoy my job, but I’ve started to worry.”
In recent years, the combination of lower costs brought about by Spain’s debt crisis, generous tax incentives for foreign productions, and political volatility in the Middle East and North Africa once again made Almería a viable shooting location for international filmmakers. In 2013, the filming of Ridley Scott’s Exodus further re-energized the industry, with television series like Penny Dreadful and Game of Thrones and films like Assassin’s Creed also being shot in the region. Even the giant swaths of greenhouses—Almería’s most important enterprise—have turned up in cinema, such as in the gothic opening sequences of last year’s Blade Runner 2049. Diego Sr., who worked as a stuntman and horse handler in the movies before joining Oasys, said, “It’s a good time again for cinema here.”
Diego Jr. seems similarly optimistic about the future, an unusual stance for a young person in a country where the unemployment rate hovers around 17 percent. “At Oasys, there’s continuity, there’s security. In Exodus, I appeared as an extra on a horse next to Christian Bale. Whenever there’s an opportunity to be in the movies, I’ll take it but I’m not waiting for it. I like my job, and I’ll keep doing it for as long as my body lets me.” Perhaps it is as 27-year-old Cristian Navarro, the youngest of Oasys’ showmen, said, “Me siento mas realizado aqui"—I feel more realized here. He would rather be playing a romantic hero at Oasys than work as a ranch hand or compete in equestrian competitions. As in the movies, life here is just a little more vivid.
Although the presence of the American West in Spain is most palpable in the Tabernas Desert, Sergio Leone’s influence has spread well beyond in a scattering of abandoned farmhouses, churches, forts, and battlegrounds around the Spanish countryside. One site among them has been resurrected in recent years, through pure strength of feeling, by a group of diehard fans who dreamed of making their childhood fantasies a reality.
In 1966, in the Mirandilla Valley in the province of Burgos, about 400 miles north of Almería, Sergio Leone loaned several hundred Spanish soldiers from the Franco dictatorship to build a cemetery for the final scene of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Named Sad Hill, the cemetery was made to measure for the director’s plaintive vision. The soldiers planted some 5,000 crosses on fake graves, arranged in concentric circles around a paved stone arena where Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, and Eli Wallach faced off in a three-way duel that has become one of cinema's most famous showdowns. The same soldiers also built the sets of Batterville prison camp and Langstone Bridge, which they had the honor of blowing up in the movie, which takes place during the American Civil War. They also doubled as extras, swapping their actual uniforms for the blues and grays of the Union and the Confederacy.
When the filming was over, Sad Hill was left intact and abandoned. The wooden crosses were looted by neighboring townsfolk and put to more practical uses. Over time, the cemetery was reclaimed by nature, buried under seven inches of soil. It was all but forgotten, until 2014, when a group of fans from around Burgos—mostly 30-something men who had been turned on to Sergio Leone’s movies by their fathers and grandfathers—formed the Sad Hill Cultural Association with the intention of unearthing the cemetery for the 50th anniversary of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 2016.
They went online to crowdfund the effort: a donation of 15 euros got you, rather macabrely, a grave-marker with your name on it. Fans from around Europe traveled in on weekends with hoes and shovels to assist in the excavation, while Guillermo de Oliveira, a filmmaker from Madrid, documented their labour of love in Sad Hill Unearthed. Sergio Garcia, one of the association’s volunteers, said, “In the beginning we thought we were alone, but we were not. Some of the old Spanish soldiers even came back with their children to help.” Today, Sad Hill Cemetery has more than 2,000 crosses, and Sergio said they are working on planting more.
More than half a century on, Sergio Leone's Dollars films may still be amassing a new generation of enthusiasts, even if they don't know it yet. On a crisp, sunny afternoon last October, Sergio Garcia led a group of primary school students on a hike through the Burgos countryside to visit some of the sites from the trilogy's last film. He also brought along two friends, Miguel Robles and Sergio Moneo, who played the bad and the ugly to his good. The two men put on costumes and posed obstacles to Sergio and the kids along the trail. Sergio confessed, "I know I don't even reach the soles of Clint Eastwood's shoes!" but this didn't bother the kids. They had seen selected scenes from the movie in class—one of their teachers is, of course, a Sergio Leone fan—but they seemed more interested in lunch. Occasionally, Sergio prompted the kids to yell, in unison: “El bueno, el feo y el malo!”
Hours later, after traversing crests and valleys, they reached Sad Hill Cemetery. Sergio and his friends took out their props and reenacted, with admirable aplomb, the movie's famous three-way duel. They sized each other up and down in slow motion while Ennio Morricone's score blared tinnily from a teacher’s phone. Now, finally, the kids were roused. They took turns throwing themselves into an open grave, and hung themselves from the noose dangling from a bare tree trunk, suspended above another grave marked “UNKNOWN."