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A  BRIEF  HISTORY  OF  FILM-MAKING  IN  ALMERIA

 

This short article was published in 'Sol Times', July 2011

THE RISE AND FALL OF THE HOLLYWOOD OF EUROPE

Despite a period of relative prosperity in the 19th century, Almeria had long been isolated and poor. Even in the 1950s, the British writer Gerald Brenan described the near starvation of a large part of the population.

Then came the film industry providing work for extras and set builders, filling the few hotels available, putting money into the local economy and lighting up a new air of confidence. It was largely opportunism. Almeria was cheap. But it had everything that California enjoyed and more - the perfect climate, spectacular and varied landscapes; also old towns and buildings from the mundane to the truly grand – ‘real’ locations.

Eddie Fowlie, assistant to director David Lean, was largely responsible for evacuating the production of Lawrence of Arabia from Jordan to the desert of Almeria. He continued to live in Carboneras, where he stayed during the filming, until he died in January 2011. The picture won the lion’s share of the Oscars in 1963.

Almeria could naturally double for North Africa and, at a push, for the Middle East. More surprisingly, the region is a dead ringer for Spanish North America – northern Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona. The ‘badlands’ of the Desierto de Tabernas spring straight out of a traditional western movie. Then there is the colonial style architecture, adobe farmsteads and villages,  and, by chance, the area is home to the agave ‘cactus’.  Indigenous to  Mexico,  it became an enduring image in films to come .

All this must have been irresistible to the little known Italian director Sergio Leone who got a commission in 1964 to produce a cheap ‘B’ movie – a ‘western’ remake of a Japanese samurai film. Chance, and some good judgement, put him together with the TV actor Clint Eastwood, the composer Ennio Morricone and the canvas of Almeria – the raw material for the first of the  legendary Dollars Trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars

Much has been written of Leone’s idiosyncratic contribution to film making. Suffice it to say that he did not just use landscapes and music as mere  background but  he brought them to the fore as essential characters in their own right. These, and his fascination for faces (for these he drew heavily on the striking facial types available in Almeria) made the Dollars Trilogy a uniquely Almeriense expression of the art of film.

The 60s and 70s were the zenith of film making in Almeria. Many of the great names of cinema (and John Lennon) were here. The Spaghetti Western made it its natural home. Of nearly 500 films which have been made here (in whole or in part) more than half have been westerns.

In 1970, Almeria again enjoyed Oscar  success  when Patton (starring George C Scott) took the majority of awards. Patton had portrayed Almeria as Sicily, Malta and Tunisia. In 1973, a new genre (fantasy-adventure) took root from Almeria - Conan the Barbarian starring Arnold Shwarzenegger. Then in the late eighties came the last of the blockbusters – Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.

Things started to decline while, coincidentally, the local economy took off, thanks mainly to the agro-business. Almeria lost its foothold in the industry and in so doing lost some of its heritage. However, there is now a new generation of campaigners for this aspect of local history and for the conservation of iconic sites from the films.

None is more important than Cortijo del Fraile, a mission building in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the setting for much action in For a Few Dollars More.  Coincidentally, it is also the real life setting for one of the most infamous stories of rural Spain in the 1920s recorded in one of the most famous plays in Spanish literature - Blood Wedding  by Federico Garcia Lorca. The building, a fine example of an 18th century, haut-bourgeois farmstead, lies derelict and on the verge of complete collapse. The buildings have recently been given a protected status by the Junta but in the current economic crisis it is difficult to see where the required investment will come from.

Although Almeria’s film  heyday is now a distant memory, astute observers of movies might still recognise the odd scene in very recent films. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009) and Four Lions (2010) both came here to shoot scenes representing the Australian outback and Afghanistan respectively. Well, Almeria’s isolation is a thing of the past too and maybe it still has a future being somewhat more accessible than some far flung parts of the world which it can replicate on film.

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