Heading back to Hollywood’s Madrid mountain hideout

The town of Colmenar Viejo was a key location for the filming of 'El Cid'

If Sophia Loren went back to Colmenar Viejo today, she probably wouldn't recognize what for her, during the making of El Cid, was the Burgos monastery of San Pedro Cardeña. In real life it is the town's Ermita de los Remedios, or the Chapel of Remedies.

The small shrubs that were planted in front of the gate are now enormous palm trees, while the three buildings that appeared in the film are now the abandoned façade and belfry. The door in the wall through which Charlton Heston triumphantly left on horseback to return to battle has been bricked up.

Nevertheless, author Víctor Matellano has the scene from Anthony Mann's film engraved in his memory. Even though 50 years have passed, he has seen Heston embody Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar in El Cid so many times, he can recognize the Colmenar fields in which his battles were fought, the crag crowned by the Pico de San Pedro that protected his cavalry, and the Ermita de los Remedios, where he twice bade farewell to a Jimena with an Italian accent.

"Charlton Heston was a very annoying guy, but that was because he was so methodical and wanted each scene to turn out very well," says Matellano, whose book El Cid (T&B Editores), written with Miguel Losada, explores the making of the movie around Spain to mark its 50th anniversary.

"Filming in Spain was the only way of getting Hollywood to invest the profits it obtained from the screening of films here," he explains. "As you couldn't take a peseta out of Spain, because of the Franco regime, what they did was take out rolls of film."

It was a deal that turned out profitable for Hollywood and changed the lives of the inhabitants of the towns in the mountains around Madrid. "Before El Cid, in Spartacus, there were 5,700 extras made up of soldiers and people from Colmenar and other towns," says Matellano, who is also a film director, a lover of horror films and member of the Cinema Academy. His own grandfather acted as a soldier in El Cid and the stories he told him planted the film bug in him.

The impact of the shoot on the town was enormous, above all for what it meant to its inhabitants to see such acting greats just a few meters away. "The people of Colmenar didn't see Charlton Heston the actor, but Ben-Hur or Moses from the The Ten Commandments," Matellano says.

Among the notable names who took part in the shoot were Jesús Luque, the chief of the Policía Armada (the body later replaced by the National Police during Spain's transition to democracy), who taught Heston to ride a horse; Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente, the popular nature commentator who helped with the falconry scenes; and the bullfighter Domingo Ortego, who showed him how to handle a sword.

Despite the rumors, Matellano refutes the claim that Heston and Loren didn't get on well during the shoot. "Sophia was freezing and Heston gave her his cape to cover herself with, and when she arrived at Barajas [airport] it was he himself who went to pick her up."

A signed photo of Charlton Heston and Sofia Loren during the shoot in Spain of El Cid.
A signed photo of Charlton Heston and Sofia Loren during the shoot in Spain of El Cid.

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