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When Franco’s army built the set for ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’

‘Sad Hill Unearthed,’ a new award-winning documentary, follows a quixotic quest to restore the neglected set of the iconic cemetery scene from the classic Sergio Leone western

Sergio Leone and a Spanish soldier in July 1966.

“In July 1966, the Spanish army built an enormous cemetery in Burgos. That graveyard had over 5,000 tombs... but nobody buried in them.”

At a time when dictator exhumations and the future of a colossal cemetery located in a Madrid valley are taking up many headlines, Spain is releasing Sad Hill Unearthed, a documentary about a group of people’s quest to resuscitate the set of a crucial scene in Sergio Leone’s timeless spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

The film by Guillermo de Oliveira, which was released on Friday, follows the painstaking restoration of a circular cemetery that Leone created out of nowhere in the mountains near Santo Domingo de Silos (Burgos), and which he used in one of the final scenes for a showdown between the three main characters, played by Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef.

Association founder Sergio García paints the fictitious grave marker for Eli Wallach.
Association founder Sergio García paints the fictitious grave marker for Eli Wallach.

The 20-minute scene has gone down in the annals of movie history as a monument to human emotions, and Leone himself described the place, which he called Sad Hill, as “the circus of destiny.” The Good, The Bad and The Ugly provided a critical vision of civil war, and it also included a cemetery built in a silent valley, just like Spain, but the story’s backdrop was the American Wild West, and the Franco regime welcomed the initiative with open arms.

Just like Oliveira explains, Franco even offered the production company thousands of young men who were doing their military service, and who ended up not just building the sets, but even participating in the battle scenes and playing dead. For every day of shooting during that scorching summer of 1966, the company paid each soldier 250 pesetas (€1.50), and some officials received as much as 900 pesetas (€5.41). In the film, three of those youths who were doing their military service at the barracks in San Marcial (Burgos) share their memories of that adventure.

Originally devised as a modest documentary, the project ballooned into a 83-minute film with appearances by, among others, score composer Ennio Morricone, actor Clint Eastwood (the only surviving star of the original movie), technicians who worked under Leone, Metallica vocalist James Hetfield, who is a devoted fan of the film (for the last 30 years, Metallica has been opening all its concerts with the music from the cemetery scene), the film directors Joe Dante and Álex de la Iglesia, and Leone’s biographer, Christopher Frayling.

Aerial view of Sad Hill in July 2016.
Aerial view of Sad Hill in July 2016.

The documentary was initially set in the Sierra de la Demanda, the mountain range where Sad Hill was built – and restored decades later – but Oliveira ended up traveling to Rome, London and L.A. to complete the project. In so doing, he managed to contact individuals who had seemed completely out of reach in his bid to uncover the inner workings of Leone’s masterpiece, and to divulge the quixotic work of the Sad Hill Cultural Association, the group that began restoring the site in October 2015.

Love of a legend

Sad Hill Unearthed is a love story about chasing down a legend until it comes within reach. It is also a story about “stubbornness,” jokes David Alba, one of the most active members of the Sad Hill Cultural Association. With help from volunteers who trekked to the cemetery site from several countries, and using nothing more than spades and hoes, the association slowly cleared the 15 centimeters of accumulated earth and vegetation from the stone circle where Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef once faced off.

Eastwood and Van Cleef chatting with a Spanish Civil Guard during a break.
Eastwood and Van Cleef chatting with a Spanish Civil Guard during a break.

Then, in order to restore the 5,000 graves (although Leone had dreamed of 10,000), it occurred to them to launch a Sponsor-a-Grave campaign to get people to contribute €15 and have their name marked on one of the crosses. As a result, volunteers have placed 4,500 crosses with the name of living people (and some deceased) in the spots that still stood out from the earth despite years of neglect.

Even before its formal release on Friday, Sad Hill Unearthed has already received several prizes, including one for best movie in the New Visions section of the Sitges Film Festival, and best technical and artistic contribution to the western genre at the Almería Film Festival.

English version by Susana Urra.

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