Friday, May 18, 2012

Once Upon a Time in Almeria

[Like almost all the villagers of Los Albaricoques José Ruíz played a Mexican in Sergio Leone's For a Few Dollars More.]

By Rubén Lardin

Many years ago, Diego Rodriguez worked as a stuntman for the Almeria Star Studios aka Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood. The dusty Andalusian province around it was used regularly as a substitute for Texas, Mexico, and countless nameless towns, inhabited by gunmen. Over 600 Spaghetti Westerns were filmed here and turned the southern Spanish region gradually into a caricature of the Wild West, as it was presented by Italian directors. "In 1984 I was in Rustlers' Rhapsody with Fernando Rey there," Diego revels in memories of his glory days. "And in 1981 I was there in Conan the Barbarian with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Do you know the scene in which he hits the camel with his fist? You know, why it fell? They had it pumped full of sedatives. The cinema is only an illusion, man, I'm 52 and I no longer do stunts. Do you think I could ride a horse? Bah! Once I was a stuntman. I was here in 2000 for Queen of Swords with David Carradine. I got some 30,000 euros. You cannot see me, but I was there. "Today Diego is still working for Fort Bravo, but instead of pretending to kill people and performing death-defying stunts on horseback, he pushes a mop in front of them. As a caretaker on the site, he takes care of the two remaining sets at Fort Bravo, "Texas" and "Mexico." Even though they are quite dilapidated, the sets are occasionally used according to their purpose. The French film Blueberry was filmed here in 2004 and a new episode of Dr. Who. Most of Fort Bravo serves as a second-class tourist attraction, however. And although there are newly built apartments, a new swimming pool and a new conference center, the former wild frontier atmosphere takes over every Saturday when a bus load arrives to see a "Wild West Show" to see a bank robbery and bar fight.

The law enforcement officer on site is the French Guyanese Ibrahim, Fort Bravo's guard, whose workplace is located, appropriately, in the jail. From a nearby saloon, of course, the command center of the city continuing all through Fort Bravo loud-speakers reverberate a compilation of the greatest hits of Ennio Morricone.

Outside of the tourist season the ticket price includes a soft drink and a carriage ride with Rafael Aparicio Garcia, a gypsy who was infected with the film bug, as everyone here loves to act.

"I have been here since 1992. I do everything: janitor work, films, music videos and advertising, "he says." If the money is there, we do stunts, gallop horses, jump out of windows ... Hey, I was in Dollar for the Dead, with Emilio Estevez!"

Fort Bravo is not the only city that seems to have been misplaced from North America to Spain. Just a few miles down the road is located Fraile, a replica of El Paso, Texas. As in Fort Bravo Fraile was converted into a tourist attraction, now known as a mini-Hollywood a theme park. But Diego Garcia, who choreographed the Wild West show in town, remembers a time when the entire region was a thriving outpost of show business.

"In my childhood, we all worked in Almería for the film industry," he says. "I started with horses, and that brought me into the stunts. I played a good guy, a bad guy, a pimp, a Mexican and a soldier in the same movie. I do not know how many films I've done it's like someone asking how many women he has he slept with. You always forget one. "

 [Every Saturday a bank robbery is staged on Fort Bravo's picturesque main street.]

Almeria is a popular Western-location mainly because of the nearby Tabernas Desert, which extends over 174 square kilometers and the American West, both climatically and scenically are very similar. The first director to recognize the potential of this area was Michael Carreras, who shot here in the early 1960s. Other voices, however, claim that Joaquin Romero Marchent was here first. In any case, the real boom began with Sergio Leone, nicknamed “The Nutcracker” due to his tireless hands, while working here. He said that if Hollywood made movies about Romans, then why shouldn’t an Italian filmmaker make movies about gunslingers? Although some scenes from A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 were already shot in the region, Leone took advantage of all the benefits of the environment that Almeria offered the following year, when he and his production crew filmed the second of the dollar trilogy For a Few Dollars More. These films are still among the best works of Clint Eastwood.

[José Novo aka Pepe Fonda Pepe earns his living as an actor and stuntman in Fort Bravo, claiming that he was Henry Fonda's illegitimate son.] 

[Diego Garcia, choreographer of the Wild West shows in Fraile, a replica of El Paso, stages gunfights for the tourists.]

Leone's assistant Tonino Valerii was here the first time in Almeria on his honeymoon. A large part of his honeymoon was spent in the search for venues in the vicinity of the gold mine at Rodalquilar, the main source of income for Los Albaricoques', a hamlet in the province of Níjar. While visiting Los Albaricoques Tonino, saw a village full of pretty, whitewashed houses, as would have been found in the Mexico in the 1870s. Jose Ruiz, 81, tells that the whole village was involved in the film, which was thereby turned into a kind of violence glorifying family photo album of a generation of villagers.

"The mine was closed in 1966, and many people moved away," says Jose, "but those who stayed behind, worked in the films. The work in the mines was hard and dangerous. The people were sick, many had lung disease. Within a year, my grandmother buried my father, my uncle Pepe, another uncle and their son Antonio. 1936 and 1937, all women were widows. We never saw them wear white again. "

The Almeria burgeoning film industry was under Francisco Franco's dictatorial government in 1964 a tailwind, and film production was promoted in the region by law. King of Kings, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, Travels with My Aunt, The Wind and the Lion, and Never Say Never all were filmed here, before Almeria lost favor with Hollywood. A major incentive was that film crews in Spain could do almost anything they wanted. Leone went so far as to blow up mountains, to a working railway line in the middle of building in the desert, Franklin J. Patton Shaffner’s classic movie of 1970, used the Spanish army in the 20th Century Fox production, the services of an entire company of soldiers was made available. The older employees of the Grand Hotel still remember the stuntmen, who fell from the balconies on the first floor and broke their noses on the mosaic tile of the swimming pool.

Today Fort Bravo stuntmen still wear Stetsons  on their heads and revolvers on their waists. Pepe, who lives in Tabernas, began his career 25 years ago as an extra in Fort Bravo and earns his living, now as an actor and stuntman in tourist shows. At our meeting, he appears with a green, overflowing folder full of screenshots from films such as Once Upon a Time in the West and newspaper clippings of a story that he had peddled a few years ago to the press.

"I was 13 or 14," he says, "and my mother told me, we went to the movies, where I would meet my father. I looked around, stared at everything: the chestnut seller, the usher, a motorcyclist, but my mother said nothing. The movie that was playing was Once Upon a Time in the West, and in the scene where Henry Fonda's gang takes over the ranch and kills the child, she says to me, “That's him. That's your father.”

[Fort Bravo is like a ghost town, but was used as a film set before, and still is, mainly for movies and shows, taking place in a ghost town.]

For years, tourists who visited Almeria, pointed out the similarity of the Spanish teenager with the Hollywood star, and it did not take long for Pepe to decide to adopt the personality of the character shown by Fonda. The shaggy beard, and the tortured look of quivering lips they are all here. The only inconsistency: Pepe must have been during the filming of Once Upon a Time in the West about six or seven years old. "Oh yes, my mother told me that Henry Fonda was here before. Perhaps he had been here on holiday, "admits Pepe. Can you blame the residents of a western town who act like they do when they are prone to myths?

Nowadays it seems preferable to myths anyway. The region of Andalusia is not a popular destination for filmmakers anymore, and money is tight. When I visited Western Leone, another ramshackle village that served as a film set, almost everyone wanted to talk to me, bribe me.

Pepe blames the irresponsible occupational travelers who work for next to nothing: "The owner of the film set benefits from the junkies and the fact that there is no other work. In the end they all work for peanuts. Once I was at a casting, when a gypsy spoke to me and said, 'Pepe, go home. That's my job. 'The gypsies are the worst. Let one make a movie and hundreds of others emerge. I have seen gypsy women fill baskets with sandwiches from the catering table.”

Although it is true that Beltrán, the Chef stuntman in For a Few Dollars More, claims he was twice held-up by gypsies on the set, says Raphael Garcia they overestimate the population and the influence on occupational travelers in the industry. "If they do not work in films it is because the production was moved to Ouarzazate in Morocco, where extras work for only six euros a day."

The longing for the good old days takes strange forms. A teacher Manuel Hernández spends his free time wandering through Los Albaricoques and points out fake bullet holes at the sites of the most famous gunfight in For a Few Dollars More. He is also the owner of the Hostal Rural Alba. Besides his own brand of wine with Eastwood on the label, the guest house is adorned with a fresco style mural, with its famous "pocket watch" scene at the standoff between Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Gian Maria Volonte at the end of the film.

Manuel is firmly committed to making the income of the village gushing again and has even managed to rename some of the roads at the site in accordance with the regional film history: It is now commonly referred to Aguas Calientes (the town in the film), Ennio Morricone, Clint Eastwood Lee Van Cleef, Sergio Leone, have lent their names to streets. When he presented his idea, the neighbors were reluctant at first to make their city a tribute to Leone. But when Manuel began to regularly show a documentary about the films produced in the area, they were convinced over time.

Slowly the residents began to identify with the films, as part of their history and to accept the idea. Maybe one day Hollywood will remember the potential of the Western, and famous actors in cowboy costumes will gallop wildly back through the dusty streets of Almeria.

Photos by Salvi Danés

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