Cédric Biscay dons a poncho and places a cheroot in his mouth. Behind, the hills and rocky escarpments of Burgos, in northern Spain, shimmer in the summer heat.
And all around him is a place he had only ever seen before on the movie screen: Sad Hill cemetery, site of the final showdown in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, the 1966 western directed by Sergio Leone.
In that scene, the characters played by Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach meet in the cemetery for a three-way duel that will decide who gets to keep the gold buried in one of the graves.
“I feel like I’m in the movie!” says Mr Biscay, who is visiting from Monaco, after wandering around the cemetery and admiring its central paved circle and the hundreds of wooden crosses surrounding it. Nearby are props from the movie’s final moments: a noose hanging from a solitary tree.
“This is such an important place for me,” he explains. “I’ve watched the movie four times a year for the last 30 years, so yes, I’m a big fan.”
But two years ago, Sad Hill looked nothing like this. There were no crosses to be seen and cows roamed across the site, which looked like just another overgrown, grassy meadow.
The cemetery had been created solely for the purposes of the movie, much of which was filmed in this area of Spain. Then Sad Hill was forgotten for nearly five decades.
But in 2014, a group of local people decided to restore the site to its former glory. They called themselves the Sad Hill Cultural Association and after locating the exact cemetery spot, with the help of photographs from the film’s final scene, in 2015 they set about the painstaking process of excavating the site.
“At the start it seemed like it was going to be impossible, but bit by bit people from other provinces of Spain, other towns, and even other countries, came to help us rebuild the cemetery and it snowballed,” says David Alba, the 35-year-old president of the association. Aficionados could help finance the project by paying €15 (£13; $18) to have their name painted onto one of the wooden crosses.
Mr Alba remembers a key moment early in the excavation.
“We were digging in the ground and we saw that underneath the earth were the original stones of the central circle of the site, the place where all the actors, the director and all the technicians had walked across during the filming,” he says. “It was like digging in the ground and finding treasure.”
Documenting the entire process was filmmaker Guillermo de Oliveira. He recently finished filming a documentary, Sad Hill Unearthed, telling the story of the cemetery’s restoration. It is due for release later this year.
Several celebrity fans of the original western feature in the documentary, such as James Hetfield, the singer of heavy metal band Metallica, and Gremlins director Joe Dante.
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In addition, there are interviews with some of the key personalities from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly itself, including composer Ennio Morricone and Eastwood, who declared himself delighted that the cemetery had been restored.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
- The film is part of the “spaghetti western” genre – movies set in the American Wild West but whose directors and crews were predominantly Italian
- Many spaghetti western films were made in Almería in southern Spain. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was filmed in Italy, in Almería and several scenes near Burgos, northern Spain
- Although Clint Eastwood had already made his name with the Rawhide TV series, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly cemented his status as a major Hollywood star
- Ennio Morricone’s score has become one of the most celebrated soundtracks in cinema history. Heavy metal band Metallica recorded a cover of the theme The Ecstasy of Gold from the movie and they use the original track as intro music before taking the stage for concerts
The Sad Hill Cultural Association now stages concerts and other events at the cemetery, which is drawing increasing numbers of visitors from Spain and abroad.
For many of them it is a chance to see the location of what Oliveira describes as “one of the most important scenes in the whole history of cinema”. Leone, he explains, masterfully used the eerie location and Morricone’s music to generate several minutes of heart-stopping suspense as Eastwood, Van Cleef and Wallach glared at each other before drawing their guns.
Oliveira and his team also tracked down a number of local people who were extras in the western.
For them, and the younger volunteers who have rebuilt the Sad Hill site, the whole exercise has blurred the boundaries between reality and cinema, says Luisa Cowell, producer of the Sad Hill Unearthed documentary.
“Most of the volunteers had seen the film when they were children, with their families, their father or grandfather, so it has marked their lives, it’s something that is very special to them,” she says.
“So they all went there with the intention of unearthing a piece of something that for them is real – it’s not fiction for them any more, it becomes real,” she adds. “And once they unearth it and they find the stones it becomes even more of a reality and they become part of this reality.”