Looking at Mark Parascandola’s photographs, you can almost see the tumbleweeds blow by and hear the coyote howl of an Ennio Morricone theme song. The pictures showing slatted wooden saloons, vivid blue skies, scrubby cactuses emerging out of dust clouds raised by galloping horses – all the trappings of a classic Spaghetti Western.
But these images were not taken in Arizona. Rather they were shot in Almería in southern Spain, which enjoyed a brief heyday in the 1960s and 70s as the Spanish Hollywood.
The area was set up as a movie haven by the Franco regime as a way to bring in money. It was beloved by Hollywood producers for its cheap labour, guaranteed sunshine and aesthetic similarities to the American West.
Hundreds of movies were shot there, including Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Cleopatra (1963) and, most famously, Sergio Leone’s westerns, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
As Spain became less of a bargain in the 1970s, filmmakers moved on to Morocco and Mexico. But the sets remain eerily empty monuments to a star-studded past.
Mark Parascandola has always known about Almería’s history. His mother’s family came from the area, so many childhood holidays were spent roaming the sets, which today are largely abandoned, some open for tourists and others used as sets for soap operas.
In his new book Once Upon a Time in Almería, Parascandola takes a tour of the locations. ‘My favorites are the sets that have been abandoned, rather than those fixed up for tourists,’ he says. ‘These have the atmosphere of a ghost town, except that they were never real towns and were not intended to last. So this makes them appear much older than they really are. I often wonder what someone would think who came upon one without any knowledge of what it was.’
Today Almería is enjoying something of a resurgence. Scenes from TV juggernaut Game of Thrones were shot here, as well as part of Ridley Scott’s Exodus. But Parascandola hopes his book will open up the region to even more people.
‘Surprisingly, Almería is little known to those outside Spain. Some western movie fans may be aware that Sergio Leone filmed in the country, but very few know it is possible to visit some of the old western towns. Hopefully the book will help make people more aware of the rich legacy of the international movie industry here in Almería.’
Once Upon a Time in Almería by Mark Parascandola is out now, published via Daylight Books
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