East of the Pecos
The landscape of Almeria near the village of Mojacar
Originally written for Jack Martin's
TAINTED ARCHIVE blog
When the aircraft lines up for the final approach into Los Angeles airport, it is easy to understand why the Spanish settled in California. Looking down from that window in the sky, the land surrounding the City of The Angels looks exactly like Spain. Long rolling hills, scattered with scrub, tinder dry, wary of the smallest spark except that of the imagination. And much of the American south-west looks very similar; Arizona, New Mexico, Texas.
And Sergio Leone thought so too. If America looked like Spain, then Spain could look like America. He could use Almeria in the south-east of Spain to double for the American West. And it would probably be cheaper. Hopefully, a whole lot cheaper. The challenge was for Leone, an Italian, to shoot a movie in Spain and make it look like an authentic Western. With the right cameraman, a bit of smoke, a few mirrors, but most of all the right actors and a stunning soundtrack, Leone hoped you’d see two and two and add it up to make five. And that’s the magic of the movies.
Why Almeria? In the early part of the 20th century an earthquake had driven the sea back twenty miles. Rivers dried
up. Water is precious there. So the country there was basically the sea bed. It’s almost as if when you drive out of Tabernas on the road south, suddenly you’re in Apache country. Directors had begun to use the desert for locations in the 1950s. Within ten years, segments of Laurence of Arabia, El Cid, Cleopatra and The Magnificent Seven, among a lengthy catalogue of foreign films, had been shot there. None, perhaps would make Almeria as famous as Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, and For a Few Dollars More.
But that’s movies. If you’re a writer, more specifically, a Western writer, Almeria can be a great inspiration. Before you begin, without touching pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, the scene is set as soon as the sun comes up. The chill of the desert is banished as the shadows linger after the darkness, growing long then being squeezed short before scuttling at high noon to hide under the boardwalk until late afternoon.
Out there - better if you’re alone and it’s early - gritty sand crunching beneath your heels, you tilt your head back and shade your eyes and it is all there in front of you. The scenery of a thousand Westerns. That parched land, sharp in the clear desert air but in the distance the growing day is firing up a dancing heat haze, distorting the scrub and blurring the horizon where the cholla dotted mountains rear in a ragged line up into the faded blue sky. You walk onto one of those film sets and the mood is there, nagging at your subconscious as you soak up the atmosphere of those adobe cantinas and saloons, peeling store signs, then the rough carpentry of the bank and the stage-line office and even the faded curtains of the haberdashers or hardware store. The sheriff’s office is empty, no papers on the desk and an abandoned coffee pot on the cold pot-bellied stove. The door is ajar in the floor to ceiling bars of the cell at the back, a threadbare grey blanket crumpled on the sleeping bench, but you can read the call sheet for the day’s shooting schedule tacked to the back of the sheriff’s door.
Outside on the boardwalk is a packing crate, the lid askew, the blued barrels of half a dozen Winchesters visible, wooden stocks rubbed dry but oil has brought out the grain in the wood. You walk past, heels rattling in the silence then step down into the dusty street. The sun is already hot enough to peel the skin off your back through your shirt. Not even a breath of a breeze, and you’d welcome a low wide hat brim to shade your eyes. The hitching rails are empty but you hear a neigh in the distance. You turn to look over your shoulder and you squint against the sun. A black silhouette. It's a horse, edging a step or two along the street toward you, stiff legged, then stopping, a hoof restlessly pawing the dust. Its head is down, neck stretched, blowing through dilated nostrils. One loose rein is trailing.
The outline isn’t right. You freeze so you don’t spook him. Closer, the horse snickers softly as though looking to make friends, but still wall-eyed and nervous, tail switching back and forth. Then you can see there is a rider, still seated, but lying forward over its neck, face buried in the tangled mane. As you reach out a hand to catch the bridle, you see the blood-soaked arm of the rider’s shirt then something makes you look beyond, to the open desert. There is a plume of dust out there. It’s moving. Perhaps a rider.
The other part of this story.
If you’re a Western author, you’re probably rewriting your version of this in your mind already. It’s what you do. That’s what I mean about Almeria being inspiring. The buildings may not be real, some just propped-up fronts, but standing in the street your imagination can fill in the gaps. And believe it or not, those Spanish western film sets are every bit as atmospheric as the genuine ghost towns scattered across America’s true west.
For that couple of hours in the dark, you believed what you saw up there on the silver screen as the plot twisted and turned, didn’t you? Remember this one - Le Bon, la Brute et le Truand it was called in French? No? If you’re Spanish it was called Il Bueno, il Brutto, il Cattivo, one of the most successful films ever shot there. No? Then you probably know it as : The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
- the end -
Chris Scott Wilson Writer