What do Clint Eastwood, Andalucia in southern Spain, the Italian island of Sardinia and Italian composer Ennio Morricone have in common? Surely you’ve heard of “spaghetti westerns” – “A Fistful of Dollars,” “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” “Once Upon a Time in the West?” and “A Few Dollars More?”
These movies made in the great “Western” tradition, featured famous American actors such as Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, and Charles Bronson but were not filmed in the US, nor filmed by American crews!
I remember when my family received the trio of the most famous spaghetti westerns for Christmas one year. It was a great example of the merging of unique aspects of both our US and Italian cultures said the Christmas card: Italian music and film directing and the unparalleled US “western” movie, complete with inimitable US pioneers, cowboys, great open spaces, gold, mystery, you name it. Never having watched a western in my young life, we watched all three of them over the Christmas holidays.
The “western” genre of film-making had its heyday in the US in the 1930s and 1940s, finding great success in the US but also reverberating around the world as a new genre which fueled the image people had of the US—a dangerous land of wild individuals who were ready at any moment to jump in and fight for good (or bad if you were so inclined). Especially in war-torn Europe, the exotic western genre completed the image of the US, its actions and its people—heroes who sprang out of nowhere to save the world.
With the decline of the genre in the US in the late 1950s, Italian director Sergio Leone decided to revive western films in 1965 with an Italian twist. Filming in the spectacular landscapes of Monument Valley, the Rio Grande Valley and other parts of the US Southwest was out of the question for the limited budget Italian producers had. So cheaper alternative locations were contemplated—and the “spaghetti western” was born.
The first film Leone shot (“For a Fistful of Dollars,” originally “Per un pugno di dollari” in Italian) had a budget of $200,000 and was shot in the Almeria region of Andalucia, Spain. This 1500 km² desert region just east of where our bicycle tour begins in Seville proved to be the perfect place for Leone to find wide open space and few environmental restrictions where he could build western style saloons and Mexican-style “pueblos.” The region has now become a protected national park to protect both its fragile desert environment (one of the only in Europe), and the cinematographic remains of a glorious decade (1965-1974) during which approximately a thousand European movies were produced in Andalucia! (Among the most famous, Lawrence of Arabia was also filmed here. )
Another European location chosen for spaghetti western films was the Cabras area in western Sardinia. Here the small pilgrimage settlement of San Salvatore di Cabras was converted to a Mexican village complete with a saloon. While fewer films were shot here than in Andalucia, one could argue that the Sardinians might have been more realistically like the characters in the films as the nearby region was always famous for its bandits and shady characters. Today the saloon in San Salvatore has burned down and the movie village has seen its houses turned into weekend homes for people from Cabras. But the desert and “western” aura are still palpable to our cyclists who bicycle through the village on Day 4 of our guided bike tour in Sardinia.
So pick up the famous “Dollars” trilogy ( “For a Fistful of Dollars,” “A Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”) or look for the great soundtracks for any of these movies composed by the great Ennio Morricone and get ready to bike in Andalucia, Spain or Sardinia, Italy.