If the Tabernas Desert in Spain's Almeria region looks like the set of a Hollywood Western, that's because it was one.
In the 1960s and '70s, it was a Hollywood outpost in Europe where dozens of American film stars — Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, Charlton Heston, Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor — made a temporary home while filming movies, including the kind that the area became most famous for: Spaghetti Westerns. The genre's name originates from Italian directors like the late Sergio Leone, who built film sets in the windy, barren desert an hour from the Mediterranean Sea.
Hundreds of films were made here, including Leone's famous Dollars Trilogy — A Fistful Of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly — as well as parts of Lawrence Of Arabia and Cleopatra.
A Hands-On Experience
Today, the sets where those movies were made have been converted into Western-style cinema theme parks where tourists can stroll through a saloon, spend time behind bars in a local jail or reenact a shootout in the town square. Actors in cowboy hats and chaps put on daily stunt shows in which Western movie themes are piped through a fake town square. The First City Bank gets robbed every day; the same gun-slinging bandit is always handed over to the hangman. There's also a zoo and water park.
"It looks quite authentic, it looks quite like the Wild West, like Arizona a little bit," says Shadae Talebi, a Californian who lives in Europe and brought her two young children on vacation to Spain.
In general, the theme parks attract aficionados of Westerns.
"My husband has always watched them, so John Wayne is always around and so is Clint Eastwood," says British tourist Angela Thorogood.
Many of the workers are aging stuntmen who fell off balconies or galloped on horseback alongside Clint Eastwood back in the day — now they perform at children's birthday parties. The same people get shot every day, says actor Jose Francisco Garcia Pascual, who drives a horse-drawn cart while packing heat.
"This is very, very hard work. Every day I kill three, four [people]," he says, chuckling.
What The 'Golden Age Of Western Films' Left Behind
Western film directors chose the Tabernas Desert because it resembles the American West with its windswept plains crisscrossed by dry riverbeds and rocky ravines. It was also cheap. But by the late 1970s, directors had found better bargain locations — in Morocco and Turkey — and Almeria's film industry dried up.
In the tiny village of Tabernas — the only real settlement for dozens of miles — elderly residents trade tales of their glory days in the golden age of Westerns.
"This was considered the Spanish Hollywood," says Jesus Laguna, a former stuntman who still wears a cowboy hat. "All types of actors came through here — American Oscar winners, they were all here. But not anymore."
Like much of Spain, the Tabernas Desert has fallen on hard times. Unemployment in the Almeria region tops 30 percent. Recently, Spanish photographer Alvaro Deprit spent a month living in the desert, documenting the lives of those left behind when the film work dried up.
"It's a melancholy feeling," Deprit says, "because their world has finished. It was the golden age of Western films, and now it's an imitation of what it once was."
Those left behind include a member of the Blackfoot Indian Nation who worked as a film extra and has been living in a rustic desert camp ever since.
There's also a local actor, Jose Novo, who looks nearly identical to the late Henry Fonda. Novo says his mother was friendly with the American actor, and gave birth exactly nine months after Fonda was last in Almeria shooting a film, in 1968. It was aptly titled, Once Upon A Time In The West.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Many of the Westerns churned out in the 1960s and '70s didn't come from Hollywood but from Europe. Lauren Frayer finds out what happened to the old film sets and to the actors of yesteryear's spaghetti Westerns.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORSE GALLOPING AND GUNSHOTS)
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: If this sounds like a Hollywood Western, that's because it once was. The signs here say Texas, the Yellow Rose Saloon, the First City Bank - but I'm standing in the middle of the Tabernas Desert in southeast Spain surrounded by old film sets built by Sergio Leone, the Italian master of spaghetti westerns. Hundreds were filmed here in the 1960s and 70s.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FRAYER: Clint Eastwood hits like "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and "A Fistful of Dollars." Now, it's a theme park where tourists can stroll through a saloon...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)
FRAYER: ...spend time behind bars in a local jail, and reenact a shoot-out in the town square.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOTS)
SHADAE TALEBI: It looks quite authentic, like the Wild West, like Arizona a little bit.
ANGELA THOROGOOD: My husband has always watched them, yeah, so John Wayne's always around, and Clint Eastwood.
FRAYER: That's tourists Shadae Talebi from California and Angela Thorogood from England. Many of the workers here are aging stuntmen who assisted Clint Eastwood back in the day and now perform at children's birthday parties. The same people get shot every day, says actor Jose Francisco Garcia Pascual.
JOSE FRANCISCO GARCIA PASCUAL: Because this is very, very, very hard work.
FRAYER: Yeah, I can imagine. You're killing people every day.
PASCUAL: Yeah, every day I kill, yeah, three, four persons per day.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)
FRAYER: In a tiny Spanish village nearby, elderly men trade tales of their glory days in the golden age of Westerns.
JESUS LAGUNA: (Foreign language spoken)
FRAYER: This was considered the Spanish Hollywood, says Jesus Laguna, a former stuntman who still wears a cowboy hat. All types of actors came through here - American Oscar winners, they were all here. But not anymore. A Spanish photographer, Alvaro Deprit, recently spent a month living in this desert, documenting the lives of those left behind.
ALVARO DEPRIT: (Foreign language spoken)
FRAYER: It's a melancholy feeling, he says, because their world is finished. It was the golden age of Western films, and now it's an imitation of what it once was. Those left behind here include a member of the Blackfoot Indian Nation, who once worked as a film extra. And a local, Jose Novo, who looks just like the late Henry Fonda. Novo says his mother was friendly with the actor, and he was born exactly nine months after Fonda was here in 1968 shooting "Once Upon a Time in the West."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
FRAYER: For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in the Tabernas Desert in Almeria, Spain.
MARTIN: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.