The desolate Spanish province where Hollywood westerns were filmed
What you might not know about classic and campy movies like Laurence of Arabia (1962) and Cleopatra (1963) is that they were filmed in a campaign in southeastern Spain as part of an elaborate economic strategy devised by dictator Francisco Franco. Almería, a poor, sparsely populated province that was once extremely isolated, has become the epicenter of filming American-made Western films. This meant that countless western settings and fake cities filled the once empty space of the Spanish landscape in the 1960s. This land, bearing architectural evidence of Neolithic civilization, ancient Romans and castle-building Moors, Now lives a more modern guest, but just as ephemeral, to settle down: Hollywood.
Franco’s transformation of Almeria from a desolate and quiet land to the site of US imperialism depended on a perfect storm of economic, political and social conditions. Franco hoped to reinvigorate a Spanish economy shattered by civil war, and Hollywood studios needed cheap labor and exciting filming locations that could attract international audiences. In 1964, the Spanish government allowed free movement of production crews and equipment across the country, and in 1968 an airport was built in Almería to accommodate the influx of American filmmakers.
The United States government also played a role in this narrative – it remained an accomplice to Franco’s oppressive regime in an effort to retain an ally against the Soviet Union. With these factors taken together, Hollywood executives easily capitalized on Almeria’s promise of a desert setting – which could presumably pass for lands of the American West, the Arabian Desert, South Africa. North and the Moon – as well as the exploitation of the poor Roma who worked as extras in many of these films.
Today, some of those famous 1960s settings remain intact and function as tourist attractions on top of still largely desolate terrain. Film making in Almería declined dramatically in the 1970s, although the province experienced some Hollywood buzz during the 1980s with the production of Indiana Jones and the Last crusadee (1989) and, as recently as 2016, some The iron Throne season six was shot in Almeria.
Photographer and epidemiologist Mark Parascandola, whose mother’s family immigrated to the United States from Almería in the 1930s, believes his grandmother’s Almería is “almost extinct.” He discovered Almería through his stories about his desert village, and he described the province as “distant and from another world”.
In Once upon a time in Almeria, Parascandola captures the ghostly aspect that permeates even the sunniest environments. His photos, taken between 2011 and 2016, tell the melancholy story of the erection, disintegration and reuse of these sets, and how the scenario of the cinema is part of Almeria’s long history of testimony and taking into account ephemeral civilizations. Some photos show an unspoiled landscape – hills, palm trees, sea and sand. Still others feature the ancient ruins and 10th century castles left by other transitional residents of Almeria.
“These ruins also serve as a reminder of the impermanence of our links with the landscape and evidence of the economic and social changes that lead to human migration, including that of my own family,” writes Parascandola in his essay in Once upon a time in Almeria.
Parascandola’s photos are surprisingly lavish, considering their mostly sterile subject matter. One image captures the ruins of the “western town” of Flagstone in La Calahorra. The photo spans two entire pages of the book and shows two crumbling red brick buildings separated by a seemingly new road. A flock of birds flies through the empty liminal space between the two structures, the only sign of life in an otherwise inhospitable environment. The quintessential mountains of southeastern Spain linger in the distance.
The beauty of images like this lies in their quiet contemplation. While each photograph in Once upon a time in Almeria has its own distinctive subject matter – whether it is abandoned or reused film set, the natural landscape of Almería or the province’s older ruins – all are united by a strong sense of loneliness and memory of what once was.
Once upon a time in Almeria by Mark Parascandola is now available from Daylight Books.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Spanish economy was shattered by World War II, rather than the Civil War. This has been corrected.