Hunting leone: fistful of dollars

FISTFUL OF DOLLARS

These articles were originally published in William Connolly’s fanzine Spaghetti Cinema. The locations were found during the 2000 and 2002 trips by me, the late Don S Bruce and his then wife Marla Johnson.

  1. Marisol’s Farm - Cortijo El Sotillo, Almeria

Don’t know who the dude below is. Could be Tom Betts. Don started taking passengers with him after we’d finished hunting.

Marisol’s farm is just North of San Jose, on Almeria’s Eastern Coast; a large bustling beach resort with Hotels, Souvenir Shops and Children’s Play-Parks, that during Leone’s time must have been just a tiny cluster of lonely white buildings nestling beneath the rolling hills that surround it.
Leaving San Jose by the single road going North, you would ignore the first right turn to Cala Higuera, and almost immediately look for a small private driveway on the right curving for a short distance to a group of very cleanly whitewashed modern-looking buildings.

Marisol’s Farm was originally identified by Oliver Tocanne, a Spaghetti Western enthusiast who tells of having spent many holidays in Almeria over the years, searching out Western Locations. He wrote of his findings in issue #59 of William Connolly’s “Spaghetti Cinema” publication, describing it as “private property” and mentioning that “Beginning this year (1992) a new owner is ‘doing up’ the farm.” It’s name was Cortijo El Sotillo - El Sotillo Farm.

Despite having access to this information supplied by Olivier, Don and Marla were unable to locate the farm in their 1999 trip, but in the 2000 trip we finally stumbled upon it.
I think it was Olivier’s statement about “private property” that had hung in my mind, because I was expecting something way off the road with chained gates, and large signs warning “Coto Privado De Caza” (Private road belonging to the House) which were a common feature in much of the Almerian countryside.
This time round, Don had brought some excellent frame grabs from the movie, and so we began our usual routine of parking at likely looking dirt tracks off the main road, and trying to match the hills in the picture with the hills surrounding us.
Rule Number one in searching Spaghetti locations: “Match up the hills”.
Well we got the hills on the Eastern side looking pretty good, although time of day during the movie’s shooting and time of day during our searches often gave conflicting lighting effects, so it wasn’t always easy to be sure how close we were to where we needed to be.
The dirt road on which we had parked led a short way to a bunch of ruined out-houses, and further up towards the hills a very obvious private farm. Tocanne’s photo of Marisol’s farm had depicted a rather delapidated building, and the suggestion that in 1992 the owner had been doing it up gave us concern that it might now be unrecogniseable. So we were debating the long walk up there.
Fortunately, when we turned to match the hills in the opposite direction, there was nothing lining up at all, so we determined to drive further back down the road to San Jose, to see if the hills there would align more accurately with our screen grabs.
Don tends to drive with, how shall I describe it? - a certain alacrity, and so getting him to stop at the point on the road that you think will yield best results, often results in a long walk back, so I said “just pull in here”, indicating the grand driveway of what looked like a very rich and very modern house. I figured that once on the drive, if he didn’t hit he brake when I wanted, a building might just stop him.
We were half-way up the driveway, with me looking out the back window at the hills I needed to match, and Don saying “how far you want me to go up here?”. At that point, I turned to look ahead, and found us just about to be stopped by a building. And simultaneously all our jaws dropped at once, because we’d actually arrived at the place we were looking for, and I said “Oh, this’ll do just fine.”
The “house” consisted of the two main buildings as seen in FISTFUL, very clean very white, looking exceptionally new. The one with it’s unusual inwardly-leaning walls, like a pyramid with the top chopped off, where Marisol is imprisoned, and the squat row of little boxes on the other side where Jesus is forced to stay.
There were some new additions to the familiar parts: the rear of Marisol’s house extended way back, the true size of which was hidden by the large frontage, whilst Jesus’ house was now longer. There was a large ranch area at the top end of the little street, containing several horses, and in this central area a mock fountain and several parked cars.
As we got out the car and started clicking furiously with the cameras before someone came out and chased us off with a shotgun, we could hear a baby crying, an eerily reminiscent echo of young Jesus crying because he couldn’t be with his mother, Marisol.
Moments later, a light truck drove into the yard, and I quickly approached the driver to apologise for being on private land, and to show him the photographs of FISTFUL to legitimise our behaviour. “Ah Si, Sergio Leone! Clint Eastwood!” the man said immediately
The old man was the right age to have remembered this stuff, so it was a promising conversation. Very often we encountered people who immediatley recognised Clint Eastwood in our photographs, but hadn’t a clue that we were actually standing in the same place as the photograph was depicting. Rule number two: “a lot can happen in thirty years”.
The old man showed us where the new parts had been built and described how it had changed from the time of the film, and he told us that the place was now a Hotel and Bar. Then he indicated that he had to go, so I thanked him and we shook hands and he turned towards Jesus’ house which was presumably where he now lived, and naturally enough, now that we knew we weren’t going to get chased off, we went into the Bar.
The interior is spectacular. It’s decorated in old Spanish style with dark wooden beams, glistening white walls, various antique farm implements displayed on the walls; very reminiscent of the horse-brass culture of Oldy-Worldy English country pubs.
Further inside, there’s a grand hall with leather sofas, oil paintings adorning the walls, glistening chandeliers, and cool marble floors.
But I can tell you all I wanted to do was get in that bar, order a Cerveza and smoke a congratulatory Toscano.
The crying baby belonged to the young barmaid who served us, and as had become our custom, when we leaned on the bar we would “accidentally” leave the photographs we were carrying prominently displayed on the bar top, the right way up for the bar person to see.
The girl reacted in familiar and spectacular fashion: her eyes widened and her jaw dropped.
Then I would say “Conosce?” which is probably neither Spanish or Italian because it’s thirty years since I learned either of them, but is supposed to convey “Do you know this?”
I would follow up with “Este aqui?” - is this here?
"Ah si! Clint Eastwood!
“Per Un Punado De Dollari”, I would helpfully offer in my strangled accent, which usually got people asking if I was German. And then the photos would get passed round the bar, and the locals would join in excitedly telling each other all sorts of things about this being the place where Clint Eastwood was.
By now I’d recognised that the old man to whom I had originally spoken had arrived and perched himself on a stool at the end of the bar, and since he had been here at the time of Leone and Eastwood and knew everything there was to know, he suddenly became the man of the moment. Big smiles everywhere, photos passed around, lots of excited chatter, and eventually the barman turns up and the girl shows him the photos, and now it’s time for him to widen his eyes and drop his jaw, and everyone has a great time. Even the baby has stopped crying.
We sat and drank there for a while, and I lit a second Toscano. It was good to be there at Marisol’s farm and relax and enjoy the ambience of the place. Before we left, Don took out all the photographs that we had of Marisol’s farm from the movie and handed them to the girl. “Tell her they can have them”, he said. I don’t think they needed my translation, they were so excited. And then they started looking for places to pin them up, and when we tried to pay and leave, they insisted the drinks were free, and the hardest part of the day seemed to be Don struggling to leave some pesetas on the bar and not having them pushed back into his hand by a group of very happy people.

It’s called the Hotel Cortijo El Sotillo, and the address is Carretera entrada a San Jose, s/n/ 04118 San Jose - Nijar (Almeria); Telephone Numbers are 950,611100, Fax 950,611105, Restaurant Reservations 950,380216, e-mail sotillo@a2000.es.
(I wrote that in 2002, so who knows if it’s still there.)

Tonino Valerii was Leone’s assistant at the time of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, and subsequently directed Lee Van Cleef in DAY OF ANGER (I Giorni Dell’Ira). Several sequences of this latter film were shot here at Marisol’s farm, which also provided the background to scenes in JENNIE LEES HA UNA NUOVA PISTOLA (GUNFIGHT AT RIO BRAVO).

  1. Outskirts of San Miguel - Los Albaricoques, Almeria

    Again, another interloper, courtesy of Don.

The Mexican part of San Miguel, where The Man With No Name encounters the dead horseman bearing the sign “Adios Amigo” secured to his back with a knife, was filmed at the village of Los Albaricoques - “The Apricots” at the South East corner of Almeria province. These days, the place is easily reached from junction K.471 of the N-340 Motorway heading Eastwards from Almeria and then heading North for the coastal area around Mojacar.
If you are coming from Almeria, take a right turn at junction K.471, then just stay on the road for about 12 Kilometres, passing through the villages of El Barranquete, and then Los Nietos, where you ignore the crossroads and drive straight ahead. The next village is Los Albaricoques, perched on a little plateau, and approached by a winding dirt track lined with Yucca trees. When you look up that dirt track to see those white “adobe” buildings clustered at the end, you may get the strange impression that you’re in another Leone Western entirely - Like, isn’t that Agua Caliente I see before me? But more of that later.

The clue to this location was first provided again by Oliver Tocanne in that very valuable issue 59 of “Spaghetti Cinema”, and Don and Marla rediscovered it during their 1999 trip.

Los Albaricoques is now very prosperous, with an entire new street of two-storied modern-styled houses replacing the delapidated hovels past which the dead horseman rides. And I’m sure it’s the Tennis Courts that prevent us getting exactly the right angle to photograph the arrival of The Man With No Name.

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Wow, so cool. Gotta admit I liked how it looked when Leone filmed there a lot more than how it looks now, but it’s nice most of the original structures are still there and fixed up. Glad the area was able to thrive and not be lost to time.

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There’s some pictures of the interior to come which show how beautifully decorated it is. Unfortunately when Don passed away, I was unable to get my photos back from his ex-wife. My photos tended to be general shots so you could see where the location fitted into the real world. Don was obsessed with getting shots that actually matched Leone’s camera framings, which worked brilliantly for the “Then and Now” segments on the DVDs, but don’t really help in telling the full story. Anyway, that’s water under the bridge.
This is the website, it’s still there: Hotel Cortijo El Sotillo

  1. San Miguel - The Western Town at Hoyo De Manzanares, Madrid

    Yep, nothing to see now. All gone. This photo was taken with the new widescreen camera that Don bought and took with him on another trip.
    We did have some really good shots of the foundations, taken in 2002, but those photos didn’t fit the “Then and Now” style of the DVD. Marla has them, so they are not available.
    Note the building on the hill at top extreme right in both shots. That’s what we used to identify the location.

After the dead man rides away at Los Albaricoques, Clint tips his hat, and the very next cut transports him to the Western set at Hoyo De Manzanares just North of Madrid, where most of the rest of the movie is played out. (Some sources spell it as Hojo, but my thirty year old Spanish map says Hoyo, so I’m sticking with that).
Apparently, the set was originally built in the early sixties by Spanish Producer/Director Joaquin L Romero Marchent for the series of Zorro movies like SHADOW OF ZORRO (Cabalgando Hacia La Muerte/L’Ombra Di Zorro) which usually featured Frank Latimore in the title role, and which coincidentally was co-produced by Leone’s FAFDM producer Alberto Grimaldi. But the town got a lot more use than that, because practically every Spanish Western ever made ended up being filmed here, plus quite a few Italian ones like DJANGO KILL (Se Sei Vivo Spara ).

To get there we took the main road North out of Madrid to Colmenar Viejo because there was a famous Western Town there too (of which, more later), then we turned left to Hoyo De Manzanares, and on the winding mountain road encountered one of those scenes that must be fairly common around these parts: an entire herd of goats ambling diagonally across the road without a goat herder to be seen - apart from a black dog trotting along with them, whom one may suggest was possibly the one in charge. The correct procedure here, in case you encounter such a similar occurrence, is to patiently wait whilst they pass - they sure aren’t going to move out of the way for you.
You travel beyond Hoyo, and on your left hand side you’ll find a little petrol station with the words ELF and CEPSA painted on the side. Already you’ve passed the turning to the Western Town, but this is your most recogniseable starting point to finding it.
From here, you easily recognise the distant mountains as being the backdrop to San Miguel, but the area is an undulating blanket of hills and gulleys littered by sandy-coloured boulders and huge rocks, and dotted with low trees. A multitude of dirt tracks head off into that wilderness, and continually branch off from themselves with other dirt tracks that usually after very long distances end up in little thickets of trees and dead-ended hollows, where the car gets scratched all over as you struggle to turn it round in order to find your way back. The only warning sign you get is one that asks you not to start fires.
We weren’t having too much success - the distant hills lined up very well, but then distant hills always do: You can move around several thousands of yards in the near landscape and they’ll still look the same. So we resorted to Rule Number Three: “Ask The Locals.”
On the way in we’d passed a better quality dirt track leading up to a large dump site, across which there had been a barrier. Now the barrier was up, so we drove in and up the road to the fenced dump area and parked just to the side of the entrance, to see if we could talk to anyone here. Like, these might have been the guys that tore down the film set - they might be compacting the stuff right now, so it seemed like a good idea.
There was no-one at the little wooden gatehouse, but a moment later a truck came hurtling out and screeched to a halt with three Spaniards inside gesticulating wildly to us to get out of here.
Don helpfully said “I think you’d better talk to them, Mike.”
Well, I let the photos do most of the talking, and then did the usual mixture of Spanish/Italian bad grammar:
“Lo siento… Buscaremo por este… Conosce?.. Pellicola de Sergio Leone… Clint Eastwood! Este aqui?”
(I’m sorry… We’re looking for this. Do you know it?.. A Sergio Leone film… Clint Eastwood! Is it here?)
“Ah Si!”, those wonderful words that I do understand, followed by a lot of gabbled Spanish, where I could almost pick out every tenth word, until I asked them to slow down, and say it again. They more or less suggested we should go back towards Hoyo and take one of those dirt tracks, but the sad news seemed to be that they were saying the town just wasn’t there anymore.
I thanked them profusely, and then we followed them as they drove on down to the barrier, and waited while we got through. Then we turned towards Hoyo and tried some more of those dirt tracks into the hills in an area which was a little more grassy and open. Occasionally we’d park the car and take a short hike to the next clump of boulders to climb up and see what was over the other side, but we realised that wandering this area could take days, and boy was it hot out there. Rule number Four: “Take lots of Water”
So we turned back down onto the Hoyo road and pulled up at the aforementioned Elf petrol Station to stock up on our supplies. I pulled out the photos and showed them to the attendant. It was a strange moment, because I was pointing at the photograph asking is this here, and if you raised your eyes to the hillside, which the attendant did, it was pretty damned obvious to anyone that of course this was here.
And stood in that forecourt , although we didn’t realise it at the time, we were actually in a direct line with the town.
“You see that place up there?”, he said: “Las Pinas?” He was gesturing towards a grand private house set in it’s own grounds that we had walked around much earlier. It was indeed surrounded by pine trees - Las Pinas - and guarded by high fences with warning signs about it being a private house and people staying away. I think we got the message that they didn’t want “no visitors”.
“Detras”, the attendant said, making the beyond-there gesture with his arm.
“Is there anything left?”, I asked.
“Nada”, he said. “Everything has gone - Todos”. And the two mechanics who had joined him to look at the photographs and add their own opinions, agreed.

This was a bitter but not entirely unexpected disappointment, and was obviously going to make our job a lot harder. Finding a site with nothing left was going to be more difficult than finding some ruins.
Anyway Don reminded me that maybe we ought to write down the name of the Petrol Station, so we could tell people where it was, and so I got out my notebook and started to look around for the sign. The only thing with big letters was on the side of the building next to a big white box, so I started to write “Hielos Pena SA”.
“What you putting that down for, Mike” says Marla.
“I think it’s the name of the Petrol Station”
“No Mike, that’s the ice-box!”

Marla had spent some six months in Spanish class preparing for the trip, but instead of getting conversational Spanish, she had done very formal Spanish Language classes where you learn the structure of the language. As a consequence, my thirty-year old conversational Spanish was generally turning out to be far more useful, except on occasions like this:
“Oh we have Hielo all over the place in California, couldn’t live without it,” she added, helpfully.
So I had to cross it out and write “Elf Station - Cepsa”. “Hielo” means “ice”, something I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

You leave the station and turn right on the main road towards Hoyo, and about a kilometre on your left is the dirt road that takes you towards Las Pinas. Just before you arrive at the house, you follow the curve to the right towards the mountains, and almost immediately do a sharp right onto a flat grassy plateau: San Miguel.

But there is something left after all - foundations. Everywhere you look, surrounded and almost hidden by the grass are the foundations of San Miguel. The Rojo house here, the Baxter’s there, the saloon, even a complete water trough surrealistically sitting there amongst the sea of grass.

It took me ages to light a celebratory Toscano because it’s so darned windy up there, but when I did, it tasted really good.

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  1. The River Massacre - Aldea Del Fresno, Madrid.

I found this “Then and Now” photo really bizarre. You can’t even see the gdm river.
But then that’'s how modernised it all is in Spain now


This is the reverse, featuring the tunnel that leads through from the rest area, which is where all the film vehicles used to park.

As seen in the movie…

When I visited Madrid in 1973, one of the places I was looking forward to finding was the Railway Station used in the opening and closing sequences of Sergio Corbucci’s COMPANEROS, which is one of my favourite Westerns. I had with me a clipping from a film magazine that said the station was at the town of Navalcarnero, which is about 20 kilometres from Madrid on the N5 motorway heading Southwest. But as I found out when I got there, the station is not actually at Navalcarnero, but at a little village called Villamanta some 10 kilometres further West.
I was pleased to find that the station house was exactly as seen on the film, the railway lines were intact, and that there was even graffiti from the film remaining on a nearby building that proclaimed “Viva Mongo!”
Having taken several shots of the location, I then proceeded further West from Villamanta to see if I could recognise anything from the landscape that might have appeared in other Westerns. Ten more kilometres brought me to the town of Aldea del Fresno, where the road parallelled a wide river along whose banks was clustered a forest of low trees. To my eyes this markedly resembled the river scenes often featured in Spaghetti westerns like TEXAS ADIOS, VADO L’AMMAZZO E TORNO and numerous others, including FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. However, having no film stills with me to compare the location, I just took a couple of shots of the area, and then returned to the City.
It’s 2001, and Don and Marla are planning another trip to Spain to try and pick up any of the locations they might have previously missed. Don’s not hugely interested in the COMPANEROS railway station, so we didn’t really discuss that area of the country very much, but he’s very keen to find the location of the river massacre, which Professor Frayling refers to as “Rio Bravo”, and vaguely describes as “a river near Madrid”, because he couldn’t find anyone who actually knew where it was.
The problem for me was that I only had rather vague memories of my Madrid trip of thirty years ago, and really wasn’t sure that Aldea del Fresno was where I took the river shots. But I e-mailed a transparency to Don that showed a wide shot of the river valley and hills, the forest of low trees that hugged the riverbank, and a long bridge of many arches that spanned it. And I said that I believed it was somewhere around Aldea Del Fresno.
Don was pretty excited about the shot, and following my directions he and Marla got themselves to the same position on the road where I had taken the photograph, and less than a mile further on, they pulled into a roadside stop and matched the exact location to their frame-grabs.
Then a year later, Don and Marla returned to this location with me in tow. It was a stunning moment for me, because the memories came flooding back of how I’d been at this very spot. I’d stopped at the pull-off for a break from all the driving, then walked to the river, took some snaps of an old man leading a donkey along the water’s edge, returned to the car, and drove on. I just never knew that I had really found the location of the massacre, until now.

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LOL … Nice one! :wink: