Hunting leone: once upon a time in the west

  1. Cattle Corner Railroad Station - La Calahorra branch line, Guadix.


Once Upon A Time in The West begins with a brilliantly funny parody of High Noon, featuring three gunmen killing time waiting for a train; time that ironically encompasses the last few minutes of their lives. The location is a splendid ramshackle station with a vast platform of warped logs and a noisy windmill whose ungreased axle screeches in an irritating rhythm. It would be great to report that this superior and unforgettable piece of art direction still stands there, baking in the Spanish sunlight for all visitors to come and marvel at, but sadly there’s nothing left. And there was nothing left when I went there in 1972. This place served its purpose for the film and then disappeared.
Perhaps Leone didn’t want other movies coming along and showcasing this unique construction, or maybe it had to go to make room for something else. I’m sure the lumber would have kept many a Spanish home warm for the winter.
The location, however, is easy to find. It’s on that same piece of branch line that used to connect Lacalahorra Station with Lacalahorra town, a line which now terminates to make way for the greatly expanded Spaghetti junction of roads that loop around the new main highway heading straight into Guadix. It’s that stretch of track that (NEARLY) every Spaghetti Western uses for its railroad scenes, Yes friends, Leone had Cattle Corner built smack on top of Tucumcari.

  1. The McBain Ranch - Gergal Road, Almeria

The McBain ranch, around which most of the action of OUATITW is centred, has fared better than Cattle Corner, although seeing it today, turned into a cut-price Mini-Hollywood-style tourist feature, surrounded by flimsy and hastily constructed new Western buildings that totally fail to match its character, one maybe wishes it had been dismantled too.

It was easy enough to find in 1972, standing majestically at the foot of grey cliffs, ringed by tall peaks, just off the main Almeria-Gergal road. So easy, that I was surprised to hear that Leone Web Board regular Ulrich Bruckner actually went to Almeria a few years ago and completely missed it, simply by not straying from that main road. You’ve been warned guys - you think this location-hunting thing is a piece of piss, but a lapse of concentration, or just shrugging off another turn into the hills can cost you everything.
To get to the ranch, you simply follow the N340 Almeria - Tabernas road for about 24 Kilometres from Almeria City, and then take the left fork towards Gergal, designated the C3326. Just past the fork, there is now a big sign proclaiming “Rancho Leone” on your right-hand side, and soon after as the road straightens out to climb up onto the plateau, there is a dirt track off to your right, with the Leone Ranch and it’s new gaudy outbuildings below you.
The ranch building itself has been turned into a bar, with framed posters and photographs all over the high-vaulted walls, and whilst we were there, the haunting Morricone theme from Once Upon a Time in the West was being played from a tape deck, lending extra poignancy, and an elegaic feel to the inexorable zoom-lens shots I was taking of the room with Don’s video camera.
If you look eastwards from the Ranch, you’ll see some distance away the ruins of a large fort hugging the ridge of a steep hillside. This was the fort built for John Guillermin’s EL CONDOR, filmed after ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Back in 1972, you could just walk or drive over there, but the owners of Rancho Leone have now fenced it off to make it innaccessible. We got there anyhow, but I’ll tell you about that at the appropriate time.

New staircase, lick of paint.

  1. Flagstone - Lacalahorra Station, Guadix

For the main town in OUATITW, Leone turned his back on El Paso which had been built for FAFDM, and which served as a multitude of different towns in GBU, and had a new place built not far from Cattle Corner. This was principally to accomodate the railroad requirements, since our first introduction to the town of Flagstone is when we meet Claudia Cardinale’s Jill, “The whore with the heart of gold” arriving by train.
I found Flagstone in 1972, travelling up to Guadix because I had read in a film magazine that some of Leone’s FISTFUL OF DYNAMITE had been shot there. It was a narrow straight road across the yellow flattened plains of Granada province that took me to the point midway between the station of Lacalahorra on my right, and the town of Lacalahorra on my left, which was overlooked by a conical hill surmounted by a Medieval Castle that was to serve well in John Milius’ THE WIND AND THE LION. The railway line that connected Lacalahorra town and station just crossed the tarmac road, without barrier, and it was here I stopped to admire the castle, and then gaze down towards Lacalahorra station where there was something strange and interesting about the mass of buildings that surrounded it. Quickly unsheathing my telescope, I was rewarded with the unmistakeable confirmation that I was staring at a complete Western town, and on the railway line that passed in front of it was a row of Western-styled railway carriages, which I didn’t recognise at the time as being from any particular film, but which became incredibly familiar a couple of weeks later when I returned to England and saw RED SUN. In the film there was actually one extra carriage, and I was thinking “what happened to that one?”, when suddenly there’s an attack on the train by Alain Delon’s bandit gang, and the superfluous carriage gets blown up.
In 1972, the town was in a good state of repair. It had been built along the southern side of the main railway line that connected Almeria to Guadix, on the opposite side to the small station of Lacalahorra. Through the centre of town ran a dirt road, heading southwest into the mountains, and according to my map, towards a mining area. The two halves of the town that straddled the dirt road had been ringed by a barbed wire fence to prevent anybody wandering inside, and I noticed some guy in a crumpled dark suit seated outside the saloon, who was probably guarding the place. Fortunately, I was on the move, so he hardly paid me any attention, giving me time to drive through, and then circle behind the buildings at the far end to hide my car at the southern tip of the town. I then quickly got my cameras together, stepped over the fence and began grabbing shots. As I moved around, I noted that the town guardian had finally spotted me, so I moved in the opposite direction to him, pretending not to see him, but taking great care to always circle out of his way. When he finally caught up to me, it was to tell me that it was forbidden to take photographs here. So I assumed an air of shock and surprise, and apologised profusely, thanking him for warning me, and then left with about two rolls of exposed film.
I guess if I’d shown him a few dollar bills, he would have told me that it was okay to wander around after all.

I returned to Almeria in 1974 and was quite excited by the fact that a local cinema was showing a film called MY NAME IS NOBODY, which I had never heard about. The poster said it was “Presented by Sergio Leone”, so I set aside an afternoon and went to watch it.
Imagine my surprise in finding that Flagstone had now become a main feature in this film.
So it was with mounting excitement that the very next day, I drove out towards Guadix and arrived at the location to see it for myself.
I already knew that there might be trouble over me attempting to take photographs here after the experience last time, but forearmed with that knowledge, I completely outwitted the guardian this time and got all the shots I wanted. The best he could do was to catch up with me breathlessly after I’d finished, by which time I was already throwing my car into gear and spraying him with dust as I barrelled along the dirt track back towards the main road.
And everything was here. The Hall of Mirrors, the rotating boxing figure, all sorts of carnival detritus. It really was a breathtaking experience. Watch the film one day, stand in the location the next, feeling the hot sun, blinking against the gleaming light, breathing the fresh air, and thinking you were heaven.

Google sends you to Flagstone now. You have to negotiate a spaghetti junction of circling roads to find the correct exit rather than the simple crossroads that I had. I think Don circled it at least twice while I made up my mind. The huge area of plastic greenhouses should help.


What’s left of it:


Thanks again for sharing your memories - Visited this location in 2009 expecting to see the GBU train station - didn’t know at that time, Flagstone was just across the rails.

It was both exciting and sad to see the former movie set in such a state … the saloon being used as a barn/warehouse is extra galling … but it’s a lot less romantic to the locals who live in the area than wide eyed location tourists.


Talking of the saloon…

  1. The auction, Flagstone saloon - Lacalahorra Station, Granada

The saloon where the auction of Jill’s ranch takes place was one of the more imposing buildings in Flagstone. In 1972, it was completely intact, but boarded up to prevent access inside. When I returned in 1974, the roof had caved in, and the signs on the exterior had been changed to read “Cheyenne Saloon” for MY NAME IS NOBODY. It was still protected by a surrounding fence, with the main door boarded up, but it looked too unsafe to get close to anyway.
What was also new for the NOBODY picture, as I mentioned earlier, were the fairground buildings, like the hall of mirrors, and even that “boxing-challenge” figure that Terence Hill spun around to beat up the bad guys.
I was alerted to the fact that Flagstone had been demolished some years later, when I read an article by Oliver Tocanne in William Connolly’s Spaghetti Cinema. He included some photographs showing some hauntingly skeletal brick ruins, that made me wonder whether he’d actually been to the same place, since they looked nothing like the Flagstone I had visited.
Later I was corresponding with Cenk Kiral who had also been to Almeria in the nineties, and who had written up a short description of his findings for the Sergio Leone web page. He had been to Lacalahorra, but hadn’t found Flagstone. I told him exactly where it was, but it seemed as if he had gone the opposite direction into Lacalahorra town, suggesting to me even more, that nothing was left of Flagstone.
Then Don and Marla went in 1999, and I gave them absolutely clear instructions where Flagstone was, so that there could be no mistake in finding it if anything was left. Finally, the horrible truth came out one night when Don phoned me from Almeria and said: “Yeah we found Flagstone, Mike, but you won’t like what’s happened to it”.
Eventually, when I went back to Almeria with Don and Marla for the 2000 expedition, I was able to see the tragic reality for myself: Flagstone had been totally dismantled. All that was left of this once beautiful town were these strange brick structures that represented the core of a couple of major buildings. The saloon was now being used as a grain store, and inside we found a young lad tending some goats. The smell was appalling.

You’ll probably notice that I jumped some section numbers. This is because quite a bit of OUATITW was shot in the US, and I never went there. Don lived in California, so it was second nature for him to go with Marla to Monument Valley and scout the locations. It’s Indian land and you can’t go through without a guide, so Don found a guide. I’m told that the Waystation where Jill is offered a bath, and Cheyenne meets Harmonica had been totally dismantled after shooting and turned into firewood by the Indians. The interior of the Waystation had been built in a studio in Rome for ease of shooting, and apparently, Leone had ordered several tons of red earth shipped over from Utah to add authenticity. He had clearly not heard of THE CONQUEROR debacle. This was a John Wayne picture which was filmed in an area of Utah that had been used as a Nuclear testing ground. Not only did they film in a contaminated area, they actually shipped some of the red earth back to the studio for authenticity. Most of the principle actors in the film and many of the crew subsequently died of cancer because of the radiation.

  1. The gulley at the McBain Ranch - Gergal Road, Almeria

In the final scenes of OUATITW, Harmonica leaves Jill’s ranch with Cheyenne, descending into a gulley that runs parallel with the newly constructed railway line. Here, hidden from view of the ranch, Cheyenne collapses from his horse, to eventually die from a gunshot wound he received from “Mr Choo Choo” when his men ambushed the train and rescued him from transporation to Yuma jail. (The train rescue is referred to in conversation, but not seen on screen)
After Cheyenne has died, Harmonica straps him to his horse, and he is then seen in the final shot of the movie, ascending from out of the gulley and heading away from the ranch.
I couldn’t quite see the reason for Harmonica leaving Jill’s ranch by way of the gulley, because it is a longer route for him to take to where he is going. Obviously the gulley is a quiet place for Leone to stage Cheyenne’s death, but in reality, I believe it is an unnecessary diversion.
However, when Don, Marla and myself visited the Leone ranch in year 2000, we had to make use of the gulley in order to get around the fencing placed at the eastern end of the ranch area, which prevented tourists going any further along the valley. Our destination was the large fort built on the hillside to the east of the ranch, which at the time of OUATITW was not in existence, or would have been clearly seen in the final shot of the movie where Harmonica rides away.
The fort was built for the John Guillermin movie EL CONDOR, which starred Lee Van Cleef, Patrick O’Neal, and Jim Brown. Although most people will probably remember the movie for Jennifer O’Neil’s splendidly impromptu striptease that distracts the fort’s guards long enough to enable Van Cleef and Brown to scale the walls.
When I first visited the fort in 1972, it was in excellent condition, with lots of steps ascending in all directions, and enabling you to climb up to the solid towers and stroll along the ramps which stretched along the walls. It looked like solid stone, but it was made of the usual plasterboard and straw, and occasionally where the plaster had rubbed off, you could see the odd nail-heads poking out from the wooden battens that held it all together.
But two years later, that flimsy plasterboard had badly deteriorated. A huge section of the massive wall that Van Cleef’s men scaled had completely collapsed; a probable victim of the harsh weather conditions that Almeria had experienced that year, as much as for the many movie explosions that had echoed around it.
In year 2000, the place was in an even worse state of repair, but the film makers seemed to be making use of the ruined look, and instead of doing up the fort, they appeared to be adding new buildings inside, like a row of shops, telegraph poles, billboards. It gave it a sort of 1920’s border town look, and led us to speculate that it might be the location for an Italian version of LAST MAN STANDING.

Well that’s it folks.
I’ll just add a little postscript, to say that when I first visited Lacalahorra and saw the train at Flagstone, I wondered if any other stations on the Almeria-Guadix line had been used for filming. Only one station proved to be of interest, and that was Hueneja, the next station in the Almeria direction. Here I found a large group of sidings on which were stored old coaches built in the American style. Shame I don’t have the photos any more. And a shame I didn’t follow the route in the other direction.


A wonderful story, Indio Black–and I mean it. However, it was not Jennifer O’Neill, but, rather, veteran exploitation-film actress Marianna Hill, who did the strip-tease in “El Condor” (1970), Miss Hill having the only notable female role in this American imitation of a spaghetti western.

These before and after photos are always cool to see, keep 'em up Amigo. :+1:


Marianna Hill, Marianna Hill, Marianna Hill…

A really nice article .Great reading and content… Whats left of Flagstone/Cattlecorner/Tucumcari is 25 minutes away from where we live. When passing on the way to Almeria its sad to see the ruins but great to know that some of Spaghetti western greatest scenes were filmed there.( In my dreams when i win the 20 million euromillions plus i,m going to buy that old railway track and re-build Tucumcari and have the line running with a stunning steam train)… Nice feature. Even if it never earned a bean lol


I hope you win the Euro Millions then. Could I be the old timer who sits in a rocking chair out front and bores passengers with his tales of long ago?

With that type of money and very good wage for you… You will be able to give it as much spin as you want with a cheesy grin everyday.