Landscape of the epic past: a history of Spain in the movies.

Spain has "portrayed" many landscapes from the past in Hollywood movies, including Russia, the Old West, and ancient Rome.

This article was originally published in September 2019 as part of the Hollywood's Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, hosted by Aurora of Aurora's Gin Joint. Thanks for letting me take part!

Spain is as much a concept and an aura as it is a real place. I have never been to the real country of Spain, but it looms large in my life and consciousness: many of my ancestors, especially on my mother's side, were Spaniards who ultimately settled California; Spain was the first colonial power of the New World, having broken the cultural and biological seal that separated Eurasia from the Americas until the late 15th century; and Spain's mark, culturally and linguistically, on the world and on everyday life in the U.S. cannot be overestimated. But Spain is also something else too: one of the world's most spectacular movie sets. Some particularly memorable motion pictures, especially epic films made in the 1950s and 1960s, have been filmed primarily or partially in Spain. I wanted to examine how and why the landscapes and concepts of Spain are so critical to classic movies, and how it's related to the country's turbulent history in the 20th century.

You would probably be surprised how many, and which, movies have utilized Spanish landscapes. It comes as no surprise that films taking place in Spain, like Around the World in 80 Days (1956) or El Cid (1961), have been filmed there; but what's even more interesting is what films that ostensibly have nothing to do with Spain or Spanish culture and history have also been made there. Spain has "portrayed" parts of Russia in David Lean's Doctor Zhivago (1965), ancient Israel in King Vidor's Solomon and Sheba (1959) and Nicholas Ray's King of Kings (1961), and even China in 55 Days at Peking (1963, also Nicholas Ray) and the American West in Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (1967). And it has inevitably, and perhaps most notably, been the setting of films taking place in ancient Rome, notably Kubrick's Spartacus (1960) and Anthony Mann's The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). There's something about Spain's rugged landscapes, dusty hills and semi-arid plains that simply "look" like the past. But that is not the whole story.

The golden age of Spain's turn as an epic movie set is connected to its history, and also the history of Hollywood. Spain was a depressing and tumultuous place in the first half of the 20th century. The Spanish Civil War of the 1930s, a horribly destructive and traumatic conflict that served as a bloody prelude to World War II, ended in 1939 with fascist dictator Francisco Franco consolidating his control over the country. The European phase of World War II began that same year, and although Franco was sympathetic to Axis leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini—who had helped Franco win the Spanish Civil War—Spain was not drawn into the war. Franco and his regime survived the searing conflict that swept away the major fascist powers, but post-1945 Spain was utterly impoverished, mired in a more or less permanent economic recession. Franco himself committed Spain to this fate by adopting an autarkic economic system, refusing to trade with the rest of the world, most of which didn't like him much anyway.

Meanwhile, the 1950s proved to be the most desperate years in Hollywood's history, with the mainstream film industry fighting for its very survival. The enemy was television. Why would anyone, particularly affluent middle-class Americans, go to the movies anymore when they could be entertained more cheaply by having Jackie Gleason, Lucille Ball and Ed Sullivan beamed directly into their living rooms? The cigar-chomping executives in Hollywood office bungalows, to their credit, tried to make movies relevant again by focusing on providing visions that couldn't be replicated on the small screen: especially epic visions, "big" movies with astronomical budgets, bankable stars, and visual spectacle that was impossible for television to compete with. "Big" movies required big subjects. Historical and Biblical subjects were the natural go-to for this kind of filmmaking.

Francisco Franco (at right) was in undisputed political control of Spain from the time of his victory in the Spanish Civil War in 1939 to his death in 1975. Here he is in 1969 with Juan Carlos, whom Franco made King of Spain.

For its part, Francoist Spain was the perfect country to answer Hollywood's casting call. With the experiment in autarky having failed, Franco in the 1950s moved toward greater engagement with the United States and Western Europe; the fact that he was a staunch anti-Communist certainly burnished his credentials. But economically Spain was very attractive to Hollywood productions. Taxes were minimal. Under Franco's repressive regime, strikes were illegal and labor unions outlawed. Because Spain sat out the war and thus did not receive Marshall Plan aid like most of the rest of Western Europe, its economy was sluggish and thus prices were low. And Franco had another asset that Hollywood could use: the Spanish Army itself, which Franco actually rented out to Hollywood productions, usually to populate the vast battle scenes that studded epics of the period like El Cid and Spartacus.

To show how Spain worked with (and for) Hollywood in this period, let's compare and contrast two epic films that came out in the same year, 1959, and were in production at the same time: MGM's Ben-Hur, directed by William Wyler, and the much less well-remembered Solomon and Sheba from United Artists, directed by King Vidor. Both were envisioned as epic films from accomplished directors; both had Biblical subject matter; both involved colossal battle scenes; and they were intended as commercial competitors to one another. However, Ben-Hur was filmed mostly in Italy, while UA went to Spain for Solomon and Sheba. Both films were disastrous and chaotic productions. Ben-Hur used up writers, costume designers, technical experts and extras at a ferocious pace. Director Wyler chafed at the studio-demanded super-widescreen format, which made everything more difficult. The famous chariot race sequence alone took three months alone to film. And the cost overruns on Ben-Hur approached proportions that would shock the Pentagon.

Solomon and Sheba, starring Tyrone Power and Gina Lollobrigida, had its run of bad luck too. On November 15, 1958, after a day of shooting in Madrid, star Tyrone Power died suddenly of a massive heart attack; according to some reports he died in Gina Lollobrigida's car on the way to the hospital. More than 70% of the film was already shot. Instead of scrapping the production and claiming an insurance loss, producer Edward Small decided to re-shoot Power's scenes with another actor hastily recruited to replace him: Yul Brynner, who turned down the lead in Spartacus to take the job. Brynner did finish the picture, which wrapped in late January 1959; Ben-Hur finally made it into the can on January 7. Both films would go head-to-head at the box office in the fall, with Solomon and Sheba premiering in London on October 27, 1959 and Ben-Hur having its gala opening in New York about three weeks later.

It could well be that Spain, serving as Solomon and Sheba's chief production location, saved the picture. At the time of Power's death the battle scenes involving the Spanish Army had already been shot; minimal re-shoots of close-ups involving Brynner were needed, but most of the existing footage was usable. More importantly, Spain's cheap production costs, thanks to its economic conditions, made it possible to stretch the production for the 10 more weeks necessary to finish it. Ben-Hur, filming in the more expensive Italy, was always at the budget breaking point. Wyler's picture cost $15.2 million (about $137 million in 2020 dollars), while Vidor and UA pulled off Solomon and Sheba for only $5 million, less than a third of the cost. Solomon and Sheba was a critical bomb—it was listed in Harry Medved and Randy Dreyfuss's 1977 survey of the 50 Worst Films of All Time—but a financial success, and Ben-Hur of course outgrossed everything that had come before it.

The financial arrangements that made Solomon and Sheba a success—chiefly the cheap Spanish labor and the use of the Spanish Army as extras—were replicated over and over again in the coming years. Kubrick used the Spanish Army for the battle scenes in Spartacus. Nicholas Ray built a replica of 1900 Beijing for his 1963 epic 55 Days at Peking on some dusty real estate outside of Madrid. (55 Days at Peking will soon be featured on my podcast, Green Screen, in October). That film bombed, but its rugged and burnished look, due chiefly to the Spanish landscape and Mediterranean sun, really does paint a compelling picture of pre-Revolutionary China. David Lean also built a pre-revolutionary Moscow outside Madrid for Doctor Zhivago two years later. If you like epic films from the 1960s, chances are good that a great deal of what your eyes so luxuriously drink in are the sights of Spain.

For my money, the most classic "portrayal" of another place by the Spanish landscape came in the 1964 epic The Fall of the Roman Empire, a much-overlooked and almost forgotten film. The Ridley Scott film Gladiator, which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2000, is an un-credited remake of The Fall of the Roman Empire, with Alec Guinness in the role (Marcus Aurelius) played by Richard Harris in 2000, Christopher Plummer in the role (Commodus) that Joaquin Phoenix would later play, and Sophia Loren in the Connie Nielsen role. Roman Empire was the work of director Anthony Mann, who had already been to Spain to film El Cid and was in fact the original director of Spartacus before being fired and replaced by Kubrick. The most spectacular locale in Roman Empire is Emperor Marcus Aurelius's winter camp, which was constructed in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains north of Madrid. The picture's slow pace—fully half of its 188-minute run time takes place here, covering the same amount of story that Gladiator dispatches in half an hour—is probably a result of Mann and cinematographer Robert Krasker trying to take advantage of this set, which is an outdoor fortress that blends beautifully with the visually stunning landscape.

The Fall of the Roman Empire was a box-office bomb, but I think its look and style were hugely influential. It definitely helped "imprint" the vision of Spain and the Spanish landscape as moviegoers' first connotation when imagining what the Roman Empire, or any epic scene in the past, is "supposed" to look like. If you doubt that, look again at Gladiator, which I was shocked to discover was not filmed in Spain: it was made in Malta, England and Morocco. The visual look of Gladiator is based largely on a single painting, Jean-Léon Gérôme's 1872 painting entitled Pollice Verso, one of my favorite works of art. But its landscapes, particularly those outside of the city of Rome, "look" like Spain (and the main character, Maximus, is said to be from Spain). That Spain has become the visual language of the classical world in film is a fact that wouldn't have been possible without the epic Hollywood productions that were made there, when Hollywood was competing with television. Spain changed cinema, pure and simple.

Thanks again to Aurora for throwing the blogathon.

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