Sad Hill Cemetery

Aug 28, 2023 0 comments

About 30 kilometers southeast of Burgos, a charming city in the Castilla y León region of northern Spain, rests a rather expansive cemetery. The cemetery lies absolutely in the middle of nowhere. The small town of Santo Domingo de Silos, located 5 kilometers away, is the nearest semblance of civilization. Yet, amid the sun-kissed, arid hills, more than five thousand graves grace Sad Hill Cemetery. One might wonder who these individuals are, laid to rest so far from their homelands. As it turns out, Sad Hill Cemetery is not a real cemetery, but an intricately crafted movie set created to serve as the backdrop for the climactic scene of one of the most enduring spaghetti Westerns from the 1960s—The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Photo credit: santiago lopez-pastor/Flickr

Directed by the Italian director and producer Sergio Leone, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was filmed mostly in Spain, in the rugged terrain of the Demanda mountains and the Arlanza valley near Burgos because of its geographic similarity to the Southwestern United States, where the story unfolds. The movie was shot at four key locations in the vicinity: the San Pedro de Arlanza monastery, which became the San Antonio mission hospital; the River Pisuerga in Hortigüela which became the site of the American Civil War battlefield in the film; the suburbs of Carazo, which were transformed into the extensive prison camp of Betterville; and Santo Domingo de Silos, which was turned into Sad Hill Cemetery.

Measuring 300 meters in diameter and featuring more than 5,000 grave markers, the cemetery was built by several hundred Spanish soldiers. For every day of shooting during that scorching summer of 1966, the company paid each soldier 250 pesetas (€1.50), and some officials received as much as 900 pesetas (€5.41). Keen to show off their thespian skills, Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco even provided director Leone with 1,000 extras to work on the movie.

The cemetery in 1966.

After filming ended, everybody packed their bags and left, and the cemetery was conveniently abandoned and forgotten. Over the years nature took over the cemetery, as creepers snaked their way over the crosses, causing them to topple, ultimately transforming the site into a mere expanse of overgrown, grassy meadow.

Fifty years later, a passionate group of enthusiasts who dubbed themselves the Sad Hill Cultural Association embarked on a quest to locate the cemetery's precise whereabouts. Armed with stills from the film's final scene, they meticulously traced the cemetery's coordinates. In 2015, they began the painstaking process of excavating the site.

With the help of a unique crowdfunding strategy, where for €15, anyone was able to inscribe their name, nickname or initials on a cross, as well as donations and volunteers from France, Germany, Turkey, Italy and the US, members of the association slowly pulled out weeds and shoveled dirt to uncover the stones and its hidden graves. Their labors were recorded in Sad Hill Unearthed, a documentary by the Spanish film-maker and cinema fanatic Guillermo de Oliveira.

Photo credit: Estevoaei/Wikimedia Commons

When Oliveira first heard of the association’s idea, he was intrigued:

“I love visiting the places where films were shot,” he said. “I’ve visited the dam where the beginning of Goldeneye was filmed, the sets for Star Wars in Tunisia, the cliff that Thelma and Louise drive off at the end of the film, and the Los Angeles restaurant from Heat.”

Although he hadn’t originally planned to shoot a documentary, Oliveira was moved by the volunteers’ dedication and perseverance.

“I was just struck by the beautiful notion of fans of the film wanting to bring it back to the way it was … It may have been a beautifully crazy idea, but it was still a crazy one. It was a dream.”

Oliveira and his camera followed the volunteers as they used hoes, spades and wheelbarrows to clear the site. They tracked down a number of local people who were extras in the movie and interviewed them. He and his team also interviewed composer Ennio Morricone and famous fans of the film, including the Gremlins director Joe Dante and James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica, and Clint Eastwood himself.

Sad Hill Unearthed was released in 2017 and is now available on Netflix.

Today Sad Hill is a popular attraction and draws many visitors and fans of the movie.

Photo credit: Mijnmedia/Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: santiago lopez-pastor/Wikimedia Commons

# The Good, the Bad and the Ugly's graveyard comes back from the dead, The Guardian
# The Good, the Bad and the Ugly location reborn in Spain, BBC
# Why people are dying for a place in this cinematic Spanish graveyard, El Pais


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