The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s graveyard comes back from the dead | Film

After more than 50 years, several fistfuls of euros and countless wheelbarrow journeys, one of the most famous graveyards in cinema history has been rescued from oblivion and is to be honoured in a new documentary.

Sad Hill cemetery is the setting for the climax of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach face off against each other to the strains of Ennio Morricone.

Having dispatched the Bad and left the Ugly defenceless and furious, the Good lays out his simple credo: “You see, in this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend. Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.”

Inspired by Eastwood’s words, a group of film fans spent two years restoring the cemetery to its former glories.

The set, which was built by soldiers in the northern Spanish province of Burgos for Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 spaghetti western, had been forgotten and reclaimed by nature until the Sad Hill Cultural Association stepped in.

Sad Hill map

With the help of crowdfunding and volunteers from France, Germany, Turkey, Italy and the US, its members slowly, and backbreakingly, cleared the site to reveal the famous stone circle and its hidden graves.

Their quixotic labours have been recorded in Sad Hill Unearthed, a documentary by the Spanish film-maker and cinema fanatic Guillermo de Oliveira.

When a friend told him about the association’s idea, Oliveira felt a familiar pull.

The stone circle at Sad Hill cemetery.



The stone circle at Sad Hill cemetery. Photograph: Guillermo de Oliveira

“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.”

He was also taken with their ingenious, if morbid, crowdfunding strategy for restoring the graveyard’s 5,000 wooden crosses: for €15, anyone, anywhere can have their name, nickname or initials inscribed on a cross.

“That’s its unique selling point,” he said. “It’s the only cemetery in the world where you can visit your own grave.”

Sad Hill.



Sad Hill. Photograph: Guillermo de Oliveira

Oliveira and his camera followed the volunteers as they used hoes, spades and wheelbarrows to clear the site in preparation for a special screening at the site last July to mark the 50th anniversary of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

He and his team also interviewed Morricone and famous fans of the film, including the Gremlins director Joe Dante and James Hetfield, the lead singer of Metallica.

One particular interviewee proved elusive. But after 10 months of phone calls, emails and faxes, the film-makers finally got to Eastwood himself.

The veteran actor and director sent a message of thanks to all those who had worked to recover Sad Hill.

Just before the film was screened at the site last year, Oliveira played the audience Eastwood’s video. “He suddenly appeared on the screen to say thanks and some people started crying,” said Oliveira. “It was a very emotional moment.”

Sad Hill.



Sad Hill. Photograph: Guillermo de Oliveira

David Alba, one of the local volunteers, said that when Eastwood’s message was played “no one was really taking in what he was saying because we were so surprised. I had to watch it afterwards to find out what he actually said.”

Today Sad Hill is a popular draw and a boon to the local economy, said Alba, 36, who owns a bar named in Leone’s honour.

Oliveira has finished his documentary and is now trying to raise the money to pay for the rights to the clips and music it uses so he can show the film at festivals.

He said the film is both a testament to the enduring appeal of Leone’s masterpiece and an attempt to explain the motivations of the many people who laboured to bring a dilapidated film set back from the dead.

“There’s something almost religious about all this. Why would someone who’s been working all week spend eight hours in a cemetery at the weekend for nothing in return? It’s altruism in its purest form.”

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