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‘Sad Hill Unearthed’ a Grave Restoration Back From the Dead — and One of the Most Joyful Netflix Documentaries You Will See All Year
May 8, 2019  | By Alex Strachan  | 1 comment

“You see, in this world there’s two kinds of people, my friend: those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.”
     — Blondie (Clint Eastwood), in the climactic cemetery scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, 1966.
There are hidden gems, and then there are finds so unexpected — and rewarding — that you wonder how you missed them in the first place. Sad Hill Unearthed, Guillermo De Oliveira’s disarming Spanish-language (closed-captioned in English) film nominally about the making of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, is just such a find.
Never mind whether or not you saw the original Good, Bad and the Ugly (below), or saw it but didn’t care for it much. Sad Hill is one of the most joyful — and joyous —celebrations of the human spirit and creative filmmaking I have seen in a long time, and that’s why I’ve taken the time to tell you about it here in such detail.
Heaven knows you’d be hard pressed to find Sad Hill on your own, even on Netflix. So much of what one sees on Netflix is an accident. Netflix’s algorithm is designed to flag those programs it thinks you’ll like, based on your past viewing history. Sad Hill, made on a low budget in Spain — where Leone made all his spaghetti westerns, starting with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars — and released in the arthouse movie equivalent of a witness protection program, is not easy to find on Netflix, unless one knows what to look for and how to look. Netflix’s business model seems to be based on the idea of streaming 500 different programs, but only telling you about five of them.
Making-of, behind-the-scenes documentaries about major Hollywood movies are a dime a dozen these days and are often little more than thinly disguised promotion. Sad Hill is different.
It’s set in present day, for one, and only in part about the making of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, though it’s full of funny, entertaining behind-the-scenes anecdotes. Sad Hill follows the quest of a handful of movie buffs from a small village in central Spain, in the proverbial middle-of-nowhere, to restore the outdoor cemetery where The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s famous climactic shootout — 12 minutes of sweeping camerawork and music, with little-to-no dialogue — was staged.
The cemetery, designed by the Italian architect and film production designer Carlo Simi in 1966, is distinguished by its unusual circular shape and delicately laid stones in the circle’s center. After location filming ended, the cemetery was slowly covered in decades’ worth of dirt, weeds and wild grasses. A short number of years ago, a pair of backpackers from Canada, rambling in the Spanish hills with a home-video camera, stumbled across what they thought might be the place where Clint Eastwood stared down Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. They asked local villagers if they knew the gravesite’s history. Boy, do they.
Sad Hill follows a handful of movie buffs in the village as they come up with a novel idea: Why not restore the cemetery to its original 1960s’ glory, in time for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’s 50th-anniversary commemoration (top)?
Many of the principles had died: Leone, for example, and composer Ennio Morricone was soon to shuffle off this mortal coil — harmonica, trumpet and Spanish guitar in tow.
Eastwood, of course, is in fine health, living the good life “in America somewhere,” but his movie career has, em, advanced beyond those early spaghetti-western days, when his Man With No Name was a pop-cultural phenomenon, the late ‘60s equivalent of a social-media meme gone viral.
The joke at the heart of The Good, the Bad and Ugly — the movie was full of dark humor, which is probably why it has survived all these years — was that a fortune in buried gold is buried in a grave marked with the name “Arch Stanton.” That sounds easy enough to find — until the trio of gunslingers arrive at the cemetery and learn there are thousands of graves, all marked with dead soldiers’ names. The cemetery contains the remains of US Civil War soldiers who fought on both sides and were buried within feet of where they died.
It’s here where Sad Hill starts to tell one of the strangest, most endearing and oddly compelling stories about moviemaking ever told.
Intended or not, the US Civil War in the film would become a metaphor for Spain’s own divisive history. Spain suffered its own bloody, seemingly unending civil war. Spanish dictator Francisco Franco somehow managed to stay in power after 1945, despite being on the wrong side of history, and continued to rule Spain with an iron fist until his death in 1975.
Franco was not exactly a movie buff, but when he learned Leone, a wacky Italian filmmaker with a penchant for alternative thinking and some novel ideas about how to reinvent the movie western, was planning a big-budget follow-up to his more modestly budgeted box-office successes A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, he ordered an army unit to make The Good, the Bad and the Ugly a similar success, but on a bigger, badder scale. Franco’s motivation was Trump-like: He wanted The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to be the biggest, best, boldest spaghetti western of them all. Bigly so.
Instead of having to rely on the usual standard, for-hire movie extras, Leone suddenly found himself in charge of military trained soldiers used to following orders. The soldiers were put to work doing everything from playing movie extras (the Union and Confederate soldiers in the film; now you know why, despite their slovenly appearance and grizzled, unshaven look, they march in perfect unison in the film’s sweeping, eye-filling sequence) to building the sets, cooking food for the actors and crew, and cleaning up afterwards.
I won’t spoil any surprises here — and there are plenty — save one: One of the most spectacular, and costly, misadventures in the history of filmmaking, later lampooned in the opening scene of the classic Peter Sellers parody The Party, was due to mixed signals on the part of those very same soldiers, and a commanding officer who chose a most unfortunate time to become confused over what to do and when.
At this point, a Hollywood studio would have walked away and abandoned the film — taken the loss, as they say — but Franco’s soldiers were ordered to fix what seemed irretrievably broken. And because Franco was the boss, what Franco asked for, Franco got, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly finished filming, cemetery scene and all, and made its release date. One can imagine one of the old Hollywood studio moguls, hearing this story about a big-budget movie production run off the rails in faraway Spain, only to recover on-budget and on time, would feel an envy bordering on bitter jealousy. Hollywood unions weren’t like the Spanish military.
Eastwood himself, though not physically in Sad Hill, is a towering presence throughout. When Leone asked him to sit within yards of a massive detonation of dynamite under a long, carefully constructed bridge, built with massive effort and at massive cost — think The Bridge on the River Kwai, only bigger, with much, much more dynamite — Eastwood laconically told his director that, erm, he had a better idea: Why not have a stunt double take his place, while he would sit behind the director instead? (Film buffs will know that Leone later made a western, Duck, You Sucker! starring James Coburn and Rod Steiger, in 1971; now you know where Duck, You Sucker! got its name.)
Sad Hill is full of wonderful, wacky anecdotes. When the villagers restoring the cemetery realize they are running out of time and money — recreating the wooden crosses over the grave sites was taking more time than they expected, despite everyone in the village, ages seven to 70, helping out for the sheer fun of it — they came up with another novel idea: why not crowdfund the cemetery’s restoration, by offering fans around the world a chance to have their own name on a grave cross, for US $50, the amount chosen to coincide with Good, Bad and the Ugly’s 50th anniversary. They expected a handful of like-minded Good, Bad and the Ugly fans to respond. Instead, they got 1,000 in a matter of days, and then 2,000, and then 3,000 — and now even the crowdfunding scheme was threatening to spiral out of control. All that wood for the grave markers! Wherever were they going to find it?
Sad Hill ends with the cemetery completed — no spoiler there; if it hadn’t been completed, there wouldn’t have been a Sad Hill documentary to begin with, let alone a documentary streaming on Netflix — and one final surprise that brings tears to the villagers’ eyes.
It’s a lovely moment, in a lovely film. Sad Hill Unearthed is well worth the time to find, dig up and enjoy.
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Ennio Morricone is very much alive.
May 8, 2019   |  Reply
I'd like to thank everyone who pointed that out to me, including Ennio Morricone.
May 10, 2019
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