‘Desenterrando Sad Hill’ (‘Sad Hill Unearthed’): Film Review

In ‘Sad Hill: Unearthed,’ Guillermo de Oliveira tracks the 50-years-later restoration in Spain of the cemetery built by Sergio Leone for the iconic final scene of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.’

One of those projects that finds a story in a movie history footnote, Sad Hill Unearthed works that story up into a tale of gentle thoughtfulness and emotion. From the perspective of a spaghetti Western buff, it’s a story that could hardly be bettered: four obsessive friends taking on the challenge of physically restoring the cemetery on the remote Spanish hillside near the city of Burgos known as Sad Hill, where The Good, the Bad and the Ugly‘s legendary final Mexican standoff takes place.

Filmmaker Guillermo de Oliveira shows respect where it’s due to everyone involved, turning this crazy but inspirational project into a heartwarming little homage to the mythic power of movies to spread beyond theaters and make a difference, even down through the years and in unexpected ways. Perfect cinephile fare, Hill has played strong on the festival circuit before its recent Spanish theatrical and Netflix releases.

The Bottom Line

Movie fandom, enjoyably eulogized.

Unexpectedly, and perhaps self-indulgently, the film begins at a Metallica concert — the band’s singer (and GBU fanboy) James Hetfield makes regular appearances throughout, and Ennio Morricone’s theme tune has been used at the band’s concerts for years. But then we get down to the main business, as explained by the pre-credits sequence: In 1966, members of Franco’s army built a large cemetery near Burgos containing 5,000 graves, in this case with no bodies in them.

The cemetery was built, of course, under instructions from Sergio Leone for the big-budget third installment of his Dollars trilogy. Nearly 50 years later, four Spanish guys set about the restoration of the Sad Hill cemetery, giving the documentary its narrative backbone. They are fans for different reasons, including the fact that some of their parents were extras in the film.

The restoration begins with the scraping away of seven inches of accumulated topsoil to get at the circle of stones on which Blondie, Angel Eyes and Tuco famously play out their fate. In the ’60s, the work was done by soldiers; in the 2000s, it’s done by a surprisingly high number of volunteer film fans, brought together by social media. Next comes the problem of the thousands of wooden grave markers (one of which was dedicated to Eli Wallach after his 2014 death). The boys come up with the idea of enlisting sponsorships for them, so that each contributor get their own name on a GBU cross as a faux Civil War victim (the possible tastelessness of this is debated in the film). And finally, there’s the backbreaking work of the surrounding stone circle.

The doc is also strong in its detours. The whole mythic episode of the accidental, costly blowing up and later reconstruction of the bridge — apparently it was down to the multilingual nature of the GBU project — is dutifully recounted. Talking-head viewpoints come from a range of critics, writers and industry pros, including Joe Dante, Alex de la Iglesia and spaghetti Western expert Christopher Frayling, whose superior knowledge makes him particularly fascinating — though spaghetti Western buffs are unlikely to unearth little here that’s new here. (That said, get this: Researcher Peter J. Hanley, having blown up a still from the shoot in which Leone is clutching a book of Civil War photos, reveals his intriguing belief that the detail-obsessive Leone aimed to arrange the bodies of the dead in GBU with precise historical accuracy.)

There are direct contributions too from Clint Eastwood himself (yup, and very artfully incorporated), from Morricone, and from GBU’s co-editor Eugenio Alabiso, a wonderfully twinkling presence who graces the movie’s screening at the site’s opening in the doc’s tear-wringing final scene. Another touching moment has one of the restorers recounts how he said goodbye to his father as he set off for a restoration weekend and never saw him again.

Sad Hill Unearthed is ultimately an homage to the power of Leone’s masterpiece (despite the initial misgivings of snobbish critics about the genre) to make a quasi-religious difference in some people’s lives, even at the level of pieces of crosses from the set being built into local houses many years later. De Oliveira’s doc does a good job of conveying how GBU has touched the lives of seemingly everyone involved in meaningful ways. It’s just a shame that the director, presumably in a nod to global considerations, decided to top and tail it with James Hetfield — whose relationship to the film is more tangential than most of the other interviewees, and who has less of interest to say.

Production companies: Zapruder Films, Sad Hill Desenterrado
Cast: Joseba del Valle, David Alba Romero, Sergio Garcia Hernandez, Diego Montero, Ennio Morricone, James Hetfield, Joe Dante, Clint Eastwood, Alex de la Iglesia, Christopher Frayling, Peter J. Hanley
Director, screenwriter, director of photography, editor: Guillermo de Oliveira
Producers: Guillermo de Oliveira, Luisa Cowell
Composer: Zeltia Montes
Sales: Film Factory

In Spanish, Italian and English
86 minutes