Watching “Sad Hill Unearthed” (2017)

The 2017 documentary Sad Hill Unearthed tells the story of efforts to preserve the fictional Sad Hill Cemetery featured in the final scenes of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The circular graveyard with an amphitheater-like central stage was created for the film in the mid-1960s, and its remnants were still there – about twenty miles south of Burgos, Spain – as the fiftieth anniversary approached in 2016. So, a group of guys organized themselves to restore it, then made the call for help, and volunteers came from far-flung places. They all chipped away at the massive task, first with hand tools and later with some heavier equipment. Ultimately, their efforts were urged forward by the common understanding of how films can shape our lives and how we often seek to visit (or revisit) the sites of meaningful experiences.

Though I’m about five years late in watching this one, I’m a longtime fan of Clint Eastwood, of spaghetti westerns, and of this movie in particular. I would put Sergio Leone’s three-film series in the “existential western” sub-genre. (The term is usually applied to Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and Ride the Whirlwind, but I see a similar spirit in Leone’s three, in Jodorowski’s El Topo, in Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, and in other films as well.) Even if someone doesn’t usually like Westerns, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly offers something different by combining of the setting and plots of the western genre with a noir feel, a European sensibility, and a groundbreaking musical component. Only the most closed-minded viewer could watch this entire film and walk away unaffected. 

Thinking about the documentary itself, the handful of guys who organized the effort tell their tale in the most sincere and heartfelt way. Yes, their chosen task was unorthodox, but in doing it, they found a community of equally true believers that they didn’t know existed. Despite the effect of modern streaming services, film is at its best when it is consumed in groups. This time, the group included Metallica singer James Hetfield, as well as others who traveled to Spain to dig dirt and move stones. This story is a testament to the communal nature of film as an art form, including how so many disparate people can appreciate the same things in the same ways.


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