Sad Hill Unearthed (2017) – A Review

Sergio Leone’s classic 1966 epic spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly has enraptured movie fans for half a century. One of the most iconic scenes from the film is the climactic final showdown where the star trio of Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach face off in a huge circular graveyard.

The cemetery Leone created has become a legendary, mythic image for fans. After finding the location where it was constructed in Burgos Spain, passionate film fans attempt to uncover and restore it as it looked when the film was shot fifty years ago.

This is not only a tale of restoring a physical movie location, but also the power a film can hold over fans.

Why would people hold a piece of earth so sacred that was simply a spot where a movie had been shot at? What’s the big deal? We know it was manufactured and it was just a location used for a fictional story.

Yet, it can become a transcendental place for fans who step onto it. Some make a pilgrimage just to gaze at it and be in its presence. As director Joe Dante says at one point, “For some people, film is their religion.”

The physical work of uncovering the cemetery that had gotten buried over half a century is really rather the most mundane aspect of this story. The real riveting aspect is hearing from those who felt motivated to do it, the reasons why they felt it was important to restore it and why the film and that location is so special and what it means to them.

It’s a wonderfully put together doc. We hear from passionate film fans as to why they hold Leone’s film so dear and the lengths and time they put in to uncover that cemetery. It might initially sound like an odd thing to want to do, but as they speak of the reverence they have for the film and the significance they feel for this spot of earth, you can’t help but get behind their mission and see them make it happen.

Along the way, film scholars, critics and fans (including Dante and Metallica’s James Hetfield) not only explain the cinematic importance of Leone’s film, the influence it has had on them and the unique way in which Leone created his art, but it also goes into some stories about the production itself from those who were there and worked on the film, including Ennio Morricone and Clint Eastwood.

In the end, after an incredible amount of work and hundreds of volunteers, Leone’s cemetery is brought back to life (ironic description I know) just in time for its fiftieth anniversary. There’s a triumphant misty-eyed ending when a screening of the film is held at the cemetery and it’s a satisfying emotional close to this saga. You’re going to smile, have your heart swell and maybe even hold back a tear.

I hadn’t been aware of this documentary and happened to stumble onto. It was a real pleasant surprise. By the end it made me feel really good that the Sad Hill location has been persevered, thankful of all the work these fans put into doing it and aching to watch The Good, The Bad and The Ugly immediately afterwards.

This is an inspiring, compelling story on its own, but if you’re a fan of Leone’s epic western, you definitely want to see this! It’s an excellent companion piece to the film.

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