Hollywood in Madrid

To mark the release of Jim Jarmusch's The Limits of Control, which is principally set in Madrid, Nick Dawson looks back at the history of American movies set in the Spanish capital.

Much of the action Jim Jarmusch’s latest film for Focus Features, The Limits of Control, is set in Spain’s historic capital city of Madrid. In the following filmography, FilmInFocus looks back at a number of other notable American productions which used Madrid and the surrounding area as a backdrop.

Mr. Arkadin (1955) For much of the 50s and 60s, Orson Welles was in a self-imposed exile in Europe. Like Hemingway, Welles felt a special attraction to Spain and began his love affair with the country’s capital Madrid when he wrote, directed and starred in the Eurocentric thriller 1955 Mr. Arkadin. He would later spend time in the city shooting his version of Don Quixote (which was sadly never completed), and would return to the city once again for both his take on Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight (1965), and an adaptation of Karen Blixen’s The Immortal Story (1968).

King of Kings and El Cid (1961) Madrid became the go-to location for historical epics in 1961, with both Nicholas Ray’s biopic of Jesus Christ, King of Kings, and Anthony Mann’s Spanish-set adventure El Cid setting up there. Ray’s movie shot at the confusingly titled Sevilla Films studio (which was actually based in Madrid), where Welles had previously filmed Mr. Arkadin and which would later play host to Custer of the West (1967) and Krakatoa: East of Java (1969).

The Happy Thieves (1962) In the 60s, Madrid became a favorite place for Hollywood studios to set movies in need of a little exoticism and spice, with the B-movie caper The Happy Thieves being a perfect example. The George Marshall-directed crime movie used the city as a backdrop to enhance the romantic ambience of the Rita Hayworth and Rex Harrison vehicle, while Jean Negulesco used a similar “Madrid is for lovers” ploy two years later when he transplanted Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley and Gene Tierney there for the “hot-blooded” holiday romance The Pleasure Seekers.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964) Though the term “Spaghetti Western” alludes the fact that films like Sergio Leone’s 1964 A Fistful of Dollars were Italian movies, what is not so well known is that these films were mostly Spanish co-productions. Andalucia was the primary location for Leone’s breakthrough film – and the sequel in which Clint Eastwood reprised his starring role as The Man With No Name, For A Few Dollars More (1965) – however both films also utilized places such as Madrid’s biggest urban park Casa de Campo, as well as the nearby towns of Hoyo de Manzanares and Colmemar Viejo, for their shoots.

Battle of the Bulge (1965) In the 60s and early 70s, Hollywood movies seemed to be just looking for excuses to shoot in Spain. What other justification could there have been for sending Ken Anakin and his actors to the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range in the province of Madrid for the filming of The Battle of the Bulge? Anakin’s testosterone-heavy movie, which stars Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw and Charles Bronson, recreates the Allied offensive to take the Ardennes, a forested region of Belgium, a country with a markedly different climate and appearance to Spain.  

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966) Part of the reason for the popularity of Spain in the 60s was the presence of the massive Samuel Bronston Studios on the outskirts of Madrid, where Richard Lester’s 1966 comedy musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was shot. Bronston, the Russian-born nephew of Leon Trotsky, was a producer who worked for MGM in Paris before decamping to Madrid to set up an independent production facility, where lavish productions such as 55 Days at Peking (1963), Circus World (1964) and Return of the Seven (1966) were shot. 

The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974) Seven years after making A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in Madrid, Richard Lester returned there to make his splendidly lavish all-star version of Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, which was shot back-to-back as two separate movies. The ridiculously enjoyable double bill starred Oliver Reed, Frank Finlay, Richard Chamberlain and Michael York as the titled swashbucklers – while Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway, Charlton Heston and Christopher Lee added extra star power – and was filmed at Madrid’s Estudios Cinematografica Roma S.A. studios, with additional sequences set in nearby Aranjuez and Toledo.

Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing (1973) Though director Alan J. Pakula is best known for his 70s paranoid thrillers such as Klute, The Parallax View and All the President’s Men and screenwriter Alvin Sargent is most readily identified for having penned the Spider-Man movies, the two headed for Spain in the early 70s to make a very different kind of film. Shot at Madrid’s Estudios Verona studio and on the road throughout Spain, Love and Pain and the Whole Damn Thing told the poignant romance about an asthmatic American youth (Timothy Bottoms) who meets ailing English tourist Maggie Smith while in Spain on a cycle tour.

Open Season (1974) In the wake of Deliverance and Straw Dogs came Peter Collinson’s Open Season, about a group of ex-Vietnam buddies (Peter Fonda, John Phillip Law, Richard Lynch) who don’t lose their taste for murder and brutality once they return home from war. For what were presumably reasons of cost-effectiveness, Collinson took his three leads, plus veteran actor William Holden, over to Spain where they shot the backwoods action in the countryside surrounding Madrid, which was seemingly doubling for the U.S.-Mexican border country.

Goya's Ghosts (2006) In the 1980s, a visit to the Museo del Prado art museum in Madrid gave writer-director Milos Forman an idea to do a movie about the painter Francisco Goya, but it was 20 years before he was able to return to Madrid to make the idea of the film a reality. Goya’s Ghosts, starring Natalie Portman and Javier Bardem, features scenes at the city’s Parque Del Retiro park, as well as at a residence of the Spanish Royal Family, the Palacio Real de El Pardo, on the outskirts of the city.