Segovia: film set for blockbusters in the 1950s

If in the 21st century many international production companies are discovering Spain as a great film and television set, it may surprise some screen tourists to learn that, in the mid-20th century, our country was already a mecca for many American and European directors. We owe much of that fame to the ineffable Samuel Bronston, and the great studios he created in post-war Madrid. But most of Spain’s success as a filming location is due to the virtues of cities like Segovia, which combine Roman, medieval and modern jewels in the same space. 

“Once upon a time… In Segovia”

Segovia is, in itself, a film set. The aqueduct, the cathedral and the Alcazar, emblems of the city, are recurring locations for the film industry. The first major foreign production to visit the Castilian capital was “Once upon a time” (a strange translation of the original “Decameron nights“).  As its English title suggests, this film brought together four love stories from Boccaccio’s “Decameron”. The most interesting thing about this 1953 production was that it brought Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan and a very young Joan Collins to the illustrious streets of Segovia.

Side view of the aqueduct / Castilla y León Film Commission

To understand the fascination that stars of such calibre could arouse at that time, one has to think that cinema was practically the only entertainment for most people in those years. Joan Fontaine had just played the Oscar-winning role of Rebecca, and Jourdan was a French heartthrob on the rise in international productions. In fact, it is said that during his stay in the city of the aqueduct, her demands were on a par with those of any Hollywood diva. Apparently, the actress demanded that the rest of the guests not use the hotel’s lift at night so that they would not disturb her sleep. The hotel, Las Sirenas, still exists opposite the church of San Martin and is a great landmark for the screen tourist. Other locations where Jourdan, Fontaine and Collins were spotted were the main square (which was simulated to be that of the Italian town of Fiésole), and an emblazoned house that stands at 13 Calle Escuderos, which hides a beautiful Renaissance courtyard that served as the setting for one of the film’s episodes.

Orson Welles and the piglets of Cándido

It was 1955 when the well-known actor and director Orson Welles landed in the Plaza del Azoguejo, at the foot of the aqueduct. At that time, Welles had already made a name for himself with masterpieces such as “Citizen Kane” and “The Lady from Shanghai”. Apparently fed up with Hollywood not understanding his creative freedom, Segovia seemed an unbeatable location to film “Mr. Arkadin”, taking advantage of the cinematographic possibilities of Pedraza and some of the most emblematic corners of the city of Segovia: the Puerta de San Andrés, the Plaza del Azoguejo, the Alcazar and La Fuencisla. The love affair lasted, because ten years later he would return to the Alcazar as the protagonist when he filmed “Campanadas a medianoche” (Chimes at midnight).

Panoramic view of Segovia with the Alcazar and the Cathedral in the background / Castilla y León Film Commission

In addition to the filming itself, there are numerous anecdotes about his time in the city. In particular, his taste for the cuisine of the famous Mesón de Cándido, where the chronicles say that he was capable of devouring a suckling pig while smoking one of his famous cigars. By the way, as well as being a gastronomic institution, Cándido is also a museum of film history. Photographs of all the stars who have passed through its halls hang on its walls, and in its dedication books you can find such illustrious signatures as those of Edward G. Robinson, Cary Grant, Frank Sinatra, Sophia Loren and Charlton Heston.

“Pride and passion”: The story of the cannon that travelled halfway across Spain

In 1957, Stanley Kramer came to Spain to direct “Pride and Passion”, a blockbuster set during the War of Independence. Of the curious aspects of the film, we can highlight its plot: the protagonist is a gigantic cannon destined to conquer a walled city (Ávila) occupied by French troops. So far, so normal. The curious thing comes when we see that, in one scene of the film, the cannon leaves El Escorial and then arrives at the foot of the aqueduct. Another wonderful twist in the script is that, in order to enter Segovia, the guerrillas use the trick of camouflaging the cannon in a Holy Week procession. 

The main characters were played by Sophia Loren and Frank Sinatra, in the role of the Spanish guerrillas – that’s nothing – and Cary Grant, as the English officer who would end up helping them in their fight. The stay of these superstars of the Hollywood star system was one of the great events of the time in the city. In addition to filming in numerous locations (aqueduct, Alcázar, Calle Real), the entire cast stayed at the Las Sirenas hotel (which was clearly “the hotel” of the time). The suite occupied by Sophia Loren was renovated for the occasion, and today retains its original furnishings. According to the chronicles, the stairs leading to the upper floors are said to have been climbed on all fours on one night or another by a happy-go-lucky Sinatra and Grant.

Alec Guinness, Mel Ferrer and James Mason had a home in Segovia

All of them filmed “The Fall of the Roman Empire” there in 1963. Samuel Bronston’s blockbuster brought a myriad of stars of the time to Segovia: Mel Ferrer, Stephen Boyd, Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, Omar Sharif, James Mason and, yes, again, Sophia Loren.

Casa de la Moneda as seen from El Parral / Castilla y León Film Commission

Mason fell in love with Segovia to such an extent that he frequented for years the house he bought for himself in the quiet neighbourhood of Las Canonjías, right next to the arch that adorns Calle Velarde. From there he could enjoy a privileged view of the Parral monastery and the alameda that borders the Eresma river, one of the most beautiful places in the city. 

The monastery of El Parral was one of the places most frequented by Alec Guinness during his stay in Segovia. The British performer had just converted to Catholicism and had a weakness for the Gregorian chant mass in the monastery, which is still celebrated today. Like Mason, he came to have his own house in the city, an emblazoned building in the San Marcos district. As for Mel Ferrer, he liked the area so much that he shot his next films in Spain, using his house in Segovia as a base. 

In addition to enhancing the real estate assets of these renowned actors, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” was a real event in Segovia and the forests of Valsaín. No less than 5,000 extras from the capital and the surrounding villages played Romans, Persians, barbarians or Egyptians, depending on the production schedule for each day. This super-production was also filmed in other Spanish locations such as Sagunto, Valencia, Madrid, Manzanares el Real and the Guadarrama mountain range.

And yes: “El Cid” also passed through Segovia

If “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “Pride and Passion” travelled around several provinces in search of locations, “El Cid” was a true journey around the Peninsula. Following in the footsteps of the real Rodrigo Díaz, Anthony Mann’s team filmed in León, Ávila, Ampudia (Palencia), Burgos, Calahorra (La Rioja), Belmonte (Cuenca), the Chamartín studios in Madrid, Manzanares el Real, Peñíscola (Castellón), Gormaz (Soria), Toledo, Torrelobatón (Valladolid), Ripoll (Girona) and, of course, Segovia. 

One of the most frequent actresses in the city was the Italian Sophia Loren, who in less than ten years filmed in Segovia “Pride and Passion”, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “El Cid”. Her gastronomic preferences also included Cándido’s suckling pig and, on the other hand, sweets from the El Alcázar patisserie, located in the main square. Charlton Heston himself was also seen there.

The Alcázar: versatile and photogenic

With the permission of the aqueduct, the Alcazar is, without a doubt, the most cinematographic building in the city and possibly one of the most filmed in the Peninsula. Its unmistakable profile can be seen in films of all genres and periods. As we have seen, in 1955 Orson Welles used it as the residence of the enigmatic “Mister Arkadin” and shortly afterwards many scenes of “The Princess of Eboli”, a historical plot starring Olivia de Havilland and directed by the British director Terence Young, who would later become famous for directing the first James Bond films, were filmed here. 

View of the Alcazar/Segovia Film Office

The versatility of the Alcazar as a setting was demonstrated during the filming of Richard Lester’s two films devoted to the Musketeers and featuring actors such as Christopher Lee, Michael York, Faye Dunaway, Raquel Welch and Oliver Reed. In the first film, “The Three Musketeers”, the castle of Richelieu, and in the second film, “The Four Musketeers”, it became the Parisian fortress of La Bastille. Pure cinema magic. 

The list of classic productions filmed in Segovia does not end here, as the Castilian capital has been, and continues to be, the destination of numerous film shoots. For the screen tourist who wants to see them all, Segovia Film Office offers the possibility of doing several film routes. A great way to revisit a city where you can go a hundred times and experience a hundred different adventures.

By María Parcero

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