Once Upon a Time in Almería
24 December 2011

The Denver Mine

The surviving structures of the Denver mining plant hang precariously off the hillside above the town of Rodalquilar, inside the Cabo de Gata natural park. The buildings still bear black painted letters–”Dorm Block B,” “Guard Block D”–from a movie production almost 30 years ago. The foundations of the separation tanks create enormous circles at the bottom of the hill. Across the plain lies the Mediterranean ocean.

The mining industry transformed the landscape of Almeria during the nineteenth century as modern technology allowed for large scale exploitation of iron, lead and other resources. Activity slowed during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, after which the fascist government took control of the site at Rodalquilar. At the time, it was believed there were vast gold deposits hidden under ground. During the 1950s, the state constructed the Denver plant along with dozens of houses for workers, schools, a pharmacy, and other buildings. However, the mine’s resources didn’t live up to expectations. The mine was closed on March 9, 1966, less than ten years after it opened.

The remains were later rediscovered by filmmakers looking for an otherwordly location. In the early summer of 1985, dozens of technicians and laborers began constructing a massive set on top of the old mine buildings, turning it into a post-apocalyptic prison camp. The movie Solarbabies takes place in the future after a global drought has turned the planet into a desert and a mysterious police state, called The Protectorate, controls all water resources. Children are raised in orphanages where they become prisoners of the system. At the center of the story are a rebellious group of adolescents who escape at night to play a version of lacrosse on rollerskates.

The film was widely derided as a cheap Mad Max imitator and labeled “an apalling stinker” by Leonard Maltin. But it includes several familiar faces from the 80s, including Jami Gertz, Jason Patric, and Lukas Haas, along with rollerskating chase scenes over desert landscapes that were specially paved over for the film. The painted letters still readable on the mine buildings mark the prison dorm and guard buildings. One of the police vehicles, an oversized metal armadillo, still sits on a lot behind an old western movie set in Tabernas.

A few years later the site was transformed again to medieval England. In The Reckoning, starring Willem Dafoe and Paul Bettany, a traveling theater troupe arrives in a strange, isolated town at the base of a castle and then get entangled in solving the mystery surrounding the murder of a local boy. The castle, constructed on top of the mine buildings, towers over the town below. Tudor facades follow the circular foundations at the bottom of the bill, creating a surreal, curving structure, which also provides the round theater the players perform in. The entire landscape is covered with a layer of snow throughout the film. A long stairway which runs up the right side of the mine facility can be picked out in the film, but the site seems otherwise entirely unrecognizable.

The team spent over 6 weeks constructing the set. The film itself received lukewarm reviews, criticized for being unoriginal and pedantic. But Andrew McAlpine’s production design was singled out for its ingenuity. Variety magazine wrote:

The Reckoning’s most impressive player … is its stunning set. When scouting expeditions in England failed to yield a viable medieval village, the producers opted to create one in Spain. On the ruins of an abandoned gold mine, production designer Andrew McAlpine and his team built a thoroughly convincing 14th century town, complete with a castle for de Guise.

In reality the climate is not nearly so harsh as it appears in either film. Just out of view is the Mediterranean ocean and one of its most stunning, undeveloped beaches.

A production still of the set from The Reckoning, from Andrew McAlpine’s website.

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Stirling Elmendorf
Stirling Elmendorf
12 years ago

Mark, excellent arcticle and stunning title photo!! Regardless of the luminous views of bespectacled Maltin-san, I might just have to find a copy of Solarbabies to review. Alas, my Betamax is broken… Nice work sir, as always!!