Photo by Columbia Pictures: Peter O’Toole as T. E. Lawrence and Anthony Quinn as Auda Abu Tayi in a scene of “Lawrence of Arabia” shot inside the Casino de la Exposición in Seville, 1961
Hollywood cinema and romantic 19th century travel literature have helped shape Seville’s image into a mix of reality and fiction. We talk about the ideal city with an architect, an art professor and an extra from the legendary David Lean film staged here in 1961.
It is springtime in southern Spain in 1961. A large group of young men are relaxing in the Plaza de España square, reading the newspaper under the legendary strength of Seville’s sunshine. Their hang-out was originally constructed for the Iberian-American Exposition of 1929, its curved shape symbolizing Spain reaching out its arms to embrace its former American colonies. Seduced by springtime and a vacation from work, these natives are spending an ordinary afternoon at one of their city’s most iconic works of architecture, a monument long since transformed by the passage of time into not just a spectacle to behold in your Sunday best but also a casual corner in a day in the life of the locals. Drawn by inexpensive production costs, the American film industry is ready to return Spain’s hug. One of the young men, Antonio González Sánchez, is about to be swept out of the script of his normal day and into a Seville disguised as Cairo and Damascus.
When the production team of “Lawrence of Arabia” arrived in Seville 50 years ago, Sánchez was a tall, thin, 20-year-old man with great presence. Thanks to his good genes and a bit of good luck, he was one of about 800 Sevillian citizens chosen to be extras in the legendary film directed by David Lean. Not so unlike the 19th century European university students who enlisted in the Grand Tour, an academic journey of three to four years that provided the opportunity to study firsthand the faraway, exotic places and cultures of the textbooks that included Andalusia, the young Sánchez embraced this unique experience, however fleeting, lighthearted and constructed, to glimpse at another part of the globe. As with any intercultural encounter, whether it is as transient as a weekend trip or as permanent as a move, the problem of authenticity is always present.
“When you speak about a city’s image and which parts of it are fiction or reality, I would say that the relation isn’t so clear. Reality has bits of fiction and fiction has bits of reality,” says architect Paco González. However arbitrary and complex these judgments of veracity may be, a city’s image holds an undeniable power of propaganda —a vital commercial and emotional value— for both residents and visitors alike. “The ideal city,” he adds, “is constructed with narratives, and a part of these are texts, but in the contemporary age, the biggest producer of stories is cinema.”
Paris is perhaps the paragon of this cinematic construction of a city’s image. It is hard to imagine a Paris without an Eiffel Tower, or an Eiffel Tower without Paris. The Eiffel Tower is the only context clue a movie scene needs to reveal its setting, and to enchant an audience with this shimmering, towering, iconic iron structure. But the story of this engineering feat’s rise to symbolic stardom is slightly less romantic. “It was built for the 1889 International Exposition, which it outlasted simply because it cost too much to dismantle,” González says.
He points out a paradox. “At that time, the Eiffel Tower was rejected by Parisians because they thought it looked ugly and didn’t belong to the ‘true Paris.’ Later on, it became the symbol of Paris. True or false are words which lead to deception, because today one may think that Paris is well represented by the Eiffel Tower, but when it was constructed, that wasn’t the case.”
It is as if the world has agreed to a pact of daytime delusion, agreed to close its collective eyes to the irony of the industrial Eiffel Tower as a symbol of love. Just as there are always alternative visions, there is inevitably an image that epitomizes a people and a place. Although Seville has been used numerous times as a neutral stage for film, on the other hand, there is an unavoidable part of its identity that has been historically and consistently propagated through the arts and popular culture.
When the typical tourist daydreams of Andalusia, his or her imagination likely conjures up an adventure complete with the classic Carmen la Cigarrera stereotype, “the representation of the femme fatale, the independent woman who fights in a world of men for her independence,” explains Fernando Solano, an art professor at the school Sagrado Corazón (Esclavas) and CIEE. The plot naturally contains a bullfight scene, and the cast inevitably includes gypsies. And flamenco, of course, is a must in this fantasy.
Solano says these 19th-century romantic travelers like Richard Ford, Washington Irving and Prosper Mérimée allowed the world to rediscover Andalusia by transmitting first hand observations of Spanish daily life of this era through travel books, a more literary genre than the pocket guides we buy today to make the most of our tourist destinations. The travel books “have created the image of the city and the most cliché vision of Andalusia that is still the one that many people around the world know.”
According to the architect Paco González, “there’s the ideal city that citizens of Seville have, but there’s also the ideal city of the tourist. When people visit Seville, they imagine the cliché: bullfighting, narrow streets, the Giralda tower.” He explains that another classic icon of Seville, the Plaza de España, was designed by architect Aníbal González with a traditional look so “the people accepted that it belonged to Seville.” He underlines the interesting point that Plaza de España is a double set design: it was born as the main scenario for the 1929 exhibition and after that has been used as a cinema stage.
At that era of economic hardship in Spain, worsened by a recent flood in Seville in 1961, Antonio Sánchez estimates that his role as an extra paid up to six times more than local employment. The wages he earned for acting in two scenes he dutifully and willingly gave to his mother, as is appropriate in the Spanish tradition of “family first.” His first day of takes was spent in the Plaza de América (another main square of the 1929 Exhibition) filming the protest scene in which the Spanish extras were disguised as Arabs in Damascus. Sánchez made his second appearance in the Alcázar of Seville, the medieval royal palace, this time dressed as an official of the British army who, among other comrades, greets Lawrence of Arabia (played by Peter O’Toole) when he arrives to the Cairo headquarters after defeating the Turks in Aqaba. “I’m proud that I had my hair cut and my makeup done in the gardens of the Real Alcázar of Seville,” the former extra, now a retired tradesman, says.
It is springtime in southern Spain in 2012. “I enjoyed it a lot, I enjoyed it a lot,” Antonio remembers. “But, on the other hand, it was disappointing because after that when I went to the cinema I could see the trick.”
Antonio and his wife, Lola, squint into Seville’s famous sunshine, scanning the mix of tradition and modernity that marks the skyline from the roof of their apartment complex in the city center, from which they can both see the former minaret of the Great Mosque of Seville built by the Almohads at the end of the 12th century, the Giralda, and the latest and most controversial of Seville’s landmarks, the Metropol Parasol or, as people call it here, Las Setas, the “Mushrooms,” inaugurated last year. There aren’t two Parises which are the same, or two Cairos, or two Damascuses. And the couple has their own ideal city among the many possible Sevilles. They fixate their feet on their roof in the perfect place to view the medieval tower, lightheartedly rejecting Seville’s progressive image with a playful “Setas go away, we love the Giralda!”