10 Great English-Language Films To Help You Discover Spain

Penélope Cruz in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’

Traveling is a wonderful habit of the human nature. People do it for different reasons. Some are interested in visiting as much as they can in order to gain culture and perspective, others just to get away from the rat race for a few days and just lay in the sun without a care in the world. The term “the perfect destination” varies from person to person and can be described in many different ways. For some the perfect destination is a tropical island where the sun never shines and the sea is omnipresent.

For others the destination of their dreams is embodied in a cultural city filled with stunning architecture and a bohemian street atmosphere. However, some destinations will never be dated and will always be sought after. Exotic islands will always attract people looking for fun in the sun, cultural hot spots like Paris, London or Rome will forever enchant those thirsty for knowledge, New York will never cease to be the dream city of the party people etc.

The world of cinema has not been indifferent to man’s pleasures. So many movies play the traveling card to their advantage. There are lots of travel movies out there that make the landscapes or the beautiful settings, surrounding the story, an essential part of the plot. Very often directors use the landscape (urban or rural) to set the tone and develop the story in accordance to it. A fascinating place will forever be a muse to film directors and Spain is definitely on the list of fascinating places.

When people think of Spain they think of bull-fights, sunny weather, fabulous musicians and dancers and great football. But, obviously, Spain is so much more than that. Who among us does not have the desire to visit Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, to run with the bulls in Pamplona, to eat tapas and enjoy the fiestas, to read “Don Quixote”, to listen to “Concierto de Aranjuez” and so on.

Everything about this country seems to fascinate artists from all around the world (from El Greco to Byron to Hemingway) and constitutes a continuous inspiration. But they say a country as magnificent as Spain cannot be condensed into a single work of art. In this regard, here are 10 great English-language films to pay homage to Spain.


1. For Whom the Bell Tolls (Sam Wood, 1943)

For Whom the Bell Tolls

The film “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is based on the novel of the same name written by Ernest Hemingway, which in turn is based on the author’s experiences as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. The film is fairly faithful to the novel and was made, while World War II was still going on, in hopes of peace and resolution of conflict. It stars Hollywood superstars Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.

It tells the story of American journalist Robert Jordan (Gary Cooper), an American idealist who fights as a dynamiter in the Spanish Civil War alongside the republican guerrilla. His mission is to blow up a bridge during an attack on the city of Segovia. Of course, the romantic plot is not overlooked, as the film also tells the love story that ignites between Robert and Maria (Ingrid Bergman), a peasant girl also fighting for the cause.

“For Whom the Bell Tolls” is a classic Hollywood film and should be viewed as such. The scenery is spectacular (central Spain bathed by the sun and the horrors of war) and the color, and the cinematography, are top notch. The direction strikes an excellent balance between showing us the details of day to day survival by these hunted insurgents, the suspense of battle, and the growing romance between the two main characters.

Some have criticized the dialogue, but we must remember this is World War II Hollywood we are talking about. In these circumstances, the dialogue presents itself as quite believable; plus the fact that some of it is taken directly from the novel.


2. The Sun Also Rises (Henry King, 1957)

The Sun Also Rises

Another Hemingway adaptation (from his first novel) that features beautiful shots of Spaniard landscape. Although it features a star cast (Tyrone Power, Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn), “The Sun Also Rises” is considered a mediocre film and has not enjoyed the success of other Hemingway adaptations such as “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “A Farewell to Arms”. However, from some points of view the film remains memorable.

It was shot on location in Paris and the Spanish countryside and while Paris has been seen before on film the landscape of Spain was a rare view in American movies at the moment. The highlight of the film is he famous “running of the bulls” in Pamplona and two bullfights shot in an extreme close-up.

Like the novel, the film follows a group of disillusioned American expatriate writers who live a dissolute, hedonistic lifestyle in 1920’s France and Spain. One day, the adopted Parisians decide to take a trip to Spain, for the Pamplona fiesta, in hopes of rejuvenating their lives. Hemingway famously hated the film saying that the only good things about it are Errol Flynn’s performance and Spain.


3. El Cid (Anthony Mann, 1961)

El Cid

When it comes to Hollywood historical epics, “El Cid” ranks high right up there with “Spartacus”, “Gladiator” or “Lawrence of Arabia”. Being a Hollywood film, of course, it is not historically accurate, the names of the locations are mispronounced and the actors speak with funny accents that were deemed foreign at the time. But this is the whole charm of films like these. This and wonderful imagery of a Spain ruled by the Moors.

The film is a dramatization of the life of legendary Spanish hero Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar better known by his nickname El Cid. Director Anthony Mann (freshly fired from the production of “Spartacus”) chose Charlton Heston due to his imposing stature and nowadays his face is always associated by cinephiles with that of the Spanish hero.

The film chronicles Diaz’s rise from a simple noblemen to the leader of the Spaniards in their battle against the Moors. The three hour epic falls under the category “they don’t make them like they use to” and offers a good, but light, introduction to the history and geography of Spain.


4. The Passenger (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1975)

The Passenger

The motto of “The Passenger”, or “Professione: Reporter” in its original name in italian, seems to be “you can’t escape from yourself”. The film is Antonioni’s last of three films made in English (after “Blow-Up” and “Zabriskie Point”) and features a toure de force in terms of travelling and ever-changing scenery.

The film was shot only during daytime to make it look like the action takes place in just one day, although it is geographically impossible for someone to travel from Africa, to England, to Germany and to Spain in just one day. Like all of Antonioni’s films, it is slow-paced, laid-back and sometimes pointless. Also like all of Antonioni’s films, it features a terrific finale that is so brilliantly planned and executed that it makes you forget your tentative of turning your back on the film because nothing happens.

While in Africa doing interviews, reporter David Locke (Jack Nicholson) discovers a unique way to completely change his life. His drinking buddy from the night before, a mysterious traveler with physical resemblance to David, dies suddenly. David assumes his identity by switching the photo in his passport and becomes Mr. Robertson. Since no one seems to notice, David begins his journey as Mr. Robertson with trips to London, Munich and finally Barcelona and the South of Spain.

From reading the plot, you would think this is a perfect recipe for an international blockbuster: identity theft, exotic locations, Jack Nicholson. But this is an Antonioni film where style counts more than substance. The film actually deals with the identity of man in the modern world and the role chance plays in each of our lives. Subject aside, the film offers the viewer a wonderful European trip with beautiful shots of some of the continent’s most beloved city, especially Barcelona.

The two main characters wander around Barcelona’s architectural wonders barely speaking of interacting. As they get to know the city’s architecture, they start to get a feel of each other as well. Then the action moves outside of Barcelona to the south of the country, as the characters contemplate fleeing to Algiers. From the dense architecture of Barcelona to the vast open spaces of the Spanish desert, the country presents itself beautifully in this Antonioni masterpiece.


5. The Hit (Stephen Frears, 1984)

The Hit

“The Hit” was quite a fancy film in its time. It was not your usual gritty gangster film. It had a soundtrack by Paco De Lucia and the title music was provided by Eric Clapton and Roger Waters. Its filming locations stretched throughout the beauties of Spain (both rural and urban) and included Madrid, Zaragoza and the Aragon region.

Two of the film’s most exotic Spanish locales were the waterfall and The Lago del Espejo (Mirror Lake). Other trivia information that put the film in a different category from other films is that it is director Stephen Frears’ second feature film (although he started his directing career in the early 70’s). It is also considered to be Terence Stamp’s comeback role (his first starring role in over a decade) after his spiritual journey to India. It also marks the feature film debut for Tim Roth.

The film is the story of Ex-gangster Willie Parker (Terence Stamp) has betrayed his former “colleagues” and now lives in Spain where he thinks he can hide from their vengeance. But one day, ten years later, two hit-men (played by John Hurt and Tim Roth) show up and kidnap Willie. They are ordered to escort him back to Paris where he should stand trial. But all of the men involved know that this is the end for Willie. Willie seems at peace with this situation declaring throughout the film that he is glad that all of it will be over as he was tired of hiding.

Like said before, this is not your average gangster film but offers a fresh perspective on the matter. The film subtly inserts existential themes in its basic gangster plot through the character of Willie who ponders life and death through poetry and meditation.