From Oviedo to the Oscars, the World Cup to the Wild West: the remarkable life and times of Florencio Amarilla

In a saloon bar on the edge of the desert, a man strides in, tosses his dusty Stetson on the counter and orders a beer to slake his high noon thirst. As he lowers his formidable frame on to a bar stool, the usual thing is on his mind — Native Americans. It was his job to track them down, but lately they’d become particularly elusive.

Thirst quenched, he signals for a refill. One to sip, rather than gulp. His brow cools and his body uncoils, and he begins to take in his surroundings, casting a glance around the scattering of fellow patrons. It’s a workaday crowd, but his gaze falls on an athletic figure on the far side of the room. As he drains his glass, he considers the man, his build and his features, figuring that maybe he’s just what they are looking for. In any case, there wasn’t time to be exacting. They needed someone, and he looked as close to it as he’d seen for a while.

Ordering two more beers, he draws himself up off his stool and strides purposefully across the room. Placing one glass down in front of the man, he takes the seat opposite and comes straight out with it.

“Hey buddy, how would you like to be in a movie?”

Twenty-four hours later, the pair are at work in the Tabernas Desert. For Antonio Tarruella, a budding actor-come-director, it’s just another day’s grind in the sweltering heat. For his new recruit, Florencio Amarilla, it is a thrilling breath of fresh air. Yesterday he was a retired footballer, contemplating his future. Today he’s an indigenous Yaqui, enlisted by Raquel Welch and Burt Reynolds to a militia hell-bent on settling an old vendetta. 

The film’s other megastar —  the obligatory irascible sheriff — is also a former elite sportsman. Jim Brown had carried a ball further than anyone in the history of American football, yet here he was in the south of Spain, reinventing himself as an actor. 

Amarilla could see the parallels. And could sense the opportunity.  Almería had become the global headquarters of Western film making, with film companies sweeping into the region to rattle through productions. An unlikely boom that meant extras, stand-ins and bit-part actors were in demand. Even more so if they had what, by the loose standards of the time, passed as a Native American appearance.

Of indigenous heritage and brawny of build, Amarilla was a casting director’s dream and 100 Rifles became the first of over 100 film credits. A winger that once fired his country to a World Cup finals was now on the way to becoming the first Paraguayan to win an Oscar.  

With cactus-pocked deserts, canyons and ravines, Almería, tucked away in the southeast corner of Spain, offers a more than passable impression of an Arizona, a Texas or a Montana. Over 3,000 hours of annual sunshine and scarce rain provide a stunning natural light and a reliable shooting schedule. Crucially, in the 1960s, it was a far cheaper place to make a film than the country it was imitating, which made it the ideal location for a growing subgenre.

An enterprising group of Italian film directors had begun reimagining the classic American Western, a genre that had faded from its glorious past.  Given a grittier spin with sparse dialogues, intense close-ups and driven along by dramatic scores, the ‘Spaghetti Western’ exploded with the extraordinary success of Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, made on a miserly budget in the province of Almería in 1964.  A copyright snag and a wariness of the American public’s reaction to this interpretation of the cherished Western meant they did not release the film in America until three years after its final cut. Even then, with European names substituted for American-sounding alternatives, with Leone credited as ‘Bob Robertson’ and the legendary composer Ennio Morricone listed as ‘Dan Savio’.

The delay had the unintended benefit of allowing the sequels For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly to be released in quick succession in America, capitalising on the unexpected success of the original and catapulting the film’s main star, Clint Eastwood, to superstardom.

The triumph of the Dollars trilogy saw the production of Spaghetti Westerns multiply rapidly, with an impoverished corner of a country emerging from international isolation at the forefront. Accustomed to seeing its sons and daughters departing in the search of excitement, Almería began welcoming international film crews and the world’s biggest movie stars. Tarmac was hurriedly laid down for trailers to roll and planes to land upon. The Gran Hotel Almería sprang up on the city’s seafront to provide luxury accommodation and poolside cocktails for the likes of Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson, and Alain Delon.

Locals adapted quickly, with many picking up second jobs that paid in one day on location what they usually earned in a week. Farm-hands with horse skills were prized and carpenters could name their price. An entire generation of Andalusian ‘cowboys’ was born: skilled stunt actors able to be thrown into a bar fight or flung from a horse at a moment’s notice.

Also in demand was anyone who could perform the role of a Native American. With production at full tilt and cultural sensitivities an afterthought, the bar for what qualified as an indigenous American was set particularly low. A swarthy complexion was enough for a local to be dispatched to the costume trailer, emerging in an implausible confusion of Sioux and Apache dress. 

A face that comprised native features could go a long way. And that was what caught the eye of Tarruella when he happened upon Amarilla in a bar in Almería. Like many Paraguayans, he was of Guaraní heritage and a fluent Guaraní speaker. Though unrelated to any of the Native American languages, it was mysterious enough for directors to use for the few lines of dialogue the script demanded.  

Amarilla’s encounter with Tarruella came at a perfect time. At 32, his career was winding down a decade on from his starring role at the 1958 World Cup. His performance in Sweden had presented an opportunity for a new life in Europe, one that he seized with both hands. Here was another life-changing moment. He would not let this one go either.

Amarilla was born in 1935 in Coronel Bogado, a small town in southern Paraguay. Little is known about his childhood, but it is believed he never met his mother and spent much of his early life in Argentina, before returning across the border as a gifted teenage footballer. His talent took him to the capital where he signed for Club Nacional and his explosive left foot and performances on the wing soon led to an international call-up.  

The player’s profile rocketed in 1957 when he scored a hat trick in a 5-0 demolition of Uruguay in a decisive World Cup qualifier. At the finals in Sweden the following summer, Amarilla impressed again, scoring twice against a high-powered France side that included Just Fontaine and Raymond Kopa. Paraguay narrowly missed out on qualification from their group, but several of the squad, including all five goalscorers, earned contracts with Spanish first division clubs. Along with centre-forward Jorge Romero, Amarilla joined Real Oviedo who provided him an early test of his acting skills. With overseas squad places at a premium, their new winger was required to invent a Spanish mother in order to accommodate Oviedo’s growing South American cohort.

After three respectable seasons on the north coast, an Achilles injury saw Amarilla end his contract and head east to Elche. He found life on the Mediterranean to his liking, playing for several clubs along the coast as he descended the divisions, finishing his professional career with Club Deportivo Almería. The financially troubled club disappeared in 1968, but Amarilla stayed around and made the city his home. 

With the production of Spaghetti Westerns ramping up rapidly in the region, the timing couldn’t have been better. After that chance encounter with Tarruella, Amarilla instantly transitioned to an unlikely new career.  His physical gifts, charisma and some equestrian skills picked up in his youth meant he was rarely out of work and soon racking up credits on increasingly high-profile projects.

A diversion from the constant stream of Westerns came with the 1970 war drama Patton, a biography of the American General George S. Patton. The film swept the following year’s Academy Awards, taking seven prizes, including Best Picture giving Amarilla claim to be the first ever Paraguayan Oscar winner.

The same year saw Amarilla reunited with Brown and joined on the main cast by Lee Van Cleef in El Condor. Supporting roles alongside Brynner, Bronson and Leonard Nimoy followed.

Amarilla was well-liked, striking up lasting friendships with an array of household names who found his backstory intriguing. In down times on set, it was not unusual to see Amarilla juggling a football in full war dress or explaining the finer details of the game to bewildered transatlantic colleagues. The midweek schedule also allowed him to keep playing, turning out for a number of regional league sides in the latter years of his thirties.

Inevitably, the dilution of quality and changing public tastes saw the revival of the Western ebb away once more. Though Amarilla remained adaptable to a new generation of filmmaking, even featuring in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s breakthrough Conan The Barbarian in 1982.  

While Almería remained a viable location, the gold rush had well and truly subsided by the 1980s, leaving the province and Amarilla to reinvent themselves once more.

Photos of Leone, Bronson, Eastwood and Brynner still hang on the walls of the Gran Hotel Almería. The hotel exudes a faded grandeur, the rooms more functional than fabulous these days.

Out in the desert, some of the abandoned cowboy towns have been immaculately converted into tourist attractions by shrewd locals who snapped up the disused sets before eventually selling them on to hotel groups. For a fistful of euros, film buffs can watch pistols being drawn at noon at Oasys MiniHollywood or head further up the road and explore Fort Bravo on horseback for a few euros more. The Almería Western Film Festival held each October draws thousands of visitors, packing out the city and both resorts.

Amarilla was not among the lucky few who capitalised on the legacy of the Spaghetti Western, instead as his acting career faded, he returned to football coaching at amateur level while selling shoes and books to make ends meet. Into his seventies, he was working as a kitman for Tercera side CD Comarca de Níjar. Unusually, he had made the stadium his home, despite offers of alternative accommodation by the club. “I like to live free. I get up early, walk, run, drink a mate. I’m happy like that. Then for the rest of the day, I’m sorting out the equipment, completely at the team’s disposal.” Amarilla was a popular figure, the club president remarking that he’d never seen anyone receive so many Christmas gifts.

There were occasional trips to Oviedo, where the directors still invited Amarilla for a game and paid for his flights and accommodation. 

In August 2012, some 44 years after that meeting in a bar, Amarilla died in the village of Vélez Rubio at the age of 77. His final scenes played out in the province he’d made his home, from its football fields to its deserts and canyons, during a most remarkable life.

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