Reunion with Alatriste in Uclés

Source: Diario de León

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In my car boot I carried a lot of hopes: my own and the ones from my mates of the editorial staff, along with the ones from his already many friends in León.

But above all the word of a gentleman given by Viggo in León for us to be reunited, at least one more time, before the shooting of Captain Alatriste ended. And the appointment was in Uclés.

"This man is not staying here," was the sharp reception from the state-run hotel receptionist. Nevertheless, I left my communiqué there. It was a long, hot night under the shadow of uncertainty.

Suddenly, the mobile phone began to ring. At first it was such a distant melody that it mixed with my breathing, then it was just that, a persistent and annoying modulated loud ring that I had to stop if I wanted to go on sleeping. After throwing around everything that was on the bedside table, I finally managed to catch it: Viggo's rhythmical voice came from the other side: "What are you doing still there? We start shooting in a moment, so come here quickly".

I jumped as if I was propelled by a spring. It was 7:45 a.m. and I still had to cover the 17 kms that separated me from the set. I took the highway and headed for Tribaldos, and took the detour for Uclés, which that morning I had the feeling it was further than ever. After going up a short hill towards the southwest, in the morning mist I made out the 'Escorial de la Mancha', set on an impressive rock that dominates the fertile lowland of Cuenca.

Soon I could see the lines of cars, trailers, tents, which were spread out through the vast plain, in which a wounded poplar that was in the middle of the sunny prairie hadn't started to extend its protective shade.

Entrance control. And I'm in search of a place where the fearsome sun of 'Breda' won't turn the already smoking car into ashes. I walked in search of Viggo's trailer. Like in Western movies, it was surrounded by other similar ones. Two flags identify it from the rest. One the flag of León and one of the San Lorenzo F.C. The door is open, which indicates that he is not far. I walk some steps towards the catering tent and I see him having a meeting with Díaz Yanes and some other actors, planning the morning shooting. He greets me from afar. I wait while next to me the Flemish soldiers, with their muskets, go to the central set. On my right, in a vast prairie, eight alienated cannons wait for the order to start their fictitious gusty fire against the Spanish troops.

The impressive horses from Jerez do their caprioles nervously and show off their elegant appearance, doing preparatory exercises for the final charge. Someone from the production company comes closer and tells me I must not take any pictures and much less record a video of the shooting. I accept the natural demand and leave my cameras.

"I'm sorry I have made you wait but we were doing the day's planning," I hear behind my back. I turn and see Viggo, who comes to me smiling, already dressed as Alatriste. We greet each other and taking me by the arm he leads me to where Yanes is.

"He has come from León in order to see the filming and interview you," Alatriste says to him. He shakes my hand and recommends that I latch onto him in order to go up to the set where hundreds of extras are preparing the first shots of the battle of Rocroi. "Being next to me you will be able to see everything better" Agustín points out, while he puts out one of his sempiternal cigarettes with the tip of his boot.

Meanwhile, Viggo disappears into the make-up trailer and shortly afterwards he emerges full of scratches, and with a gash in the head that seems to be bleeding. Far away, on the plain, the cloud of dust indicates that the Tercios are taking their positions for the first shot of what will be the bloody battle of Rocroi. I go down to the valley with Alatriste, while someone goes to him in order to discuss something. Half squashed by a parasol the assistant director, Jordi, gives the extras the last instructions, for them to stop smoking and get ready with their long spears in order to stop the first French charge. Dust, sweat and steel.

The anvil of the sun starts to make itself felt. From the impressive monastery that dominates the valley and the plain, you can see in the distance the battlefield of Uclés where numerous dead and wounded people have been lying since the early morning; they are just props, but they look like the real thing. The temperature begins to increase and the extras, under the heavy clothes, helmets and hats, stoically bear an eight hours shooting, armed with swords and short carbines. At 1:00 p.m. the thermometer reaches 38ºC. Only plenty of cold water and large ham sandwiches makes the boiling hot set more bearable to them.

Among clouds of dust and in the middle of a group of officers I see the Captain's gallant figure, leant on the musket fork, without the hat on his head, while smoking with pleasure his umpteenth cigarette of the morning. He doesn't speak. He looks at the crowd with half-closed eyes, and stays imperturbable exhaling puffs of smoke. Heat is crushing. Every now and then he goes to a half-fallen awning where his chair is, in order to listen to Yanes' instructions. After some minutes of attentive concentration, he stands up and crosses the field in long strides in order to place himself among his soldiers in the middle of the plain.

I comment on the hard shooting and the long hours under the sun, but Viggo doesn't complain:

"It's worse for the extras who cannot move and leave the set in the eight hours the shooting lasts every day, and that's for several weeks. At least I can take a break at times and drink some maté," he tells me with a certain air of sorrow.

Yanes gives the last instructions and explains to me that soon they will start the first blasts of rehearsal. Jordi and the instructors give the extras some orders for them to keep quiet, not to smoke and to get the muskets ready for the fight. The make-up assistants put the finishing touches on the soldiers and, at the shout of "motor!", everybody moves away and silence appears.

"Action!" can be heard over the megaphone. The first line of musketeers load their weapons, they lean them on the forks and wait. A group of enemy soldiers rush at them but at the shout of "Fire!" the first line of musketeers shoot with total disregard. Clouds of gunpowder mix with the dust of the wounded soldiers. The battle of Rocroi has begun. The blasts sweep the whole first line of soldiers. The second line of musketeers step forward to the front line, and among the lancers, Alatriste emerges eagerly and after putting his weapon on the fork he shoots the group of Frenchmen that were in front of him. There are wounded men everywhere. "Cut!", Jordi shouts. "The take is good!". A sigh of relief is heard among the lines of extras. It was the fourth time they'd had to repeat the scene.

The sun is high above. And people are getting hungrier and hungrier. Someone gives the order to take a break for lunch. The troops quickly hurry to form up and march in formation up to the tents that are fitted out as canteens.

Yanes makes a comment to Viggo before he goes to his trailer. On the way to the caravan Alatriste suggests to me that we go to lunch quickly, so that afterwards we can chat calmly. The heat is almost unbearable on the dusty plain, and when I get to the catering tent I collapse in the chair breathless.

We all are from León. A man in his eighties, tall and wearing shades comes in a small electric car, one of those used by golfers, and which he moves all over the set with. Everybody greets him and talks to him with respect, and he answers them in English. He takes a seat next to my table and waits. Viggo gets changed and refreshed, and gives me the protective cream. "If you don't want to die by getting burnt, put it on," and immediately afterwards he introduces me to the thin man. "This is Bob Anderson, he's an institution in the world of swashbuckling films. He has been Errol Flynn's master, Mel Ferrer's, Stewart Granger's and master of several other famous swordsmen. He was also a consultant on Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean, among other adventure films." We greet each other and he asks me where I come from and if I like the shooting.

Viggo acts as interpreter because my English is so bad that even I can't understand it. We chat briefly, but not without first arranging an interview. Then, the Captain gets into the queue that had formed in front of the food trailer. "Some artichokes, a steak and some cold gazpacho (tr. note: cold soup made of tomatoes and other vegetables), I think it's the best to bear this boiling heat," he tells me. I agree and after having our serving we go to a big empty table. The table talk lengthens while commenting how beautiful the Curueño is at this time of year, for he knew it with the snow covering its paths. Viggo takes a special interest in fishing, one of his inveterate likings. And as the good photographer he is, in the awakening of Spring in its valleys.

"I will go up there when this is finished." At that moment Iñigo Marcos, the producer, and Díaz Yanes, who have already finished eating, sit next to us. The conversation livens up with some anecdotes of the morning shooting. Then Yanes talks about how Viggo is always looking forward to receiving news and things from León and being told anecdotes from there, and he points out that from the moment they started the shooting in Cádiz, Viggo has had the flag of León next to the San Lorenzo one, both hanging from the trailer window, and the music of that land sounds for many hours from Alatriste's caravan.

Even the horses from Jerez already dance the "Titos of Boñar". Viggo listens, keeps quiet and smiles. Then he asks me if I've visited the village and the Monastery. "If you haven't, you cannot leave without seeing it," he tells me, and keeps on: "up there, at the square there is a bar whose owner, Luis, knows more about Uclés and the Monastery than those who built it, for he's been working there with his family since he was a child. Go to see him on my behalf."

We exchange glances for a moment; his glaucous look seems to be trying to guess my intentions. So I ask Iñigo Marcos, the producer, and Yanes if they would be determined to come to León, to launch the film in the last trimester of next year. Marcos, smiling, confirms that there is no objection on his part and that he hopes there won't be from the production company part. "Since we are going to launch it in different cities like Madrid or Sevilla, León could be another very interesting place to do it," he assents.

"Furthermore, as Alatriste is from the Curueño there would be nothing better than taking him to his land," Yanes points out. "For my part,' Viggo adds, 'I'm looking forward to it.'

Yanes keeps on, "I think that, since no scene of the film has been shot in León, because when Viggo started to travel in that land we already had the locations, it could be an excellent idea to remedy it by having one of the premieres there. And if the producer agrees, Viggo is longing for it, and I'm feeling delighted, let's get cracking. What is more, wherever Viggo goes I go."

O Captain, my Captain!

"We were ruled/ by a Captain who came/ badly wounded, at the eagerness/ of his first agony.../ Gentlemen, What a Captain/ the Captain of that day!". En Flandes se ha puesto el sol (In Flanders the sun has set). Eduardo Marquina.

I'm surprised how he was continuously obliging and polite, following everyone's needs closely and sometimes getting ahead on what we needed at that specific moment. The extras and the rest of the crew were equally showered with identical attention, even though these were as simple as the one in which an extra who was still wearing his dusty battledress, shyly goes to him in order to ask him for an autograph for his wife and daughter, whom he had left in Chile. "But of course! Sit with us for a while and have something," was the Captain's warm response, once again he was taking care of his men.

Men who, some of them being faithful to his call, follow him without batting an eyelid, from the plains of New Zealand or the American coasts up to the torrid plains of Cuenca, like the cordial José Luis Pérez, his make-up assistant, a man of elegant bearing and chivalrous manners, whose paternal roots are deep-seated in the Leonese village of Sahelices de Sabero, and whom he had met five years ago during the shooting of Lord of the Rings.

"Viggo is amazing. A real gentleman," he tells us. "I met him there and worked with him for three years. Then, one fine day he called me so that I could come to work on Alatriste and I had not the slightest hesitation."

Even though at first someone might think that it was José Luis Pérez who told Viggo about León, as his stepfather's origin is from that place, the fact is that it didn't happen that way, according to what he comments to us. "You have to take into account,' he says, 'that Viggo is a cultured man and he finds out about the places he is going to shoot. In the case of León I know he has read a large number of books about that ancient realm, he knows its poets, writers, painters, its history and geography, and anything that refers to that land is followed with attention and kept. You just have to see his caravan, where he has an enormous collage of photos of León, especially of the Curueño, of mastiffs, customs, processions, festivities and other things related to that region. Every time he can, he goes up there and comes back full of products of León, which he later shares with the guys and actors of the shooting. And he's always glad when he finds out that some member of the crew is from that place, as in the case of Nuria, who works at props. He talks and shares things with her, and takes an interest in what happens there." José Luis says this with the weight of someone who knows a friend well, and knows what his likings are, his preferences and above all his passions. And we are certain about that, because he was already aware of the Ademar win (tr. note: Ademar is a handball team from León), and the holding of the Chess Master Tournament, a game he's a fan of.

The afternoon went off easy in a lively conversation, in which the references to his vast knowledge of the Spanish, and León in particular, history and geography were never missing. A conversation that he was illustrating with some curious photographs, books found during his many quick trips to some old bookstores, press clippings and some pieces of paper that were a thousand times written, which gather up some old poems...And also the music. Tangos, jazz, folk music...and his own compositions. Then it came to my mind, the cry of his guitar and the memory of his voice dragging that old tango, Envidia, by Canaro and lyrics by González Castillo and César Amadori:

I was born good,/ I was born honest,/ my proud head/ has never bent./ My friendly arm was for the companion,/ and I shook the hand/ of who was my enemy.

While I watched how he had a quick look at the article that Diario de León had dedicated to him on the occasion of his gift to the Curueño, he says, "Please, I wouldn't like to seem a plagiarizer. I see there are two poems by Neruda that have my signature. Amarillo and Desconocido. I'd be grateful if you pointed that out." Obviously, my wits weren't too sharp that day. And between mate and mate, not check, and some wine from his beloved Argentina, the evening was falling. "Tomorrow will be an especially hard day because the cavalry is going to charge," Alatriste adds. And as our celebrated one-handed (aka Cervantes) would say:

Then, straight away,/ he pulled his hat down,/ called for his sword/ looked sideways,/ he left and there was nothing.

Under the sun of Breda

The second day was a totally different thing. The battle demanded yet more, if possible, from Yanes and those vigorous men that stiffly endured the terrible charges from the French cavalry under a burning sun. Our Alatriste, wounded and dusty, not intimidated, shot every horseman approaching him down with his musket. All the pandemonium of the battle, the Captain's feats and how the story ended will can be seen at the end of 2006, when the film is released.

In the afternoon we had the chance to talk to Agustín Díaz Yanes, who was optimistic with the progress of the filming, same as producer Iñigo Marcos, who reminded us how luck had been with them since they were in Cádiz. "When we needed more wind, and after a long dead calm, Viggo sniffed and said: "This afternoon it's going to rain.' And so it was. The fact is that we have saved ourselves a lot of money, because the shooting is on schedule. That's why I can tell you we'll finish on time."

After concluding the afternoon shooting, Xenia, the Russian girl who had travelled so many kilometres in order to meet Alatriste, could see her wish fulfilled, same as I, when I handed him everything his now fellow countrymen from León had sent him. Deeply touched, he was glad because that evening he could share it with his shooting mates. "Share", another essential word in the life of this man.

I still had the chance for a second visit to the decimated tercios, when there were only eight days left for the conclusion of this great adventure. This time, my car boot was full up, even with a photograph of the famous "cuervos" (crows), the supporters of his beloved team San Lorenzo, given by an Argentinean family that, from their home in León, wanted to bring him a bit of the distant warmth of La Pampa. "I'll go to see them," he told us, moved. Even though this time the meeting was briefer, his fondness for everything that came from León was obvious. "I'll go back."

And indeed, he did.

Valdeteja, rest of the Captain

And last weekend, on the eve of the summer solstice, like King Elessar, Captain Alatriste went back to León to walk round its streets, taverns, bookstores and even to keep some promise, in solitude. But now everybody recognized him, people greeted him on the streets and invited him, therefore, considering the battle was lost, the Captain leaves without hurrying for his summer camp in the Curueño. The reception in the land of the "escuetos" (concise, succinct people), as he likes calling the locals, was tremendous. When rumour had it that Captain Alatriste had returned, even the roe deer of Vegarada rushed to receive him. And the young ladies from the place, being dressed in all their finery, intoned that famous Leonese "jota"(tr. note: popular Spanish dance and music): "Even the ends of my petticoat/ are telling you/ do not leave. Do not leave/ stay here/ even the ends of my apron."(it does rhyme in Spanish...)

An unexpected storm worked the miracle. Under the sturdy arcade of her stone-made house Asunción couldn't believe her eyes. Over there, leant against the mullion, the courageous Captain Diego Alatriste y Tenorio himself, hero of the Tercios of Flanders, sought refuge for his battered bones. "Then he stayed a bit looking in the distance, pulled his hat down, and stood up. And I was looking at him returning to the trenches, while I wondered. How many women and how many stabs and how many paths and how many deaths, another's and one's own, must a man know?" (The Sun of Breda).

Deconstructing Viggo

It's difficult to think that such a popular actor as Viggo Mortensen is can combine humility, naturalness, sincerity, humanism so well, for these are qualities hardly found in one same person. It's difficult to believe that, after having arrived at the peak of popularity almost from anonymity and becoming one of the most demanded actors overnight, he doesn't seek the forced distance of one who feels hounded by the media, which are always pressing to obtain news where there is not, the impossible interview, or the unfortunate comment, as long as they can sell more. However, for him this is just another way of showing his overpowering personality, of making us see that however much fame had promoted him to the highest position in the actors' standing, he has never felt to be a star, and he goes on being the eternal walker of the two banks. The bohemian dreamer who doesn't accommodate himself under any flag, or any imposition; who fights against injustice and doesn't hesitate, when it comes to denounce the cruelty of the international policy, to go out onto the streets to protest or speak at forums in various countries in order to end that evil of the human foolishness once and for all. Wherever he is needed, he goes. Wherever there is a noble cause to defend, we see him, and that is not the product of my imagination but of such an obvious and truthful reality that it has a full name.

And those who stand involved in these matters of conscience know it perfectly, because he is a hero of our time in the broadest sense of the word, as well as a humanist.

There was a time not too far in which the gods reigned this land. Not all of them were strong or powerful because they had feet of clay and ended up collapsing, but they were still gods. Mediating between them and the man were the heroes, who were thought to be powerful and infallible, and who were watched in search of some yearned values, almost unknown now. In the course of time they were also ignored, forgotten and even destroyed, and so were their values. The concept of the individual as such has been destroyed, and we all have contributed to this fall, not only the politicians, the economists, the men of the culture, of the arts, of the sciences and especially those wrong-called masters of masters who haven't wanted or haven't known how to keep the eternal values alive with a certain warning, and have allowed the individual to get lost in that breeding ground called "pelotazo"(tr. note: slang word, kind of fraud, quick enrichment by means of speculation and string-pulling), in search of a false Avalon, more distant and unknown than ever.

Right now there is a resurgence of the hero but invested with those qualities we are more devoid of. Quite often, most of the time, they are fictional characters that have been wrongly embellished with those things we wanted to see obstinately. But other times, a few of them, the flesh-and-blood hero emerges, stationed on a corner, wandering the streets or simply sharing fragments of his existence. Viggo Mortensen occupies that place of the ultimate present hero. For those who don't know about him, he is just seen as that popular actor, who has come from the other side of the ocean, who has experienced the feeling of success thanks to that tremendous saga of heroes, dwarves, wizards and elves that The Lord of the Rings is, in which he brings the purest of heroes to life, although he had already proved himself as an actor before, in works such as A Walk on the Moon, Albino Alligator, The Reflecting Skin or that disheartening The Indian Runner.

However, the real Viggo was still to be discovered. His facet of "the man in the street" who mixes with the most disparate people, who makes himself comfortable anywhere, not minding whether it is in a luxurious hotel or under a star-dotted sky by the banks of a stream. The man who sometimes the bourgeois mistake for an untidy and suspicious bohemian; who we journalists hound with convulsive interest, hoping for the report of our lives; who producers, business people and fans all over the world are after in vain, for him to promote their products, their trademarks or to let them take a picture next to him, while he, tireless, signs them autographs that they'll treasure up like the "king's gold", because they were signed by Viggo Mortensen, the actor, not the flesh-and-blood man. He doesn't need to wield a sword to be recognized. For those who can see beyond that, his personality stands out from the rest with no need of spotlights. He has his own light. Like the heroes who share divinity and mortal nature he is also covered with shadows, but as the good sailor says to the Count Arnaldos: I just tell my song whom comes with me.
Last edited: 8 May 2006 13:48:21
© Diario de Leon. Used by permission.