When Mister Marshall photographed Villar del Río

While the inhabitants of Villar del Río dressed as Andalusians sang the popular copla Americans, we welcome you with joy in the film Welcome Mr Marshallat 5,000 meters above sea level, the American Air Force photographed the fictitious Castilian town (actually Guadalix de la Sierra, Madrid) with the most modern photogrammetric technology of the time.

The flights were part of the agreements endorsed in the Madrid Pacts (1953) and his goal was to obtain an accurate military cartography essential in any armed conflict: in this case the Cold War.

Those aerial photographs are known as the american flight and they allow us today to evaluate, with a simple click, what the post-war Spanish landscape was like, its dynamics and changes.

The Marshall Plan in Spain

welcome mr marshall (1953) is, without a doubt, one of the great classics of Spanish cinema. In the film, Luis García Berlanga portrays with a satirical and bloodless tone the society of the moment, its existential aspirations and the dreams of a backward country in post-war misery.

The film is a masterful parody of a momentous event in the history of Europe: the European Recovery Programbetter known as Marshall Plan (1948-1952). Spain was excluded from this plan from which Western Europe benefited due, among other things, to its political regime and its collaboration with the Axis powers during World War II.

The Spanish surrogate were the Madrid Pacts, negotiated and signed between Spain and the US in 1953, the year Berlanga’s film was released. After the agreements, Spain came to be considered an ally of Western countries, a defense agreement was signed and the construction of american military bases.

As a result of the pacts, between 1956 and 1957, fifty pilots and technicians from the US Army Cartographic Service flew in a detailed and systematic manner over Spain with six planes to carry out the first high-precision photogrammetric flight with metric resolution of the entire territory: the American flight.

The result was, and is, spectacular: 4,533 hours of flight, 59,000 frames stored in 617 reels deposited until 2011 at the Army Geographic Center, the year in which a digitized copy of the flight was ceded to the National Geographic Institute (IGN). Until then, access to the photographs required official permission.

Original aerial photograph of Guadalix de la Sierra (blue color) from the American Flight of 1956/1957 (scale 1:33,000) topographically superimposed on the official IGN cartography. In the margin of the photograph you can see the date and time of the flight and air navigation elements.

The IGN, together with the hydrographic confederations and the autonomous communities, then undertook the huge task of organization of the material, its fit and internal orientation, its georeferencing (relating position information between cartographic documents of different origin), its digitization, and quality control.

With the georeferencing of the images, it was possible to study them with geographic information systems professionals. But the leap to the general public was missing, which occurred with the publication in Internet of the images and their expression in viewers that are easy to use and freely accessible, such as the PNOA-IGN photo comparator wave CNIG photo library.

landscape in the 50s

Most of the scenes in Welcome Mr Marshall They take place in the streets of the town, but beautiful scenes were also filmed in fields plowed with animals, of women washing clothes in the river, perfectly manicured orchards and unpaved roads.

The American Flight shows from the air the landscape shaped by Berlanga. But does it look like the current one? How has the environment of Villar del Río (Guadalix de la Sierra) changed since then? To answer, the first thing is to locate it in the comparator PNOA.

Aerial view of Guadalix de la Sierra (Madrid) in 1956 (left) and in 2017 (right).
PNOA orthophoto comparator

At first glance, what stands out the most is the urban development and the waters of the Pedrezuela Reservoir or of the fleece (1968).

Focusing the view on the rural and natural environment, the comparison of the aerial photos from 1956 and 2017 shows the abandonment of the traditional agrarian system and the expansion of the forest. The size and layout of the land in 1956 show the lack of agricultural mechanization and the absence of tractors, with which peasant Juan dreams in order to support his family in Berlanga’s film.

The peasant Juan and the American tractor that he receives in dreams in Welcome Mr Marshall.
Berlanga Film Museum
Manual agricultural works and with animal traction in welcome mr marshall.

To the north of the town, the treeless bed of the river in which the women wash clothes and the scarce tree cover of the mountain located in the upper left part of the aerial photograph also stand out in the comparison of aerial photographs.

Treeless riverbed and change in crops between 1957 (left) and 2017 (right).
PNOA orthophoto comparator
Women washing clothes in the river welcome mr marshall.

The abandonment of family farms is evident in 2017 and has given way to residential construction and the expansion of forest land. This is especially evident to the south and north of the reservoir, where marked erosion phenomena can be seen in 1956 (framed in yellow) and land repopulated decades later and clearly recognizable in the 2017 photo.

Eroded and repopulated land.
PNOA orthophoto comparator

To the south of the town, the natural expansion of the forest is also very visible. The construction of an urbanization adjoining the edge of the forest (framed in red) stands out, which in the event of a forest fire poses a very serious risk.

Natural expansion of the forest and changes in the urban-forest interface.
PNOA orthophoto comparator

Any little town, yesterday and today

Welcome Mr Marshall It begins with a shot of an old bus arriving in Villar del Río. The narrator introduces the film as a storytelling, introducing the town and its inhabitants:

“Well, Lord, once upon a time there was a Spanish town, a random little town. And it happened that one morning…”.

The first ten minutes of the film are absolutely masterful and show, with Berlanga’s bloodless irony, the rural world of the fifties. As the narrator presents, the story told in the film is typical of rural Spain at the time.

The natural landscape of Guadalix de la Sierra, and of so many other Spanish mountain regions, has changed radically since 1953: the mosaic of small family farms has disappeared and the natural vegetation has become more woody (shrub and tree) and continuous.

The occurrence of daunting forest fires beyond our extinguishing capacity is becoming more and more frequent. The cessation of traditional agricultural uses and the lack of forestry and forest management have fostered the natural expansion and densification of the forest and the consequent increase in natural biomass, which in episodes of drought becomes highly flammable.

Regardless of simplistic statements made looking guilty to the wave of fires and scapegoats, Welcome Mr Marshall and the American Flight show us that, deep down, those responsible for the fires are all of society.

We have changed our way of life in less than a century and we have acted with total negligence in the management of the natural territory. We are also the cause of climate change; that with the increase in extreme heat and drought phenomena, it facilitates the desiccation of vegetation, its ignition and the spread of fires.

More than half a century later, the masterful movie and the American Flight have become fundamental sources –and today available to everyone– to understand where we come from, why our landscape is like this and where it evolves naturally.

Only by being able to answer these three basic questions of the human thought applied to the natural environment we will be able to manage the landscapes that our elders bequeathed us in the face of a scenario of climate change and rural abandonment.

When Mister Marshall photographed Villar del Río