The Malta Independent 22 March 2019, Friday

Touring Valletta As a film-set

Malta Independent Sunday, 25 February 2007, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

No less than 150 films were shot in Malta and it is now possible to know more about at least 20 of them in a two-hour walking tour of Valletta.

On Wednesday, the Malta Union of Tourist Guides celebrated World Tourist Guides’ Day by launching a new theme tour entitled “Movie Moments”. The tour was created by Pat Flores Martin and offers participants the opportunity to see the streets of Valletta through the eyes of the “Dream Merchants”.

This is only one of four tours that have recently been created and which are proving quite successful both with conference organisers and tour operators. The others are “Sex and the City”, all about Valletta’s seamier side and past, the “Gardens of Floriana” and “Underneath Vittoriosa”.

The tour starts off at City Gate, near the Phoenicia Hotel where The Malta Story was shot. City Gate and Valletta in general stood in for Montevideo in Battle on the River Plate.

Up to the Upper Barrakka and down in the ditch one can see where scenes of Midnight Express were filmed, apart from Fort St Elmo. The Maltese extras in that film spoke ordinary Maltese but this was thought to be Turkish by audiences. Oliver Stone later had to apologise to the Turkish nation.

Across the sea on the Vittoriosa waterfront, scenes were shot of Cutthroat Island and The Count of Monte Cristo. Cutthroat Island can be called the pre-sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean but it was a big financial flop: it cost $100 million and only grossed $10.

Apart from the Vittoriosa waterfront, the Count of Monte Cristo was also shot in Mdina’s main square, at enormous cost since the square had to be returned to the Middle Ages and residents were paid Lm50 to remove their television aerials for just one day.

The Mdina main square was also the venue for Roman Polanski’s Pirates with Walter Matthau in 1972. It took two whole days to shoot a scene of the square as a slave market but only two seconds were shown in the film.

Down to the Victoria Gate, up whose steps ran the children in 1963’s Treasure in Malta. Actually, the whole of Malta was one film set then, as the treasure was found in the end at the Calypso Cave in Gozo. One unknown boy actor in that film, Mark Lester, attained international stardom the next year in Oliver, with Oliver Reed, about whom later.

Just round the corner from the Victoria Gate is the British Hotel, which stood in for a Greek hotel in Munich. Inside the building Mossad agents met with Palestinian ones without pre-knowledge on either side. The next morning the Palestinians were butchered by KGB agents.

Across the sea once again in Dockyard Creek, another key scene was shot in Munich (apart from the Sliema promenade) when frogmen invaded a girl’s party and shot at anybody in sight. Ironically, film crews always say they come to work in Malta because it is safe here!

Also across the water are the Mediterranean Film Studios with their three tanks, the biggest one is 100 metres in diameter and 50 metres deep at the centre.

This tank could have been used to shoot Titanic but the producers built a bigger tank in Mexico and filmed it there. However a Titanic film had already been shot in Malta but at that time we did not yet know that the real Titanic had broken in two on the seabed and Raise the Titanic had it coming up in one whole piece out of the water at Rinella.

Speaking of water, but completely invisible from Valletta, there is Popeye Village which was the film, one may say, that started off Robin Williams on the road to fame.

Another famous actor who came to Malta many times and who loved it here was Roger Moore who used to live in the old Hilton while he was here. He acted in Shout at the Devil, which was shot in 1976, a film in which Malta substitutes Zanzibar.

The next year he was here again, this time to shoot the James Bond film The Spy who Loves Me, his best James Bond film, and also the one which made the most money: it cost $14 million and grossed $184 million worldwide.

And across the water lies Fort Ricasoli, the biggest fortress built by the Knights, a colossal place for colossal ventures. Such as Ridley Scott’s Gladiator shot here in 2000 in which Malta substituted classical Rome.

Only one third of the Colosseum was actually built, the rest was digitalised but no digitalising was used on the Maltese extras. No less than 23,000 Maltese extras took part in the film and with the cameras slowly panning over the extras’ faces, the scenes inside the Maltese cinemas quickly became a riot as people recognised relatives and friends. This film cost $103 million and grossed $456 million, more in Europe than in the US.

Following that success, Troy was also shot in Malta with Brad Pitt staying here, and enjoying it, for three whole months. It was so relaxed that the main actors played football with the crew (much to the despair of the directors in case any actor got hurt!) and once Brad Pitt and Orlando Bloom eluded the sharp eyes of the paparazzi and went down to St Julian’s but not the eagle eyes of the Maltese girls who created a riot.

But only an actress such as Madonna would get angry that people in the streets did not recognise her when she came here to shoot Swept Away, a film which did not even gross $0.5 million. After that, she decided against any further film-making on her part.

Among the other films shot in Malta, one remembers Orca the Killer Whale with music by Ennio Morricone, who tonight will be awarded an Oscar for his achievements.

The first version of Casino Royale was shot in Malta in 1960 with Cilla Black; the music later used for Born Free was originally written for this film. Peter Sellers, Woody Allen and David Niven took part in this film. David Niven had lived in Malta when he was in the army and worked at Montgomery House in Floriana. He was later to write that the period he spent in Malta in the British Army was the only time he did anything for humanity.

Sometimes it can be somewhat disconcerting for a Maltese to watch a film shot in Malta because different parts of Malta come up as if they match when in fact they are distant from each other. A case in point is in the Count of Monte Cristo when the actors dive into the sea near the Siege Bell and come up smooching at the Azure Window.

Up St Ursola Street one remembers that residents were not allowed to leave their houses for days at a stretch while Munich was being shot, and at last the tour ends at Ollie’s last pub. Oliver Reed had first come to Malta when he was shooting Cutthroat Island, and to this pub where he got drunk and had a problem with Geena Davis, and was sacked from the film as a result. He came again to play the head of the gladiators Proximus in Gladiator. He came here in mid-film, got over drunk and collapsed and died in the pub.

The film had to spend no less than $3 million to rework the scenes he had not shot yet (using a Maltese look-alike and digitalising other scenes).

The tour ends here with a 10-minute look at some of the scenes shot in Malta, but not before the guide explains that the Presidential Palace stood in for a Rome palace in Monte Cristo and Queen Square stood in for a square in Rome in Munich.

Instead of the usual churches and palaces tour, this could be a very popular tour not just with second-timers and students, but also with people on cruise liners who do not want to spend a day queuing. It also has the advantage of being a live tour, with a live guide, instead of seeing people with their ears glued to audiograms.

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