The Brave One
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"This picture is very simple," screenwriter Dalton Trumbo wrote in a 1953 letter to his producers, "and deals with very real things, and will best be done if it is done in simple realism." Trumbo was describing his script for The Boy and the Bull, which was renamed The Brave One when it reached theaters in 1956. The letter outlines numerous cuts Trumbo made from his previous draft - bringing it from 172 to 121 pages - and explains that the trims enhance the "simplicity, directness, and...dramatic forcefulness" of the story.
Trumbo's readiness to slice more than fifty pages of his own script testifies to his pragmatism and professionalism. He was a Hollywood veteran, after all, with such major hits as Sam Wood's Kitty Foyle (1940) and William Wyler's Roman Holiday (1953) among the dozens of screenplays and screen stories he had penned. During the 1940s he'd been a member of the Communist Party, though, and in 1950 he'd been sentenced to almost a year in prison for refusing to cooperate with the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the Congressional commission investigating alleged communist influence in the film industry and elsewhere. After finishing his sentence he found himself on the infamous Hollywood blacklist, so he moved with his family from California to Mexico City, writing screenplays under pseudonyms and selling them via friends and colleagues who served as fronts.
When his original story for The Brave One won the Academy Award - Best Motion-Picture Story was still an Oscar® category in 1956 - hardly anyone knew who had written it, since the person named in the credits, Robert Rich, didn't exist. (The screenplay, credited to Harry Franklin and the film's editor, Merrill G. White, was not nominated.) Since an Academy rule held that Communists couldn't get Oscars®, the statuette was accepted at the ceremony by Jesse L. Lasky, Jr., vice-president of the Writers Guild of America screen branch. Not until 1959 was the "blacklist bylaw" repealed, allowing Trumbo to reveal his authorship, and in 1975 he received an official Oscar® with his name on it. Happy ending.
The Brave One has a happy ending too, but not before a great deal of anguish and suspense for Leonardo Rosillo, a Mexican boy who fears that his beloved bull, Gitano, will be slain in the arena to amuse a crowd that doesn't appreciate the creature's special qualities. Leonardo and his family live on a ranch owned by wealthy Don Alejandro, where Gitano was calved. Don Alejandro has let Leonardo raise Gitano while retaining official ownership - a satisfactory arrangement until Don Alejandro, a racecar driver as well as a rancher, is killed in a crash. Gitano has attracted attention for his size, strength, and cleverness, and with Don Alejandro out of the picture it's inevitable that Leonardo's pet will be sent to Mexico City for a fatal showdown with a matador. And not just any matador, but the celebrated Fermín Rivera, who plays himself in the movie. Leonardo follows Gitano's hoof prints, racing the clock to reach the capital and plead for a presidential pardon that will save the animal he cherishes.
Originally slated for filming in either Portugal, Madrid, or Barcelona, the production ended up in Mexico City, which helped out the budget (about $2 million) and lent a degree of authenticity to scenes not photographed on soundstages at the Churubusco studio. The project was put together by King Brothers Productions - they had made the classic Gun Crazy, another Trumbo pseudonym job, in 1950 - and distributed by RKO, which claimed that everyone in the cast was Mexican except two: Swiss-born Michel Ray, the twelve-year old who plays Leonardo, and American actress Joi Lansing, who appears briefly as a bimbo hanging out with the rancher and the matador. The producers express gratitude to the picture's Mexican hosts in a text at the end of the story, concluding, "Salud amigos!"
In addition to the Academy Award brouhaha, The Brave One sparked half a dozen lawsuits asserting that the script had been plagiarized from someone else; claims were advanced in the names of Orson Welles, Robert Flaherty, and Lasky, among others. None of them prevailed, although King Brothers settled at least one with a hefty cash payment out of court. As editor Helen Manfull wrote in her 1970 book Additional Dialogue: Letters of Dalton Trumbo, 1942-1962, which contains much of Trumbo's delightful correspondence, "When no Robert Rich could be found, it was inevitable that others should try to take advantage of the situation." Perhaps more to the point, she cites Trumbo's observation that "when you have a story about a Mexican boy with a pet bull, it is bound to bear a resemblance to a number of other human interest stories." That's hard to argue with.
Apart from footage shot on real Mexico City locations, The Brave One isn't nearly as realistic as Trumbo wanted it to be, relying on conspicuously artificial sets and falling regrettably short in the acting department. The picture builds considerable excitement in its final scenes, though, and it was well received. Kudos went to director Irving Rapper, who's best remembered for directing actresses like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager (1942) and Jane Wyman and Gertrude Lawrence in The Glass Menagerie (1950), and also to cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who shot the CinemaScope and Technicolor movie in between two very different assignments, King Vidor's War and Peace (1956) and Laurence Olivier's The Prince and the Showgirl (1957). American reviews were generally good, and the film was "exuberantly praised by critics throughout South America," according to Trumbo, "as a warm and friendly portrayal of Mexican life." The public loved it as well. Trumbo wrote that in Venezuela's capital the picture out-earned every previous release except one.
Trumbo also noted, more in sadness than in anger, that although blacklisted American talent had been successfully integrated into the Mexican film industry, insiders south of the border "openly deride the United States for its blacklist of film personalities, and the derision fortifies Mexican nationalism at the expense of Mexican-American friendship." It is likely that Trumbo intended The Brave One as a gesture of goodwill toward his Mexican neighbors, and they evidently took it as such. The opening-day crowds in Mexico City were so large, Trumbo proudly wrote, that "the pressure of people waiting for the theatre to open broke down the glass doors [leading into] the lobby." Olé!
Producers: Maurice King and Frank King
Director: Irving Rapper
Screenplay: Harry S. Franklin and Merrill G. White; based on a story by Robert Rich [Dalton Trumbo]
Cinematographer: Jack Cardiff
Film Editing: Merrill G. White
Art Direction: Ramon Rodriguez
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Michel Ray (Leonardo), Rodolfo Hoyos, Jr. (Rafael Rosillo), Elsa Cardenas (Maria), Carlos Navarro (Don Alejandro), Joi Lansing (Marion Randall), Fermin Rivera (himself), Jorge Trevino (Salvador).
by David Sterritt